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Number of Speakers: 7 million
Geographical Center: Cambodia
Khmer, or Cambodian, is spoken by some 7 million people and is the official language of Cambodia where 90 percent of the population--about 6 million people--speaks it as a first or second language. Speakers also live in Vietnam (700,000), and Thailand (320,000). Smaller communities are found in the USA, France and Laos.
Khmer belongs to the Mon-Khmer family of the Austroasiatic phylum. The Mon-Khmer family has over 100 members, which are spoken throughout much of Southeast Asia, mainly in Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia, but also in Thailand, Burma, and the Malay Peninsula. They are Austroasiatic languages that include the Munda languages of India; these in turn are possibly related very distantly to the Tai or Dai languages of Thailand, Laos, northern Vietnam, Burma, southern China, and Hainan Island in the Gulf of Tonkin. Khmer's best known closest relative is Vietnamese.
The dialect picture in Cambodia is not well understood, but regional differences are slight and usually mutually intelligibile. Modern Standard Khmer--which is based on the Phnom Penh dialect--is understood and used throughout the country. However variants spoken by communities outside the national boundaries include: Northern Khmer, or Surin, spoken in Thailand just north of the Cambodia border; Southern Khmer, or Khmer Krom, spoken in southern Vietnam; and Western Khmer, spoken in Thailand. These are considered mutually intelligible, dialectal variants, but authorities recognize Northern Khmer (Surin) as a distinct but closely related language.
Khmer script evolved from Pallava, a variant of the Davanagari script used to write Sanskrit, Hindi, and other Indian languages. It is essentially an alphabetic, phonologically-based, system--with some elements of a syllabic system--which involves some complexity. For example, there are two sets of symbols for consonants while the number of graphs for vowels are not sufficient to symbolize the full range of distinctions; thus, the vowel sign is interpreted differently depending on which consonant symbol it is paired with.
Khmer is a language that is devoid of inflection in either nouns or verbs; this type of language is sometimes referred to as isolating. For nouns, number is inferred from context although there are modifiers--such as words equivalent to "some," "all," and the numeral "two" in English--which can be used to indicate plural. There are no articles marking a definite/indefinite distinction. Gender is unmarked but distinctions can be made by using kinds of modifiers that have inherent referential gender, such as words for "son," "daughter," "male," and "female."
Verbs are unmarked for tense, aspect, mood, and other categories. These, if marked at all, are indicated by auxiliaries, which can precede or follow the verb.
The system of personal pronouns is fairly rich; it is sensitive to the social standing of interlocutors, such as perceived status, age, and level of intimacy.
There is a nonproductive morphology whereby prefixes and infixes can, for example, derive causative type verbs from simple verbs ("push down" from "go down," "put to sleep" from "sleep," "teach" from "learn") and reciprocals from simple verbs ("love one another" from "love") or nouns from verbs ("birth" from "be born"), and so on.
Grammatical relations are signaled by word order with the help of various particles. Genitive constructions are formed by juxtaposing the noun possessed followed by the possessor. Normal word order is Subject - Verb - Object. Modifiers typically follow the noun , but numerals often come before unless a numerical classifier is used and then both numeral and classifier follow. (Numeral classifiers do not play as important a role in Khmer as they do in Thai).
Khmer has a very rich phonological system consisting of twenty-five to twenty-seven short and long vowel phonemes, depending on dialect (with Northern Khmer having as many as thirty). There are seventeen to twenty-one consonant phonemes in the inventory. The language is nontonal; there is stress and it tends to fall on the final syllable. Morpheme structure allows numerous consonant clusters word-initially (some quite uncharacteristic of what English-speakers are used to), but none finally and the number of consonants allowed in word-final position are less than the total number in the language.
Most native words are monosyllabic or consist of a semi-syllable (unstressed with a reduced vowel) followed by a single syllable. There are many polysyllabic words, mainly of a literate character, which have been borrowed from Sanskrit and Pali. Khmer has also borrowed from Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, and French.
ROLE IN SOCIETY
Khmer is the national and official language of Cambodia and is used in the media, taught in the schools at all levels (with some exceptions in higher educational institutions), used in government administration, in the judiciary, and in most social, everyday, contexts.
The Chinese and Vietnamese communities are large and there are many smaller communities with speakers totaling from several hundred to several tens of thousands. The Cambodian constitution recognizes the right of these communities to maintain and teach their own language, but in practice, because of a lack of orthographies, most speakers of these languages become literate in Khmer.
There is also a type of diglossia prevalent between monks and the laity in which a specialized vocabulary, unrelated to the common one, is used. There was also another specialized vocabulary that was used by the royalty and by commoners when speaking about them. The same style could also be used by anyone to indicate distance and courtesy before the monarchy ceased to exist in 1975.
The history of the language is distinguished into several periods: Old Khmer (the seventh to eighth century), Angkor period (the ninth to fifteenth century), Middle Khmer (the sixteenth to eighteenth century), and Modern Khmer. The language is attested from the earliest periods by numerous inscriptions, and then during the Middle Khmer period by extensive writings on palm leaf manuscripts, including the Khmer version of the Ramayana, a well-known Hindu epic about Rama.
Most of the learned vocabulary for administration, military, and literature is borrowed from Sanskrit. With the introduction of Theravada Buddhism at the beginning of the fifteenth century, Pali became an important source of new vocabulary. During French colonial hegemony, many French loans entered the language.
During the Angkor period, Khmer influenced the surrounding languages, especially the unrelated languages of Lao and Thai, and they borrowed heavily from Khmer.
As a consequence of Khmer nationalism that emerged in the 1960s, linguistic purity became an issue. A committee was established that focused on the creation of neologisms using indigenous linguistic devices rather than borrowing from Sanskrit or Pali. The Khmer Rouge regime also left a linguistic legacy in expunging certain linguistic features which reflected social status.
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Diffloth, G. 1992. "Khmer." In W. Bright, ed. International Encyclopedia of Linguistics, Vol. 2:271-275. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Grimes, B. F., ed. 1992. Ethnologue, Languages of the World. Dallas, TX: Summer Institute of Linguistics.
Linguistic Society of America. 1992. Directory of Programs in Linguistics in the United States and Canada. Washington, DC: Linguistic Society of America.
Ruhlen, M. 1987. A Guide to the World's Languages, Vol. 1: Classification. London: Edward Arnold.
Smyth, D. A. 1994. "Cambodia: Language Situation." In R. E. Asher, ed. The Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, Vol. 2:440. Oxford: Pergamon Press.
_____. 1994. "Cambodian." In R. E. Asher, ed. The Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, Vol. 2:440-441. Oxford: Pergamon Press.
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