Khmer Phonetics

Per request, the next post is on the Khmer language, or at least what I’ve learned so far. I’ll do my best not to let this slip into a dense tangle of IPA and linguistics jargon, but I realized that there’s a lot to say anyway. So this post is just on phonetics and phonology, i.e. sounds and pronunciation.

Basics

The Khmer language and script goes all the way back to Sanskrit and dialects of ancient India—not surprising, since a huge amount of culture spread from India to the Mekong area, including both Hinduism and Buddhism. Consequently, I can’t read a thing, although I’ve managed to learn to recognize the non-Arabic numerals. ១ ២ ៣ ៤ ៥ ៦ ៧ ៨ ៩ ១០

Because of its different origin, Khmer is not particularly like any language I’ve studied before: the neat tonal syllables of Mandarin, the simple five-vowel system of Japanese, or even the fairly friendly compounds of Spanish. Instead, it’s a language with as many vowel-sounds as English and probably as many consonant-sounds…but not the same ones. The closest reference I have is a project I did on Hindi (thanks, Karan).

The word “Khmer”, used as both a noun and an adjective for the language, the dominant ethnic group, and generic “Cambodian”, is pronounced somewhere between KHMAE and KHMAI ([kʰmãɪ]).

Consonants

In English we don’t often think about how our consonants are related, but if you stop and think about it, the sounds of P-T-S-K have something to do with B-D-Z-G. Specifically, the second set of letters are pronounced pretty much in the same way as the first, only with your vocal folds vibrating. (In linguistics these are called voiced consonants, as opposed to voiceless consonants.) The Japanese writing system of kana explicitly recognizes the similarity: “ka” is written か and “ga” is が. (AFAIK Korean hangul does something similar.)

Khmer, however, makes a three-way distinction between “Pʰ”, “P”, and “B”. English speakers (including me) have a really hard time hearing the difference, but it’s actually easy to make the three sounds yourself. The first sound, “Pʰ”, is a “normal” P, like at the beginning of the word “pie”. The second one, “P”, is the sound after the S in “spy”. The interesting thing is that if you hold your hand in front of your mouth when you say “pie”, you can feel a puff of air, but not for “spy”. Linguistics calls this aspirated and unaspirated; in English we mostly ignore the difference, but in Khmer it’s important. “B” is just the B in “bye”, but I generally try to emphasize the B-sound to make it different from “P”.

The romanization of the three sounds is “ph”, “p”, and “b”, although informal language guides often write the second sound as “bp”. It’s a pretty good way to trick English speakers into doing the right thing. So the name of the capital (where I’m living), Phnom Penh, starts with two different letters in Khmer script.

Fortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a KH-K-G distinction anymore, or a CHH-CH-J distinction, only PH-P-B and TH-T-D. Or maybe I just can’t hear them and people are willing to cut me slack for having a foreigner’s accent. I still have trouble hearing the three consonants, but I’m getting better at pronouncing them.

Khmer also has interesting consonant clusters not found in English, like “srey” (“female”) and, well, “khmai” (“Khmer”). I haven’t had much trouble with this, but it’s certainly something different from Japanese and Mandarin.

The rest is just going over the rest of the consonantal inventory; feel free to skip.

Khmer also has plenty of “nasal stop” consonants, including “m”, “n”, the Spanish “ñ” (written “ny”, as in “canyon”, or “nh”, as in Portuguese; [ɲ]), and the Vietnamese “ng” (the sound at the end of “sing”; [ŋ]). It has an “s”; I don’t think there’s a “z”. It has “h” and “l” and “y” and an “r” that’s like the single Spanish R (called a “flap” in linguistics and similar to the sound in the middle of the word “latter”; [ɾ]). And it has the same “w”/”v” sound that’s in Hindi ([ʋ]).

No “f”, no “th” ([θ] and [ð]), no “sh” (I think; [ʃ]), no [ʒ] (the sound in “vision”).

Vowels

Like I said, Khmer has plenty of vowels, just different ones. All the usuals are here—“ah”, “ee”, “oo”, “eh”, “oh”—but there are some interesting diphthongs which don’t have a real analogue in English. My favorite is one written “euv”, which is like the interjection “ew!” except you close your mouth more and round your lips. The word for “starfruit” is something like “plai speuv”.

There’s another sound that I usually see written “eu” that’s pronounced like “uugh” (not “uh”). (Did I mention the romanization is totally inconsistent and non-standardized?) The word for “water” is “dteuk”.

The last vowel I’ll mention specifically is interesting because it’s not in Californian English, or (AFAIK) in almost any American English dialect. But it is in British English, and possibly Boston English…it’s the sound of “or”. The word for “thank you” is something like “awkun”, but the British dictionary I borrowed writes it as “orkun”. After putting on my fake British accent, I discovered it was a pretty good approximation. (But I’ve been writing it with IPA [ɔ], i.e. [ɔkʊn].)

Most vowels have a sort of short-long pairing, but like English “ee” vs. “ih” the actual duration of the vowel ends up affecting how you say it, so I think of them as different. Still, words often sound more clipped than they would in English, and I think this actually counts as part of the language.

Everything is at least a bit nasal here. I don’t think there’s a nasal / non-nasal distinction like there is in French, but you can add a bit of nasalization into any word and it’ll probably sound better.

Despite having weird vowels, I haven’t had problems, even with the difference between “bai” (“cooked rice”) and “bei” (“three”). In this case, “bei” is pronounced like “buy” with a Canadian accent ([bə͡ɪ]). But keep in mind that I can only say maybe five complete sentences, though some of my kids are teaching me individual words during their free time.

The balance of vowels in a diphthong isn’t always the same as in English, and the “choral” rule of just holding the first vowel doesn’t always work. Still, I think I can get it.

Tones

Unlike Lao, Thai, Vietnamese, and pretty much every dialect of Chinese, Khmer is not tonal. Small favors.

The Ending Consonant Issue

This is the most interesting thing to deal with. Khmer speakers are very careful about their beginning consonants, but for ending consonants they sort of get ready to say the sound and then…don’t.1 I supposed they might be pronouncing it very quickly…after all, even English speakers don’t always bother to finish their final consonants. (Try saying the phrase “I got the pot.” Did you really pronounce the “t” at the end of “pot”? For me, it’s not a “t” at all…it’s a glottal stop, the sound in the middle of “uh-oh”. [ʔ])

But it makes things hard to understand: my host brother said to meet at the “Caltex” gas station, and I heard “Caltek”. Not even “Caltek”; just the beginnings of a “k”. The shorter vowel told me there was something at the end…but I had to stretch for the k-sound, and there was certainly no s-sound.2

It’s even worse when you have to make a distinction, though I don’t think I know any words that only differ in ending consonants like that. But something written “saich” (“meat”) is pronounced more like “sait”, and you don’t release the “t”.

An English speaker might say that Khmer speakers are lazy about their final consonants, but a Khmer speaker would probably say that English speakers just have bad hearing. They can make the same distinction with much less vocalization.

I appreciate the Khmer view, but it doesn’t make for well-accented English, and it really becomes a problem when dealing with, say, “want” vs. “wants”—a distinction that not only doesn’t exist in Khmer grammar, but doesn’t even really exist in Khmer pronunciation! (Though I don’t think Khmer has “ts” at all.) A little less critically, they pronounce the letter H the same way; in English it’s “eitch”, but they end up with a clipped “ei(t)”. It doesn’t sound like “eight”, either…it sounds like the letter A.

My kids now know that if I look at them funny after a pronunciation, the first thing to try is adding “sssssss”, as in “scissorsssssss”. It’s a step in the right direction, but there’s quite a ways to go.3

One More Thing

Finally, one great thing for Internet residents: the word-prefix for loanword food (pizza, sandwiches, etc.) is pronounced NOME, but often transliterated as “nom”. And something like “I eat pizza” would be pronounced “knyome nyam nome pi-za”, which is about as close as you can expect to get in natural language to “om nom nom”.

Next time in language: morphology, or “making words”!

Topic choices for next time: Living With My Host Family (1 vote already), Khmer Morphology (and then Syntax), Phnom Penh Traffic, or anything else you can think of.

  1. Unless the final consonant is aspirated, like in my host brother’s name, “Piseth”. But even then the aspiration is a lot less. ↩︎

  2. When I told him it was confusing for English speakers, he pointed out that there are only really four brands of gas in Phnom Penh anyway, so even hearing the wrong thing you should be able to figure it out. ↩︎

  3. “right” in the sense of being “a more standard and accessible English accent”, not “the best way to pronounce everything ever”. ↩︎

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