Khmer

Updated 31-Aug-2017 • tags khmer, scriptnotes

This page provides basic information about the Khmer script. For similar information related to other scripts, see the Script comparison table.

Click on the orange text in the features list (right column) to jump to notes and examples. Click on red text examples or highlight part of the sample text to see a list of characters. Click on the vertical blue bar (bottom right) to change font settings for the sample text.

For more details see: Character notes Script links

Sample (Khmer)

មាត្រា ១ មនុស្សទាំងអស់ កើតមកមានសេរីភាព និងសមភាព ក្នុងផ្នែកសេចក្ដីថ្លៃថ្នូរនិងសិទ្ធិ។ មនុស្ស មានវិចារណញ្ញាណនិងសតិសម្បជញ្ញៈជាប់ពីកំណើត ហើយគប្បីប្រព្រឹត្ដចំពោះគ្នាទៅវិញទៅមក ក្នុង ស្មារតីភាតរភាពជាបងប្អូន។

មាត្រា ២ មនុស្សម្នាក់ៗ អាចប្រើប្រាស់សិទ្ធិនិងសេរីភាពទាំងអស់ ដែលមានចែងក្នុងសេចក្ដីប្រកាសនេះ ដោយគ្មានការប្រកាន់បែងចែកបែបណាមួយ មានជាអាទិ៍ ពូជសាសន៍ ពណ៌សម្បុរ ភេទ ភាសា សាសនា មតិនយោបាយ ឬមតិផ្សេងៗទៀត ដើមកំណើតជាតិ ឬសង្គម ទ្រព្យសម្បត្ដិ កំណើត ឬស្ថានភាព ដទៃៗទៀតឡើយ។ លើសពីនេះ មិនត្រូវធ្វើការប្រកាន់បែងចែកណាមួយ ដោយសំអាងទៅលើឋានៈខាងនយោបាយ ខាងដែនសមត្ថកិច្ច ឬខាងអន្ដរជាតិរបស់ប្រទេស ឬដែនដីដែលបុគ្គលណាម្នាក់រស់នៅ ទោះបីជាប្រទេស ឬដែនដីនោះឯករាជ្យក្ដី ស្ថិតក្រោមអាណាព្យាបាលក្ដី ឬគ្មានស្វ័យគ្រប់គ្រងក្ដី ឬស្ថិតក្រោមការដាក់ កម្រិតផ្សេងទៀតណាមួយ ដល់អធិបតេយ្យភាពក្ដី។

Key features

The script is an abugida, ie. like most Brahmi-influenced scripts, each consonant carries with it an inherent vowel. The sound following a consonant can be modified by attaching vowel signs to the consonant when writing.

Direction of text is horizontal, left to right. However, glyphs constituting a single syllable can appear on all sides of the initial character.

A key feature of Khmer is that there are a large number of vowel sounds, and only a few vowel signs; and there are a large number of consonant letters for only a small number of consonant sounds. This lead to a system where there are generally two consonant signs for a given sound, each belonging to one of two classes (or registers). So to determine the pronunciation of a vowel sign you start by seeing which class of consonant it follows. For example, using the two symbols for the sound k, is kɑː neck, and is kɔː mute.

There are two distinct styles of font in Modern Khmer: slanted (called អក្សរច្រៀង), which has an upright variant, and round (called អក្សរឈរ). The round style includes more ligated forms. The upright style is used here. Style examples: slanted upright អក្សរ ខ្មែ, round អក្សរ ខ្មែ.

Text boundaries

The syllable is fundamental in Cambodian.

Many native Cambodian words are monosyllabic. These start with one or more consonants or an independent vowel (or a vowel sign attached to ʔɑː, which is a combination of both). Short vowels in stressed syllables are always followed by a consonant. Long vowels may not be. There are many monosyllabic words that begin with consonant clusters, and some monosyllabic words that end with clusters, although only one consonant is pronounced in syllable final position.

There are also many bisyllabic words. In many cases the first syllable in a bisyllabic word is unstressed, and the vowel is usually rendered in colloquial speech as a schwa. Some bisyllabic words are compounds, however, and this may not apply.

Polysyllabic words are usually of Sanskrit, Pali or French origin. These words tend to alternate stress across their syllables, but may not.

Consonants

Khmer has 35 consonants. As mentioned above, the choice of consonant is a factor in the resulting vowel sound in a syllable.

Two diacritics, [U+17C9 KHMER SIGN MUUSIKATOAN​] and [U+17CA KHMER SIGN TRIISAP​], are used to change the class of a consonant. These are particularly useful when a given sound has only one character associated with it, such as the letters , and etc.

Final consonants

Not all Khmer consonants can appear in syllable-final position. The most common syllable-final consonants include the following កងញតនបមល. The pronunciation of the consonant in final position may differ from it's normal pronunciation.

Subscript consonants

It is common to find clusters of consonants with no intervening vowel sounds. In Khmer, this is very common at the beginning of a word, but clusters also occur medially in multisyllable words, and occasionally at the end of a word.

When two consonants occur together without an intervening vowel, the second is rendered in subscript form, called ជើងអក្សរ cəːŋʔɑʔsɑː (consonant feet) (or 'coeng'). Cambodians see these subscripts as distinct letter forms.

In Unicode subscript forms are produced by inserting [U+17D2 KHMER SIGN COENG​] before the consonant that will become a subscript. This character, which has no visual form in Cambodian, is called the coeng in Unicode, although it should rightly be called the coeng generator.

Where the two consonants involved in the cluster are in different classes or registers, the pronunciation of any following vowel is normally determined by the register of the subscript consonant. For the following exceptions, however, the vowel pronunciation is determined by the register of the first consonant: ងញនមយរលវ. XXX Add an example.

Some subscripts change the sound of the preceding consonant.

Subscript consonants that appear at the end of a word, are silent, eg. ពេទ្យ peit; រដ្ឋ roat.

In some multisyllabic words a medial cluster may contain a final consonant for the first syllable and the initial consonant of the next syllable, eg. កម្មករ kɑmmɔkɑːworker .

There are some clusters involving two subscripts. These are, with three exceptions, composed of a final nasal, followed by a stop and r, eg. កន្ត្រៃ kɑntraj scissors, កញ្ជ្រេង kɑɲcreːŋ fox. The three exceptions are the loan words, អង្គ្លេស ʔɑŋkleːh English, សងស្ក្រិត sɑŋskret Sanskrit, and សាស្ត្រាចារ្យ sɑstraːcaː teacher.

Subscript consonants after vowels

It is rare but possible to find subscripts used after independent vowels. One common word spelled this way is ឲ្យ ʔaoj to give.

It is also possible to find subscript forms of independent vowels. Four of these are named sequences in Unicode. (See the table below.)

Vowels

The Khmer Unicode block has 16 vowel signs, and 15 independent vowels (not counting 2 that are deprecated).

Several vowel characters are composed of parts that are visually separate, eg. the sound aw/əː is represented as [U+17BE KHMER VOWEL SIGN OE​].

Other diacritics also produce vowel sounds after or before the consonants they are attached to.

As mentioned above, an initial indicator of pronunciation is the class of the syllable-initial consonant. Additional factors include whether this is an unstressed vowel, vowel harmony, and whether any of the special diacritics have been used to change the sound. For an in-depth treatment of pronunciation see Huffman in the sources section.

Inherent vowels

Khmer has two inherent vowels, ɑː and ɔː. The class of the consonant will initially dictate which sound is appropriate, eg. kɑː vs. kɔː.

Inherent vowels are not pronounced after syllable final consonants.

Vowel signs

As mentioned above, in most cases, vowel signs attached to a consonant are pronounced differently, depending on the register of the consonant letter, eg. កា kaː vs. គា kiə.

Independent vowels

There are two ways of representing vowel sounds that are not preceded by a consonant.

The most common way is to add a vowel-sign to the character [U+17A2 KHMER LETTER QA], eg. អី ʔəj.

There are also some independent vowel letters, but unlike most South Asian scripts, there are fewer independent vowels than vowel signs, and some do not have direct correspondances with a vowel sign, eg. corresponds phonetically to the vowel plus consonant combination ូវ.

Whether an independent vowel sound is represented using an independent vowel sign or the glottal consonant plus vowel sign varies from word to word. In Cambodian orthography the two are not interchangeable. The independent vowel signs appear in relatively few words, but some of those words are quite common, eg. ឪពុក ʔəwpuk father, ឲ្យ ʔaoj to give and lɨː to hear.

Anusvara and visarga as vowels

The descendants of the anusvara and the visarga, called niʔkəhət (និគ្គហិត) and reə̆hmuk (រះមុខ) respectively, are also regarded as vowels in Khmer, even though their vowel sounds still end with ŋ and h respectively.

Two combinations of these characters and other vowel sign characters are regarded as additional vowels in the alphabet but not encoded separately in Unicode (though they are named sequences), ie. អាំ am/oə̆m and អុំ om/um.

Vowel harmony

In two-syllable words, where the second syllable begins with one of the following consonants, ងញណនមយឡលរវ, the vowel class of the second syllable is the same as that of the first, eg. in ប្រយ័ត្ន prɑjat to be careful, the second syllable starts with an class consonant but the class of the preceding syllable turns the vowel to an ɑː class sound. There are, however, exceptions to this rule.

Context-based glyph changes

There is very little in the way of interaction between characters other than the subscript shapes used after the coeng generator.

Some small joining features occur in relation to [U+17B6 KHMER VOWEL SIGN AA​] and similarly shaped vowels. Unicode provides the following list of common forms:

  1. ក + ា = កា
  2. ប +  ា = បា (avoids confusion with )
  3. ប +  ៅ = បៅ
  4.  ្ស +  ា = ្សា

Some reshaping of glyphs is needed to cope with stacking of characters. Compare for example the length of the final element in ង្យ and ង្ខ្យ.

Also, when [U+17C9 KHMER SIGN MUUSIKATOAN​] museʔkətoə̯n or [U+17CA KHMER SIGN TRIISAP​] trəisaɓ appears with a vowel sign above the consonant, the ក្បៀសក្រោម kɓiəhkraom form is used. This looks exactly like [U+17BB KHMER VOWEL SIGN U​], eg. compare យ៉ាង and ម៉ឺន məɨn 10,000 or ញ៉ាំ ɲam to eat.

Usage tip: This behaviour can be modified using U+200C ZERO WIDTH NON-JOINER.

Another common feature is that [U+1789 KHMER LETTER NYO] drops the swash below the baseline when followed by a subscript consonant, eg. បញ្ឆោត ɓɑɲcʰaot to trick. Also, when it appears as a subscript under itself it uses a special full form subscript. Compare កញ្ញា kɑɲɲaa young lady and ប្រាជ្ញា praːcɲaa intelligence.

Ordering of characters

An orthographic syllable is slightly different from a morphological syllable, since an orthographic syllable may begin with the final consonant of the previous morphological syllable. Alternatively, an orthographic syllable may be just a final consonant or consonant cluster in a morphological syllable.

Usage tip: Components of an 'orthographic syllable'* should be composed in the following order:

  1. base consonant or independent vowel
  2. rɔɓaːt
  3. museʔkətoə̯n or trəisaɓ (register shifters)
  4. subscript (consonant or independent vowel)
  5. vowel sign
  6. zero-width joiner or non-joiner
  7. any other mark

This fixed ordering makes it easier to search for and collate text.

As mentioned above, although all combining characters follow the base in memory, the visual order of syllable components may not follow a linear progression from left to right. In the following example the order in which the glyphs are pronounced is far left, far right, down, left, left: កន្ត្រៃ kɑntraj scissors. Here ច្រៀង the spoken order of the separate visible parts, numbered left to right, is 3,2, 1+4, 5, Some vowel signs span two or three sides of the base consonant or cluster.

Punctuation

Space

Khmer words are not separated by spaces, so the space, ឃ្លា kliə, is regarded as punctuation, similar to the comma. Huffman lists the following uses:

  1. between clauses within a sentence
  2. between sentences in a cohesive group of sentences
  3. after preposed adverbial phrases, such as 'usually', 'today', 'in that town', etc.
  4. before and after proper names
  5. before and after numbers
  6. before and after the symbols and and the terms ។ល។ and ។ប។
  7. between coordinate words in lists

Huffman gives the following example to show the use of the space:

ថ្ងៃនេះ ខ្ញុំទៅផ្សារ ទិញក្រច អង្ករ ហើយនឹងអីវ៉ាន់ផ្សេង ៗ
tŋajnih kɲomtɨwpsaː tiɲkrouc ʔɑŋkɑː haəjnɨŋʔəjʋanpseiŋ pseiŋ
Today ( ) I'm going to the market ( ) to buy oranges ( ) rice ( ) and various things.

Other punctuation

Khmer uses other punctuation marks described in the punctuation section below. In addition to its own punctuation characters, Khmer uses Western punctuation marks, such as the question mark, eg. ហេត៊អ្វី? haetʰ aʋəi, and exclamation mark, eg. កុំ! kom.

Hyphens are used to indicate when part of a word has been wrapped onto a new line.

Hyphens are also used between the parts of a person's name. Typically the family name (written first) and following names, but often all names for Chinese Cambodians, eg. ញ៉ុក-ថែម ɲok tʰaem, លី-ធាម-តេង liː tʰiəm teiŋ.

List of basic symbols

Khmer

This is a list of main characters or character combinations needed for Khmer. Clicking on these characters will open a page in another window. If the character is underlined, the new page will display additional information about that character.

 

Consonants
Subscript consonants   ្ក   ្ខ   ្គ   ្ឃ   ្ង   ្ច   ្ឆ   ្ជ   ្ឈ   ្ញ   ្ដ   ្ឋ   ្ឌ   ្ឍ   ្ណ   ្ត   ្ថ   ្ទ   ្ធ   ្ន   ្ប   ្ផ   ្ព   ្ភ   ្ម   ្យ   ្ល   ្ឡ   ្រ   ្ស   ្ហ   ្វ   ្អ
Vowel signs   ា   ិ   ី   ឹ   ឺ   ុ   ូ   ួ   ើ   ឿ   ៀ   ំ   ះ
Combinations of vowel signs   ាំ   ុំ   ុះ   េះ   ោះ
Independent vowels
Subscript independent vowels   ្ឧ   ្ឯ   ្ឫ   ្ឬ
Combining marks   ៉   ៊   ់   ៌   ៍   ៎   ៏   ័   ៈ   ្
Punctuation
Numbers
Symbols
Rare characters   ៝   ៑
Deprecated characters   ឴   ឵   ៓

 

To see a list of ligatures and alternative shapes go to the 'shape' view of the Khmer character picker. (Hint: to see the composition of a conjunct, click on it and select Codepoints.)

Further reading

  1. Franklin Huffman, Cambodian System of Writing
  2. Richard Gilbert & Sovandy Hang, Cambodian for Beginners, Paiboon Publishing, ISBN 1-887521-35-6
  3. Peter T. Daniels and William Bright, The World's Writing Systems, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-507993-0
  4. The Unicode Standard, Version 5.0
First published 3 Feb 2008. This version 2017-08-31 6:29 GMT.  •  Copyright r12a@w3.org. Licence CC-By.