Linguist Spells Out Origin of Khmer Language 

Due to cross-cultural influences, some Sanskrit and Bali words were borrowed in the first and eighth century respectively, Khmer linguist Chan Samnob says. Photo: ThmeyThmey

PHNOM PENH – Khmer language and literature have existed for a long time but there is no strong evidence about the date of their origins.

Due to cross-cultural influences, some Sanskrit and Bali words were borrowed in the first and eighth century respectively, Khmer linguist Chan Somnoble says.  

Somnoble said various ways had been used in ancient times to communicate among Khmer people including gestures, signs, sounds which later were turned into words, grammar and finally language. 

“Linguistics can not identify when exactly the Khmer language was founded but I think archaeologists would be clearer than us,” Somnoble said.

“As the Khmer language evolves gradually over time, writing also changes accordingly. 

“Although the Old Khmer inscription from Angkor Borei which dates from 611 CE, is considered one of the earliest Old Khmer writings, I believe Old Khmer writing existed before that yet there was still no exact date and evidence.” 

Somnoble said Old Khmer is written on inscriptions, Central Khmer on manuscripts and Modern Khmer is written on paper. 

Somnoble said Old Khmer’s characters are not quite identical to Modern Khmer. 

“The meaning of the words indeed shifts through time. Modern Khmer speakers who never learn Old Khmer would not understand Old Khmer. However, only those who are interested in learning Old Khmer could understand, he said. 

Taking a glance at the linguistic complexity, Somnoble said Central Khmer consists of simpler characters yet more letters in alphabets compared to Old Khmer. Some words in Central Khmer share core meanings to Modern Khmer. 

He said Khmer language belongs to the Austroasiatic language family which was spoken by Southeast Asian people for a long time. 

“As Cambodia has been significantly influenced by Indian culture through trade, religion, etc, Sanskrit and Pali had a significant impact on the Khmer language,” Somnoble said. 

“India has many nationalities. Some villagers speak Sanskrit, some speak Pali or other languages. Sanskrit is a classical language belonging to the Indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-European languages. Pali is a middle Indo-Aryan liturgical language of the Indo-European language. 

“There are some misunderstandings saying Khmer language comes from Pali Sanskrit. It’s completely wrong, Cambodia only borrowed some Sanskrit and Pali words back then,” he said.  

Somnoble said there have been 50,000-60,000 Khmer words until now. However, only ten percent overall have been using it in daily lives. 

“New words are frequently introduced while some words fall out of common use. Once those old words are used again, I just found out young people use them in different ways,” Somnoble said. 


Originally written in Khmer for ThmeyThmey, this story was translated by Rin Ousa for Cambodianess.

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