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Department of the Languages and Cultures of South East Asia

Languages of South East Asia at SOAS: Khmer (Cambodian)

The Khmer language, the national language of Cambodia, is a member of the Mon-Khmer family of languages spoken over vast area of mainland South-East Asia. For centuries, significant minorities speaking Khmer dialects have resided in Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, so that the language is spoken by at least 15 million people in and near Cambodia. Unlike most of the languages in mainland South-East Asia, Khmer has no tones, but compensates for this by having a large number of distinct vowels. Khmer is written in an ancient alphabetic script that has the same Indic origins as the scripts of neighbouring languages. A one-year course in Khmer is available to all students whose degree programmes permit a language course.

If you would like to learn Khmer contact Dr Justin Watkins (jw2@soas.ac.uk) Department of the Languages and Cultures of South East Asia)

Khmer/Cambodian language and literature

Few countries have experienced such a harrowing period in their history as Cambodia, or Kampuchea (see note), has over the last quarter of a century. Once the centre of a powerful empire that controlled much of present-day Thailand and parts of Laos and Vietnam, this former French colony has, in the more immediate past, been the victim of civil war, massive aerial bombardment, a genocidal revolution and foreign occupation. These horrors have left profound scars upon the country and its people, and even now, more than a decade after the expulsion of the Khmer Rouge regime, Cambodia's future remains far from certain.

Traditional Cambodian literature, written in verse, includes both works adapted from Indian sources and works of indigenous origin. Prose fiction became popular in the early 1950s, but could scarcely claim to be part of a 'national culture'. In the immediate post-Pol Pot era market bookstalls were full of novels and comics which portrayed the horrors and atrocities of the period. In the last few years such overtly political fiction has been largely replaced by romantic fiction and crime novels.

In view of the tremendous upheavals in Cambodia over the last two decades, recent writing on the country tends to focus on modern history and politics. If you would like to find out more about the country, you might try some of these books:

  • When the war was over: the voices of Cambodia's revolution and its people by E. Becker: 1986, New York, Simon and Schuster, 502pp.
  • The tragedy of Cambodian history; politics, war and revolution since 1945 by D. Chandler: 1991, New Haven, Yale University Press, 396 pp.
  • Brother number one: a political biography of Pol Pot by D. Chandler:1992, Colorado, Westview Press, 254 pp.
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Cambodia or Kampuchea?

Traditionally in English we have referred to the country as Cambodia. After 1975 the indigenous name, Kampuchea, replaced Cambodia in the official English language name of the country: during the Khmer Rouge years, between 1975 and 1979, the country was known internationally as Democratic Kampuchea, and since the overthrow of that régime, its official name has been the People's Republic of Kampuchea. As this booklet goes to press, it is reported that the present régime in Phnom Penh has decided to revert to Cambodia as the official English language name of the country. The term Cambodia is in fact an anglicised version of the French Cambodge, which in turn was the French way of representing Kampuchea.