The Khmer language is the official language of Cambodian, and is actually often referred to as the Cambodian language itself. It is an Austro-Asiatic language, and is the second most spoken language within this language family, only second to Vietnamese.
There are five main linguistic periods to the Khmer language, though only the latter four have distinct time periods. These are: Pre-Khmer, Pre-Angkorian Old Khmer, Angkorian Old Khmer, Middle Khmer, and Modern Khmer. Pre-Khmer only has a few words and phrases that are recorded, on account of this being a primarily spoken instead of written language. It is the period from around the 14th to the 18th centuries that saw so much borrowing and exchanging of languages with other surrounding countries.
Modern Khmer is essentially the same today as it was two hundred years ago, after going through some massive changes in lexicon, morphology and phonology. This was due to the standardizing of the language to be used in government and official matters, and as such, the older linguistic periods are very difficult to understand, even by people who speak fluent Khmer today.
There are around 20 million speakers of the Khmer language. Around half of these speakers live in Cambodia itself. A million speakers live in Viet Nam, and similarly another million living in Thailand. There are also significant amounts of speakers living in the U.S., France, Australia and Canada.
There are many dialects within the Khmer language, and all are mutually intelligible. The main dialects are Battambang, Phnom Penh, Northern Khmer, Southern Khmer and Cardamom Khmer. Battambang is a northern Cambodian dialect, as is Northern Khmer, though Northern Khmer is primarily spoken by ethnic groups. Phnom Penh is the capital of Cambodia and has its own regional dialect. This dialect is the only one to use tonal intonation, though this is more of an affectation than a signifier of the language as a whole.
Southern Khmer is also known as Khmer Krom, and is spoken by the people along the Mekong Delta in Viet Nam. Cardamom Khmer is an older form of the language spoken by a very small amount of people who live along and near the Cardamom Mountains of Western Cambodia.
The language of Khmer has been heavily influenced by the languages that are used in the most popular religions, such as Sanskrit from the Hindu and Pali from Buddhism. Due to the close nature of many countries in South East Asia, the Khmer language has both influenced and taken influence from many of the surrounding countries, such as China, Viet Nam, Thailand, and Laos.
The Khmer language uses its own alphabet, which is known in the language as Aksar Khmer, and uses a predominantly monosyllabic word structure. The Khmer language itself looks relatively similar to the Thai language. The grammatical structure tends to follow a Subject Verb Object form, although there is some leeway with the sentence structure and it is not entirely strict.
While this is not necessarily a strict part of the language, there are issues of politeness that must be observed. The Khmer language has a system of registers, where the person speaking must be aware of the social status of who they are speaking to. There are many different ways to speak to someone, including specific addresses for common speech, polite speech, discussing royalty or monks, etc.
Why Learn The Khmer Language?
Unlike the surrounding countries in this area of South East Asia, Cambodia is not a tonal language. This could make it a little easier than some other South East Asian languages to pick up if you have a Western background, and would be an excellent jumping point to learn other languages.
Cambodia has had a very tumultuous military history, but the country today is much more welcoming to tourists, with around 2 million tourists a year. There is a very large draw to the country of Cambodia for adventurous types looking to explore an area of the world that have only in the last few decades opened to tourists. The cuisine of Cambodia is relatively unknown compared to many other South East Asian countries, as are the tourist attractions such as Angkor Wat. Learning the Khmer language can open up a very exciting area of the world to visit and enjoy.