The official language, know as Cambodian or Khmer, is a non tonal language so tourists will not have to struggle with different meanings conveyed by different inflections, like in Thai, Vietnamese or Chinese. Basic pronunciation can be difficult as there are 33 consonants and 24 vowels and the spoken language is made of 1 or 2 syllables. Grammar is simple and a few extra words convey past or present tense. Written Khmer, based on South Indian Brahmi, is quite complex.
An Ancient Language
Khmer is possibly one of the oldest Southeast Asian languages - Khmer Mon, the oldest form of Khmer, could have been spoken as far back as 1000 BC and there are stone inscriptions in Khmer dating back to 600 AD. It has roots in Sanskrit and Pali, the language of Buddha. Cambodian monks still use Pali in their prayers today.
In conversational Khmer, there are different forms of address, from familiar to polite, depending on age and gender of the person being addressed. There is a court language called “Reachasahp” or Royal language reserved only for addressing the King and high officials.
French Influence in Language
Many French words have crept into the Khmer language, especially medical, technical and some household terms whereas Chinese words are found in cooking and financial language. The older generation is still conversant in French but the young Cambodians are learning English now fast becoming the country’s second language.
The Khmer spoken in Phnom Penh is generally understood across the country but it has tints of French and Vietnamese.. However, there are many dialects. In rural Battambang, the brand of Khmer is more like the speech spoken by the majority of the people. Northern Khmer or Khmer Surin is spoken in northeast areas, Khmer Krom or Southern Khmer in the Mekong delta, and Cardamaon Khmer is spoken by a small group in the Cardamaon Mountains. Other minority languages are Vietnamese, Chinese and Cham.