Cambodian Vs. Khmer: 3+ Amazing Facts!

Ling Learn Languages
6 min readMar 20, 2022


Original blog post:

Are you wondering about the similarities and differences between Cambodian Khmer and regular Khmer? Don’t worry! Many end up in the same position as you and seek answers hard to find but not entirely impossible.

Cambodia is a beautiful and fascinating country that lies within the borders created by its neighbors, Thailand and Vietnam. Before starting with its language, it has a unique and dark past that you need to know. So, let’s learn more about this in this Cambodian vs. Khmer post.

The Tale Of The Khmer Rouge And Khmer Culture

The amazing Cambodian society is known for its rich culture that was once forced to face the darkest times in its history when the Khmer Rouge regime under the dictator Pol Pot came into being.

The Khmer Rouge or the Communist Party of Kampuchea took over the capital Phnom Penh and its population by overthrowing the monarchy and started ruling in 1975.

The Khmer Rouge, with Pol Pot and his visions, carried out the Cambodian genocide, killed millions of people and Buddhist monks, and almost destroyed their dear nation.

It was only recently, in 1979, with a revolutionary movement of the Cambodian people, that Cambodia gained its complete freedom from the Pol Pot regime and has become a truly flourished nation like other countries.

Cambodia today is a part of the ASEAN and a bright part of Southeast Asia. The Cambodian refugees found their salvation in neighboring countries like Thailand and Vietnam, whereas most migrated to the United States. They are still to heal from the brutality of the Khmer Rouge and bring peace to their lives.

Cambodian Vs. Khmer

Coming to the most awaited part, the language of Cambodia or the so-called Cambodian language. When you look for distinctions between the two languages, you are sure to end up with baffling answers.

Both are considered the same, or one exists as the synonym for the other. However, you cannot possibly say you speak Cambodian instead of Khmer if you are explicitly talking about the language of Khmer.

Cambodian refers to the language of Cambodia, meaning the national or domestic language. It is the country and nationality of the people where the language is attached to it.

On the other hand, Khmer is a word linked with the ethnicity, race, and language of an ethnic group.

Although most in Cambodia are Khmer speakers, and the language is considered the state language, it is a word that is intrinsically connected to the Khmer people. Most Khmer are the residents of rural areas of Cambodia with a strong ethnic identity and religious beliefs.

The Khmer Language Of Cambodia

More than 90% of the population of Cambodia speaks in Khmer, which is why it is also named as the official or national language of the country. The Cambodian community uses the Khmer language for every official work ranging from Government administration to distributing educational means.

However, English is also well known and practiced as a second language in Cambodian schools and by Cambodian Americans.

Khmer is the oldest written language and belongs to the Mon-Khmer branch of the Austroasiatic Language family. After the Vietnamese language, Khmer is the widely spoken language considered one of the members of the Austroasiatic language.

The language was highly influenced by the Sanskrit and Pali languages of ancient India during the spread of Buddhism and Hinduism. Also, Khmer is spoken by many people in neighboring Thailand and Vietnam, but the vast majority of speakers lie in Cambodia itself.

The Khmer language is non-tonal, except for the dialect of the Capital city, and analytical like the English language. That means the meaning of the words does not change with the change of tone and has a complex structure without inflection, in which the tense is expressed with the use of participles or adverbs. It is the second easiest language to learn in Asia.

Dialects Of Cambodian Khmer

Concerning dialects, in Cambodian culture, the language of Khmer has a wide range of them. As mentioned earlier, the capital city has a distinct tonal dialect used only by the surrounding population. Other dialects are divided according to regional means, such as Khmer Khe for the Stung Treng Province and Khmer Krom of the Southern part, extending to Vietnam.

Most Northern and Western residers speak their respective dialects, whereas all Cambodian children and Cambodian women speak standard Khmer in the center.

Khmer is also known to have social registers like Thai. There are six types: informal, formal, neuter, one for Buddhist clergy, and another for royalty. The register will change depending on the social position of the person one is speaking to.

Other Popular Cambodian Languages

Other than Khmer, many Cambodians practice different minority and foreign languages that are also considered a part of the family. While most speak Khmer, the others are considered a minority with different dialects. Let us have a brief look at some of them.

Foreign Languages


Apart from the indigenous languages, new society and family members have started to speak English more than Khmer or any other speech.

Southeast Asian studies have found so many students acquiring education in English, and most publications are being done in the same. It has become the main foreign language, and even a Khmer American has seemed to opt for the English vocabulary.


Although English has become a major part of Cambodia, French was the first foreign language acquired by the natives of the country. Cambodia was once a French colony, and French was also made the official language in Indochina.

French has been evident in the education system, economic development plans, and the previous regime, especially in the areas aided by the French government. Many older women or citizens still speak French in their daily life.

The Minority Languages

Khmer Loeu

Other than the Khmer ethnic language, other languages spoken by minority people are divided as indigenous or non-indigenous. The indigenous minorities are known as the Khmer Loeu, which comprises around 18 ethnic groups living in rural Cambodia.

They are an estimated 140 thousand people, with most speaking Austroasiatic languages similar to Khmer.

Amongst the popular is the Tumpoon. Tumpoon is the native speech of the Tampuan people in Cambodia, the indigenous inhabitants of the Ratanakiri Province. There are also non-indigenous ethnic minorities: Vietnamese, Cham, and Chinese Cambodians.


Vietnamese is spoken mostly by immigrants of Vietnam in Cambodia. The currently estimated counting of speakers is around 61,000. However, there used to be many Vietnamese speakers in Cambodia before the civil war.

After the horrendous rule of the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian genocide, many were eradicated and nominated from the moral education sector.

Cham Population

The Cham people have a distinct history of their historical Kingdom of Champa. They are the descendants of the refugees of the kingdom wars in the old times. The cham Kingdom was the rival of the Khmer empire with a very small population.

Even now, the number is far less due to the uptake of the civil war. They are the people who speak the western cham language and are majorly constituted in the Kampong Cham province.

Chinese Cambodian

Chinese Cambodian is spoken by people who came to the country as settlers searching for opportunities during the French protectorate. They only constitute about 1% of the population and largely cover the business sector.

Never Ending Lessons

So, now we know the basic distinction between the Khmer alone and Khmer as the nation’s main dialect. While the difference is minimal, it is necessary to know the different divisions and groups in Cambodia.

You can learn further with neat detail and explanation regarding various parts by trying out the different platforms or simply with the Ling App by Simya Solutions.

They have linguistic experts worldwide who can help you gain easy access to different topics at zero cost. So, start learning Khmer now!



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