Writing Khmer

For anyone who has grown up with a language based on a Roman script, making the transition to a non-romanized language (like Arabic, Chinese, or Khmer) involves a lot of mental calisthenics.

Cambodian has an alphabet, so the first step is to visualize and understand the distinction between letters in the alphabet. This isn’t a negligible task-- there are 74 letters (!), and many resemble each other to the uninitiated eye. So you can imagine the time and diligence required to memorize their distinctions and sounds.

Luckily for the language learner, and in contrast to the other languages in the region, Khmer is Non- Tonal. So what? This means you don’t need to worry if your pronunciation of “mother” actually means “horse” (the classic example from Chinese tones). So once you’ve memorized the letters and their sounds, read away! There are some differences between the way Khmer is written and the way it is spoken, but none that will get you slapped for foul language.

Here are some important things to know about the Cambodian language, especially with respect to culture.

  1. There are different words for talking with monks, talking about the King, and talking to regular people. The most visible way you can see this is in the Sompeah, the bow you give when greeting someone: The higher you hold your hands in front of your face, palms together, the more respect you are showing. As you bow, you say a word of greeting, and the different possibilities of greeting hold different levels of respect.

  2. Khmer words can never be on the ground. School books should never be kept on the ground, and you certainly can’t have a “welcome”-style door mat to wipe your feet on. Don’t use your feet to push or move a book with Cambodian writing. For a long time, education was hard to come by, and mostly the educated people in Cambodia were Buddhist monks, so the connection between words and religion is still very close.

Interested in learning more about this beautiful language and culture? Head over to our podcast, and listen as we break it down in more detail. And check back here soon, for a new blog post about Religions in Cambodia!