Khmer Language: Chasing the Echoes of Angkor

February 13, 2024
Khmer Language: Chasing the Echoes of Angkor

Southeast Asia is home to some of the most beautiful locations on Earth, along with unique and diverse cultures and languages that call these lands home. Among these communities is the Khmer, both the people and their mother tongue, which stands out for its historical depth and cultural significance.

So let us delve into the essence of the Khmer language, its historical journey, its relationship with Cambodian identity, its differences from other Southeast Asian languages, and embracing this linguistic heritage through Khmer language translations.

Are Khmer and Cambodian the Same Language?

The terms "Khmer" and "Cambodian" often lead to confusion among those unfamiliar with Southeast Asia's linguistic context.

To clarify things once and for all: Khmer is indeed the official language of Cambodia, but it’s also often referred to as Cambodian, especially in layman's terms. Khmer belongs to the Austroasiatic language family and holds the status of being the most widely spoken version of this linguistic group in Cambodia. The distinction between Khmer and Cambodian is more than semantic; it underscores the deep connection between the language and the nation's identity. 

Is Khmer Different From Thai?

Cambodia shares several borders with other countries: Thailand in the West, Laos in the North, and Vietnam in the East. Of these three nations, Thailand has perhaps the most influence on Cambodia, sharing the same religious beliefs, social norms, and cultural activities. However, the languages they use come from different and separate language families.

Khmer is an Austroasiatic language, whereas Thai is part of the Tai-Kadai language family. This difference is evident in their script, phonology, grammar, and vocabulary. Despite some loanwords and shared cultural references, the two cultures maintain their unique identities, none more displayed through their main method of communication.

The History of the Khmer Language

The Khmer language's history is a fascinating journey through time, marked by significant linguistic, cultural, and political developments. With origins tracing back to before the 7th century CE, Khmer has evolved through several stages: from Pre-Angkorian Old Khmer, through Angkorian Old Khmer and Middle Khmer, to the Modern Khmer spoken today.

This linguistic evolution mirrors Cambodia's historical trajectory, including the glory of the Angkor period and the impacts of colonial and regional influences. The language's script, influenced by Indian scripts, and its evolution reflect the interplay between indigenous innovation and external influences.

What Language Do They Speak in Cambodia

Due to its proximity to other countries, Cambodia is rich in linguistic diversity, with several languages spoken across its regions. While Khmer is the official and dominant language, the linguistic landscape of Cambodia is complemented by other languages, reflecting its historical connections, ethnic diversity, and global interactions.


Khmer is not just the lingua franca but the soul of Cambodia, spoken by the majority.  It’s spoken by around 14 million people, which is around 96% of the total population. It's a language that has absorbed influences from Sanskrit, Pali, and more recently, French and English, reflecting the country's rich historical tapestry and interactions with other cultures.


Vietnamese is spoken by significant communities in Cambodia, especially in regions bordering Vietnam. Its presence highlights the historical migrations and cultural exchanges between the two neighboring countries. Around 0.5% of the total population uses the language, with a higher percentage in rural communities.


Spoken by around 0.1% of the population, Lao, particularly the Lao-Phutai dialect of the Tai language family, is naturally spoken in northern areas close to Laos, indicating the porous cultural and linguistic borders within the region. Laos-Cambodians are also known as the Laotian Tai. 


Cambodia is considered a Francophone nation after French explorers and merchants made their way from Vietnam into Cambodia. Because of the language’s restricted use for politicians only, French wasn’t completely assimilated into the masses. Though there have been several attempts to revive the language within the Cambodian landscape, the recent government’s declaration of Khmer as the official language had the number of Cambodian French native speakers dwindling at the current time.  


English is increasingly popular, especially among the younger generation and in urban centers, as Cambodia integrates more into the global community. It's seen as a language of international communication and opportunity.

Minority Languages

Apart from these international languages, Cambodia is also home to some minority languages, some of which include:

  • Cham: formerly the language of the Champa Kingdom in Central Vietnam

  • Chinese: a popular language in Cambodia with Chinese settlements starting from the late 13th century

  • Jarai: related to the Cham language, a part of the Malayo-Polynesian branch of the Austronesian language family.

  • Kuy: a member Austroasiatic family of languages, with similarities with Khmer, spoken in northeastern provinces of Cambodia

  • Tumpoon: belonging to Bahnaric branch of the Mon-Khmer language family, spoken in the Ratanakiri Province in northeastern Cambodia

  • Chong: considered an endangered language from the Mon–Khmer language family, mostly spoken by elders in the Pursat Province of Cambodia

Why Does the Khmer Language Matter?

The Phnom Penh Post puts it simply: “If the culture dies out, so does the nation. If the culture spreads out, the nation also grows.”

The Khmer language is much more than a tool for communication within Cambodia; it embodies the soul of the nation, encapsulating its rich history, culture, and identity. Understanding the multifaceted importance of Khmer can help us appreciate not only the language itself but also the broader significance of linguistic preservation and cultural pride.

Cultural Heritage and Identity

Khmer is a vessel of Cambodia's intangible cultural heritage. Through its vocabulary, idioms, and expressions, the language carries the wisdom, traditions, and values of countless generations. It offers a unique window into the Cambodian way of life, from the sacred chants in Buddhist ceremonies to the lyrical verses of ancient poetry and the intricate performances of traditional dance. The language thus serves as a living link to Cambodia's glorious past, including the era of the Angkor Empire, and helps maintain a sense of continuity and identity in a rapidly changing world.

Preservation of Knowledge and Traditions

The Khmer language is crucial for the preservation of Cambodia's extensive body of knowledge and traditions. Many of Cambodia's historical records, literary works, and religious texts are written in Khmer, including inscriptions on the temples of Angkor Wat. By learning and using Khmer, individuals can access this wealth of knowledge directly, fostering a deeper understanding and appreciation of Cambodia's historical and cultural contributions to humanity.

Social Cohesion and National Unity

In a country as diverse as Cambodia, the Khmer language plays a pivotal role in promoting social cohesion and national unity. It is a symbol of national pride and a key factor in uniting the Cambodian people across different regions and ethnic backgrounds. The language facilitates mutual understanding and shared experiences, reinforcing the collective identity of Cambodians as a single, cohesive community.

Educational and Economic Opportunities

Proficiency in Khmer is essential for accessing education and economic opportunities within Cambodia. As the medium of instruction in schools and the language of government and business, a strong command of Khmer enables individuals to participate fully in Cambodian society. It opens doors to higher education, employment, and the ability to engage with the nation's legal and administrative systems.

Cultural Exchange and Global Understanding

The promotion and preservation of the Khmer language also contribute to the richness of global cultural diversity. As more people learn Khmer, opportunities for cultural exchange and mutual understanding increase, enhancing global appreciation of Cambodia's unique heritage. This not only boosts Cambodia's profile on the international stage but also encourages dialogue and collaboration between cultures.

A Gateway to Southeast Asia

For linguists, historians, and travelers alike, Khmer offers a gateway to understanding the broader cultural and linguistic landscape of Southeast Asia. Its history reflects the interactions among the nations of this region, providing insights into the complex tapestry of Southeast Asian history, trade, and cultural exchange.

Embracing the Richness of Khmer Language With Tomedes

The intrinsic value of the Khmer language in connecting with Cambodia's rich heritage and the global Khmer community is irreplaceable. By offering translation services, Tomedes aims to bridge linguistic gaps, promote cultural exchange, and support the preservation of this valuable linguistic heritage. Whether for personal enrichment, academic research, or professional engagement, understanding and using the Khmer language is a journey into the heart of Cambodian culture and history, one that Tomedes is proud to facilitate and open to any newcomer in our midst.

By Raphaella Funelas

Raphaella Funelas is a creative writer who graduated from the University of the Philippines Diliman with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Studies, specializing in Language. She likes learning about anything new in any field, and has pursued that interest through a writing career. She always has an ear on the ground for any exciting topics, and an enthusiasm to share any newfound knowledge through her words.



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