– Contributed by  Sri Anand Natarajan, CA, USA.

Throughout its history, but especially during the 1st millennium AD, Cambodia was greatly influenced by India, politically and culturally. For example, Hinduism and Buddhism became major religions in Cambodia. This has left a lasting impact in the language of Cambodia – Khmer, and indeed in all the languages of Southeast Asia. We’ll first give a little background on the Khmer language and then talk a bit about Sanskrit influences on Khmer.

Background on Khmer:

The Khmer language is part of the Mon-Khmer group in the Austro-Asiatic language family. It is related to Vietnamese and also, more distantly, to the tribal Munda languages of Eastern India. It is spoken by around 20 million people, mostly in the Southeast Asian country of Cambodia. The Khmer language is genetically unrelated to Sanskrit. That is, it does not descend from the same common ancestor language as Sanskrit, as far as we can tell from historical and linguistic evidence. (In contrast, English and Sanskrit are genetically related, so about 6000 years ago, they were one and the same language).

Sanskrit Loan words in Khmer:

The Khmer language has borrowed a great many words from Sanskrit – in fact, a large portion of its technical and literary vocabulary derives from Sanskrit. (This is similar to how most technical and formal words in English come from Latin, or Greek). Here are just a few examples I found from searching through a Khmer dictionary (the Khmer letters are transliterated as they would have been pronounced in Sanskrit, not as they are pronounced now).

English meaning Khmer Word
Country Prades, nagar
Letter (of the alphabet) Aksar
Character (of a person) Carit
Language Bhaasaa
Human being Manuhs
Word Sabt

The Khmer writing system was also heavily influenced by the Indian writing systems, and works on the same principle as Indian scripts such as Devanagari – i.e. vowels are written as diacritical marks above, below, or adjacent to consonant symbols, and a consonant symbol without a vowel symbol has an “inherent” vowel – usually a. A chart of the Khmer alphabet is presented below:


Khmer Script

Note that the pronunciation of many of the symbols is very different from the “original” Sanskrit and Old Khmer pronunciation. In particular, what used to be a difference in consonants between, e.g., ka and ga, kha and gha, has become a difference in vowels between ka and ko, kha and kho. Also, Khmer has many more vowel sounds than Sanskrit does, so the script contains extra vowel symbols that have no counterpart in other Indian scripts.

Names of Cambodian Kings:

This list of kings’ names below clearly shows the influence of Sanskrit:

  • Sarvabhauma
  • Jayavarman
  • Indravarman
  • Yasovarman
  • Harshavarman
  • Dharanindravarman
  • Suryavarman
  • Udayadityavarman