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SOAS Language Centre

Khmer at SOAS Language Centre

Khmer (also known as Cambodian) is from the Austroasiatic language family, a family that also includes the Munda languages of Eastern India and Vietnamese. It is the official language of Cambodia and is the most widely spoken Austroasiatic language after Vietnamese. Unlike Vietnamese - and indeed the majority of languages of continental Southeast Asia - Khmer is not a tonal language.

There are many dialects of Khmer; Northern Khmer, Western Khmer, Central Khmer, etc., all of which are mutually intelligible. Central (or ‘standard’) Khmer is based not on the speech of the capital, Phnom Penh, but on the dialect of Battembang in west central Cambodia. It is the dialect promoted by the school system and the media. Khmer has retained its traditional script, based on an early Indian writing system, and itself forming the basis for Thai script.    

Over 18 million people speak Khmer as a first language, roughly two thirds of whom are in Cambodia and one third in neighbouring countries, principally Vietnam and Thailand. Many speakers of Cambodian fled the country in the 1970s to escape the Khmer Rouge, a brutal political regime responsible for the death of untold millions of Cambodians. As a result, a substantial number of speakers of Cambodian emigrated to Europe, North America and Australia.