The Cambodian language, more properly known as Khmer or the Mon-Khmer language, has played an important role in the development of many Southeast Asian languages. Modern Cambodian is spoken in present-day Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand, and the widespread influence of the Old Khmer language in the time of the Khmer Empire’s reign is still evident in the region to this day.
The Term “Khmer”
The word “Khmer” is used to refer not only to the official Cambodian language but also to the ethnic Cambodian population. Approximately 90 percent of Cambodia’s inhabitants are ethnic Khmer; the rest are mostly of Vietnamese or Chinese origin. A number of semi-nomadic tribal groups can also be found in the country.
Classification of the Cambodian Language
Cambodian is classified as a member of the Mon-Khmer subfamily, one of two groups within the Austro-Asiatic family of languages spoken throughout southern Asia. (An interesting note on the term “Austro-Asiatic”: the word “austro” comes from the Latin for south.) The Mon-Khmer group includes 150 languages spoken throughout Southeast Asia, among them Cambodian, Mon and Vietnamese.
Early History of the Cambodian Language: The Khmer Kingdoms
The modern Khmer or Cambodian language is a direct descendent of the Old Khmer language spoken in the empire of ancient Khmer and its capital, Angkor. Around 200 BC, the Khmer peoples migrated from modern-day Thailand into the Mekong Delta area.
The first Khmer kingdom, referred to as Funan by Chinese historians of the time, was established around the 1st century. In its early history, the Khmer were greatly influenced by southern Indian language and culture. As a result, the Old Khmer language came to borrow heavily from Sanskrit, as well as Pali. Many loanwords were taken from these languages in the fields of business and philosophy.
The Written Cambodian Language
The Old Khmer language was written using a script that originated in South India. The earliest examples of the written Cambodian language date from the early 7th century. Hundreds of monumental Old Khmer language inscriptions dating from the 7th to 15th centuries have been found throughout Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand.
A New Khmer Kingdom under Jayavarman II
The Kingdom of Funan, which ranged from the 1st to 6th centuries, was later absorbed by the state of Chenla. This was then succeeded by the Khmer Empire, an enormous and powerful empire that reigned from the 9th to 13th centuries.
In the early 9th century, the Cambodian prince Jayavarman II came to power, inaugurating a Hindu cult in honor of the God Shiva, which served to legitimize Jayavarman’s rule and allowed the kingdom he instituted to reign for more than 200 years. This Khmer Kingdom was centered at Angkor, modern Cambodia’s capital.
Cultural Renaissance: The Angkor Era
Throughout the reign of Jayavarman and his successors, the Khmer Kingdom underwent a period of enormous cultural growth and political power. More than 1,000 temples were built from the 9th to 15th centuries, including the still-famous temple of Angkor Wat, built by King Suryavarman II in the 12th century.
At this time, the Khmer Kingdom was at the height of its power and included territory in modern-day Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, and the Malay Peninsula.
Decline of the Khmer Empire
Interestingly, historians have never been able to totally explain the details surrounding the decline of the Khmer Empire. Most scholars agree that the rise of powerful Thai kingdoms probably resulted in a receding of the Khmer Empire’s boundaries and its subsequent loss of power.
A Thai invasion in 1431 definitively marked the end of the Khmer Empire’s height of power. The decline of the Khmer Empire in the 15th century is followed by four centuries of Cambodian history about which little is known.
French Influence in Cambodia
In 1863 the king of Cambodia invited French colonial power into the weakened kingdom of Cambodia. A French protectorate was subsequently installed in Cambodia, preventing the kingdom’s complete dismemberment by Thai and Vietnamese forces.
As a result of this French influence, French was once an important second language in Cambodia. Its influence has diminished significantly since the mid-20th century, however. Since the 1990s the English language has gained some prominence in Cambodia and it is now considered an important secondary language.
Influence of the Cambodian Language
The Old Khmer language held a prominent status that lasted many centuries. The fact that Old Khmer inscriptions dating from the 7th to 15th centuries have been found in Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand speaks to the language’s impressive influence.
The past importance of the Old Khmer language is still evident today. Many languages throughout Southeast Asia, including Thai and Lao, reveal a heavy Cambodian language influence, including the borrowing of many loanwords.
Religious Developments in Cambodia
The early influence of Indian culture in Cambodia had a significant impact on Cambodia’s religion as well as its language. Theravada Buddhism developed in India around the 6th century BC and is believed to have arrived in Cambodia in the early centuries AD. Today almost 85 percent of modern Cambodians practice Theravada Buddhism.
Cambodian contact with Indian culture also led to the adoption of Hinduism, as well as other forms of Buddhism. Despite such outside influences, local Cambodian beliefs focusing on the importance of ancestral spirits managed to survive and coexist with the new religions introduced from India. Many of these beliefs are still in practice in Cambodia today.
Cambodian Language Today
The Khmer language now serves as the official language of Cambodia, where it is spoken by the majority of the population, an estimated 14,494,293 people. It is also spoken by approximately 1.3 million people in southeast Thailand and by more than 1 million people in southern Vietnam.
Cambodian Quick Facts
Alternate Names & Spellings: Khmer, Cambodian
Language Family: Austro-Asiatic, Mon-Khmer, Eastern Mon-Khmer, Khmer
Spoken by Approximately 13,277,000 people
Spoken In: United States
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