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Khmer is the official language of Cambodia. The Cambodian language is derived from the Mon-Khmer (Austro-Asiatic) language family. Khmer is renowned for possessing one of the largest sets of alphabets; it consists of 33 consonants, 23 vowels and 12 independent vowels.
While tourists may wish to learn a few spoken phrases before or when visiting Cambodia, English is widely spoken and understood. French and Mandarin are also spoken frequently in the country; most elderly Cambodians speak French and many people in the Khmer-Chinese population speak Mandarin.
Standard Khmer, or Central Khmer, the language as taught in Cambodian schools and used by the media, is based on the Battambang dialect spoken throughout the plains of the northwest and central provinces.
Northern Khmer (called Khmer Surin in Khmer) refers to the dialects spoken by many in several border provinces of present-day northeast Thailand. After the fall of the Khmer Empire in the early 15th century, the Dongrek Mountains served as a natural border leaving the Khmer north of the mountains under the sphere of influence of the Kingdom of Lan Xang. The conquests of Cambodia by Naresuan the Great for Ayutthaya furthered their political and economic isolation from Cambodia proper, leading to a dialect that developed relatively independently from the midpoint of the Middle Khmer period. This has resulted in a distinct accent influenced by the surrounding tonal languages Lao and Thai, lexical differences, and phonemic differences in both vowels and distribution of consonants. Syllable-final /r/, which has become silent in other dialects of Khmer, is still pronounced in Northern Khmer. Some linguists classify Northern Khmer as a separate but closely related language rather than a dialect.
Western Khmer, also called Cardamom Khmer or Chanthaburi Khmer, is spoken by a very small, isolated population in the Cardamom mountain range extending from western Cambodia into eastern Central Thailand. Although little studied, is unique in that it maintains a definite system of vocal register that has all but disappeared in other dialects of modern Khmer.
Phnom Penh Khmer is spoken in the capital and surrounding areas. This dialect is characterized by merging or complete elision of syllables, considered by speakers from other regions to be a "relaxed" pronunciation. For instance, "Phnom Penh" will sometimes be shortened to "m'Penh". Another characteristic of Phnom Penh speech is observed in words with an "r" either as an initial consonant or as the second member of a consonant cluster (as in the English word "bread"). The "r", trilled or flapped in other dialects, is either pronounced as an uvular trill or not pronounced at all. This alters the quality of any preceding consonant, causing a harder, more emphasized pronunciation. Another unique result is that the syllable is spoken with a low-rising or "dipping" tone much like the "hỏi" tone in Vietnamese. For example, some people pronounce /trəj/ (meaning "fish") as /təj/: the "r" is dropped and the vowel begins by dipping much lower in tone than standard speech and then rises, effectively doubling its length. Another example is the word /riən/ ("study, learn"), which is pronounced /ʀiən/, with the uvular "r" and the same intonation described above.
Khmer Krom or Southern Khmer is spoken by the indigenous Khmer population of the Mekong Delta, formerly controlled by the Khmer Empire but part of Vietnam since 1698. Khmers are persecuted by the Vietnamese government for using their native language and, since the 1950s, have been forced to take Vietnamese names. Consequently very little research has been published regarding this dialect. It has been generally influenced by Vietnamese for three centuries and accordingly displays a pronounced accent, tendency toward monosyllablic words and lexical differences from Standard Khmer.
Khmer Khe is spoken in Siem Pang District, Stung Treng Province
A stone carved in Middle Khmer
Linguistic study of the Khmer language divides its history into four periods one of which, the Old Khmer period, is subdivided into pre-Angkorian and Angkorian. Pre-Angkorian Khmer, the language after its divergence from Proto-Mon–Khmer until the ninth century, is only known from words and phrases in Sanskrit texts of the era. Old Khmer (or Angkorian Khmer) is the language as it was spoken in the Khmer Empire from the 9th century until the weakening of the empire sometime in the 13th century. Old Khmer is attested by many primary sources and has been studied in depth by a few scholars, most notably Saveros Pou, Phillip Jenner and Heinz-Jürgen Pinnow. Following the end of the Khmer Empire the language lost the standardizing influence of being the language of government and accordingly underwent a turbulent period of change in morphology, phonology and lexicon. The language of this transition period, from about the 14th to 18th centuries, is referred to as Middle Khmer and saw borrowing from Thai, Lao and, to a lesser extent, Vietnamese. The changes during this period are so profound that the rules of Modern Khmer can not be applied to correctly understand Old Khmer. The language became recognizable as Modern Khmer, spoken from the 19th century till today.
The following table shows the conventionally accepted historical stages of Khmer.
A wax sculpture of Chuon Nath, the conservator of the modern Khmer language, at the Cambodian Cultural Village
Historical Stages of Khmer Historical stage Date
Pre- or Proto-Khmer Before 600 CE
Pre-Angkorian Old Khmer 600–800 CE
Angkorian Old Khmer 800 to mid-1300s
Middle Khmer Mid-1300s to 1700s
Modern Khmer 1800–present
Just as modern Khmer was emerging from the transitional period represented by Middle Khmer, Cambodia fell under the influence of French colonialism. In 1887 Cambodia was fully integrated into French Indochina which brought in a French-speaking aristocracy. This led to French becoming the language of higher education and the intellectual class. Many native scholars in the early 20th century, led by a monk named Chuon Nath, resisted the French influence on their language and championed Khmerization, using Khmer roots (and Pali and Sanskrit) to coin new words for modern ideas, instead of French. Nath cultivated modern Khmer-language identity and culture, overseeing the translation of the entire Pali Buddhist canon into Khmer and creating the modern Khmer language dictionary that is still in use today, thereby ensuring that Khmer would survive, and indeed flourish, during the French colonial period.