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The Study of the Sound System of a Language  Khmer, unlike other languages spoken by its closest neighbors (Vietnamese, Laotian. Thai and Chinese) is non-tonal.  Nonetheless, it has a rich phonological system. Khmer is uninflected, but it has a rich system of affixes, including infixes, for derivation (U.S. Library of Congress, 2004).

Phonemes (the Smallest Unit of Sound in Language)

Phonemes are contrasted speech sounds which make a difference in meaning” (Downing and Leong, 1982, p. 55).  In Khmer, there are twenty-seven short and long vowel phonemes, depending on dialect (with Northern Khmer having as many as thirty).  There are seventeen to twenty-one consonant phonemes in the inventory (UCLA Language Materials Project, n.d.).

Syllables (Units of Language Smaller than a Word, but Larger than a Phoneme)

When someone knows a language they know words, that is, sound units or “syllables” that are related to specific meanings.  (Fromkin, Rodman & Hyams, 2003).

Most native words are monosyllabic or consist of a semi-syllable (unstressed with a reduced vowel) followed by a single syllable. There are many polysyllabic words, mainly of a literate character, which have been borrowed from Sanskrit and Pali. Khmer has also borrowed from Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, and French (UCLA Language Materials Project, n.d.)


The language is nontonal; there is stress, and it tends to fall on the final syllable (UCLA Language Materials Project website, n.d.). Student may respond or read in English in a monotone voice.

Grammar (The Study of Language Patterns and the Relationship of Words in a Sentence)

Generally speaking, Khmer has nouns (including pronouns as a special subcategory), verbs (including stative [2] verbs or adjectives), adverbs, and various kinds of words called particles [3] (including verbal auxiliaries, prepositions, conjunctions, final particles, and interjections). Many Khmer words change, chameleon-like, from one part of speech to another, depending on the context. The normal word order is subject-verb-object. Adjectival modifiers follow the nouns they modify, but numerals often come before the noun unless a numerical classifier is used and then both numeral and classifier follow. (Numeral classifiers do not play as important a role in Khmer as they do in Thai) (U.S. Library of Congress, 2004).

Grammatical relations are signaled by word order with the help of various particles [2]. Genitive constructions are formed by juxtaposing the noun possessed followed by the possessor.

Khmer is a language that is devoid of inflection in either nouns or verbs; this type of language is sometimes referred to as isolating. For nouns, number is inferred from context although there are modifiers—such as words equivalent to "some," "all," and the numeral "two" in English--which can be used to indicate plural. There are no articles marking a definite/indefinite distinction. Gender is unmarked but distinctions can be made by using kinds of modifiers that have inherent referential gender, such as words for "son," "daughter," "male," and "female."

Verbs are unmarked for tense, aspect, mood, and other categories. These, if marked at all, are indicated by auxiliaries, which can precede or follow the verb. The system of personal pronouns is fairly rich; it is sensitive to the social standing of interlocutors, such as perceived status, age, and level of intimacy. (UCLA Language Materials Project website, n.d.)

[2] “Stative: Belonging to or designating a class of verbs that express a state or condition” (The American heritage dictionary, 2000).

[3] “Particle: 1) An uninflected item that has grammatical function but does not clearly belong to one of the major parts of speech, such as up in He looked up the word or to in English infinitives. 2) In some systems of grammatical analysis, any of various short function words, including articles, prepositions, and conjunctions” (The American Heritage Dictionary, 2000).

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