Khmer Alphabet And Tips To Write In Khmer

March 7, 2021

Can you still remember your first time learning the alphabet of your own native language? It might be hard at first because you don't have anything to start with. In this blog, you will be able to deepen your understanding of the Khmer language by learning about the Khmer Alphabet and knowing the tips on how to write in Khmer.

So if you are planning to visit Cambodia for a significant amount of time, you may want to learn at least the basics of the Khmer Alphabet.

 

 

Learning Alphabet

Learning the alphabet is the foundation of learning a language. Everything starts with a single letter that will soon open the doors in writing words, phrases, and sentences. At an early age, children begin showing interest in learning the alphabet. If you can still recall, these are the days of reciting or singing the alphabet, identifying uppercase and lowercase letters, matching uppercase to lower case letters, identifying the sounds each letter makes, tracing letters, and of course, writing some alphabet letters.

Every child has their own phase in learning the alphabet. It may be easy for some children but there are also those who will really struggle and you really have to take your time and be patient. But in the case of learning an alphabet for second language acquisition, it might be different. It can be challenging because of the lack of exposure. It can also be time-consuming and will really require dedication, persistence, and hard work. This might be the reason why you are leading this blog.

 

Khmer Language

Having a national language that is spoken all over the country symbolizes unity as one nation. In Cambodia, Khmer (ភាសាខ្មែរ) is their official language. It is a Mon-Khmer language that is spoken not just in Cambodia but also in Vietnam and Thailand. Because of centuries of two-way borrowing, the Khmer language shares many features and vocabulary with the Thai language.

But before we go any further, let us learn the varieties of Khmer.

Varieties Of Khmer

  • Standard or Central Khmer- It is used and spoken mainly in central Cambodia. It is also the language used in schools as a medium of instruction.
  • Northern Khmer- It is spoken in northeast Thailand.
  • Western Khmer- It is spoken in Phnom Penh and nearby areas.
  • Southern Khmer- It is spoken in southwest Vietnam.
  • Khmer khe- It is spoken in Stung Treng Province in northern Cambodia

 

Khmer Script

What are the characteristics of the Khmer script? Where was it originated? How is it written? You may be wondering about these things. Well, here is some information that you may want to know about learning Khmer.

Basic Features

  • It is an abugida like most Brahmi-influenced scripts.
  • The type of writing system is the syllabic alphabet. Consonant has two forms, one with an inherent /ɑː/ (first series) and one with an inherent /ɔː/ (second series).
  • The text runs from left to right in horizontal lines.
  • Words are not separated with spaces. Spaces are used to separate phrases.
  • Letters or diacritics are used to indicate vowels. These are written above, below, in front of, after, or around consonants. The pronunciation of the vowels will depend on the series of consonants they are attached to. It may be the first or second series.
  • Many words have more than one accepted spelling.

Forms

There are two forms of modern written Khmer:

  • Oblique Script- Used for handwriting and most printed texts
  • Round Script- Used for headings, titles, some religious texts, and other instances  that require words and phrases are needed to be emphasized

Now that you have already an idea about the Khmer script, let us proceed to the Khmer Alphabet.

 

Khmer Alphabet

Like what was mentioned above, learning the alphabet is the foundation of learning the language. In Khmer, the pronunciation of each letter in a word plays a big role in understanding what you are saying. As part of the daily conversation, it is really important to know the alphabet first before anything else.

You may notice that is visually similar to Thai and Lao because these languages trace their origins to Pali and Sanskrit roots. One interesting fact about the Khmer language is that Khmer is not tonal unlike other languages like Thai, Lao, and Vietnamese wherein the meaning of the word will depend on whether it is high or low tone.

Khmer has 33 consonants, 23 vowels, and 12 independent vowels. These alphabets are hard to remember especially if you are new to this language. It will really take time to get everything right at first but nothing is impossible if you have determination.

 

Tips On Learning Khmer Alphabet

Like most of the language, learning Khmer will not be easy at first. You may find yourself confused about the certain rules that need to be remembered and applied. You should know that the more accurate you pronounce, the more you will be understood.

Here are the tips on learning the Khmer Alphabet. Do not be in a hurry. Take your time to understand each part because every part is important.

1. Learn the Consonants

Lets us first start with the consonants. Surprisingly, there are 33 consonants in the Khmer alphabet. It is undeniable that Khmer consonants are not that easy to pronounce. Pronunciation is important in word-formation. Consonant’s series determines the pronunciation of the dependent vowel symbols.

The special character ◌ shows the position of a Khmer script character below which a subscript character is written.

Below are the Khmer Consonants, Subscript, English Sound, Pronunciation Example.

Consonant (First Series)

Khmer Consonant Subscript English Sound Example
្ក cat
្ខ khâ  Khmer
្ច châ chat
្ឆ chhâ charm
្ដ dark
្ឋ thâ that
្ណ  night
្ត task
្ថ thâ  that
្ប bath
្ផ phâ  pharmacy
្ឝ shâ sharp
្ស sand
្ហ heart
្ឡ * loud
្អ qawqaw

Consonant (Second Series)

Khmer Consonant Subscript English Sound Example
្គ as in cool
្ឃ khô as in khota
្ង ngô as in mango
្ជ chô as in chop
្ឈ chhô as in chowder
្ញ nhô as in ganho
្ឌ as in door
្ឍ thô as in though
្ទ as in torsh
្ធ thô though
្ន north
្ព poll
្ភ phô photography
្ម moth
្យ yolk
្រ raw
្ល lock
្វ vault
្ឞ ssô esso

Supplementary Consonant

Another thing that you need to know is the supplementary consonant. When two consonants are pronounced consecutively within a word, the second consonant's symbol is written in a special sub-consonant form which is placed below the first consonant.

It always follows the consonant's pronunciation. It might look familiar because in most cases, a smaller version of its consonant version but this is not always the case. Some may look different from the superscript.

Here are the supplementary consonants in Khmer:

Khmer Supplementary Consonant English Sound Example
ហ្គ guard
ហ្គ៊ goal
ហ្ន now
ប៉ pouch
ហ្ម mild
ហ្ល loud
ហ្វ fâ, wâ foul or wall
ហ្វ៊ fô, wô fô, wô
ហ្ស žâ, zâ Zaire
ហ្ស៊ žô, zô zodiac

2. Learn Vowels

After learning the consonants, let us now proceed to the vowels. Originally, there are 24 vowels in the Khmer alphabet. Since the abstract vowel is embedded in a consonant, there are only 23 vowels. Having 23 vowels, Khmer vowels is not that easy to remember. It will really take time to actually write and pronounce each vowel correctly.

The series of the initial consonant that it accompanies determines the pronunciation of a vowel.

Independent Vowels

Independent vowels incorporate both an initial consonant and a vowel. They are known as complete vowels.

Subscript English Sound
ĕ
ei
ŏ
ŭ
ŏu
rœ̆
lœ̆
é
ai
ឱ, ឲ aô, aôy
âu

Dependent Vowels

Subscript First Series Second Series
â ô
a éa
ĕ ĭ
ei i
œ̆ œ̆
œ œ
ŏ ŭ
o u
aeu eu
œă œă
é é
ê ê
ai ey
au ŏu

Remember

The spoken name of each dependent vowel consists of the word ស្រៈ srăk [sraʔ]("vowel") followed by the vowel's a-series value preceded by a glottal stop. For short vowels, it is also followed by a glottal stop.

3. Know the Diacritics

Adding diacritics can modify the length and value of inherent or dependent vowels.

Diacritics Khmer Name Function
nĭkkôhĕt A small circle has written over a consonant or a following dependent vowel. It nasalizes the inherent or dependent vowel, with the addition of [m]. Long vowels are also shortened. 
reăhmŭkh A pair of small circles written after a consonant or a following dependent vowel. It modifies and adds final aspiration /h/ to the inherent or dependent vowel.
yŭkôleăkpĭntŭ A "pair of dots", a fairly recently introduced diacritic, written after a consonant to indicate that it is to be followed by a short vowel and a glottal stop.
" musĕkâtônd Two short vertical lines, written above a consonant. It is used to convert some o-series consonants to a-series. It is also used with ប  to convert it to a p sound.
~ treisâpt A wavy line, written above a consonant. It is used to convert four of the first series consonants s h b and G which have no second series counterpart to the second series consonant s~ h~ b~ and G~ 
kbiĕh kraôm A vertical line is written under a consonant, used in place of the diacritics treisâpt and musĕkâtônd when they would be impeded by superscript vowels.
bântăk A small vertical line is written over the last consonant of a syllable. It indicates the shortening (and the corresponding change in quality) of certain vowels.
tôndâkhéat It is written over a final consonant to indicate that it is unpronounced. Such unpronounced letters are still romanized in the UN system.
kakâbat It is used in writing to indicate the rising intonation of an exclamation or interjection. It is often placed on particles such as /na/, /nɑː/, /nɛː/, /ʋəːj/, and on ចា៎ះ /caːh/, a word for "yes" used by females.
âsda It is used in a few words to show that a consonant with no dependent vowel is to be pronounced with its inherent vowel, rather than as a final consonant.
sanhyoŭk sannha It is written above a consonant to indicate that the syllable contains a particular short vowel.
vĭréam It is mostly obsolete, corresponding to the virama, which suppresses a consonant's inherent vowel.
 

Modification by Diacritics

Diacritics First Series Second Series
អុំ om ŭm
អំ âm um
អាំ ăm ŏâm
អះ ăh eăh
អិះ ĕh ĭh
អុះ ŏh ŭh
អេះ éh éh
អោះ aôh ŏăh

4. Understand Spacing And Punctuations

One of the interesting characteristics of Khmer is the use of punctuations and spacing. It is really different from other languages which makes it somehow harder to understand at first. But like I said, nothing is impossible if you put a lot of effort into it.

You may be used to writing sentences using spaces as separators but in Khmer, it is different. Spaces are not used between all words in written Khmer. These are used within sentences in roughly the same places as commas might be in English. They also serve to set off certain items such as numbers and proper names.

On the other hand, the combination of modern Khmer that includes French-style guillemets for quotation marks and traditional Khmer punctuation marks are used these days.

Here is the list of punctuation marks that are essential in writing sentences in Khmer.

Punctuation Name in Khmer Function
khăn It is used as a period. Consecutive sentences on the same theme are often separated only by spaces.
lăk It is equivalent to etc.
lékhtoŭ It is a duplication sign. It indicates that the preceding word or phrase is to be repeated (duplicated).
bâriyaôsan It is a period used to end an entire text or a chapter.
koŭmot It is a period used at the end of poetic or religious texts.
phnêkmoăn It is a symbol used at the start of poetic or religious texts.
châmnŏch pi kuss It is used similarly to a colon.

5. Practice Makes Perfect

Like in everything we do, the key to a desirable output is practice. There are ways on how to practice learning the alphabet effectively. As a language learner, it is important to expose yourself to the language and use the language to communicate. If you don't have the capabilities to fly to Cambodia, you could always start learning through the use of both offline and online resources like books, video tutorials, blog posts, learning languages apps, and many other ways.

Learning any language will really be hard at first especially if you are from another country. Just like in Khmer, start with the basics to have a strong foundation then you can work your way up. Allow yourself to be exposed to different media and resources from that country like vlogs, blogs, songs, books, or even movies. Do not forget to enjoy yourself because if you are interested and you love what you are doing, your willingness comes from within.

 

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