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SECTION 44

Khmer Writing
Eric Schiller

The signary used


about 1500 years.

in the
It

Khmer language

is

an Indic-based

script

which dates back

was used in inscriptions as far back as the sixth century and remains in use throughout Cambodia. The system is highly complex. Much of the complexity is due to its long history, since the phonology of the language has changed
radically while the writing system has

remained

fairly constant.

The writing system is alphasyllabic (see section 3 1 ) and written from left to right. The primary graphic element represents a consonant, with vowels indicated by symbols on either side of the consonant or hovering above or below. The consonant
is

written

first,

and then the vowel is added, even if the vowel sign


is

is

written to the left

of the consonant. The space below the primary consonant


sonants. Diacritics

used for secondary con-

which

affect the interpretation of the

consonant appear both above

and below the consonant, sometimes


consonant.

shifting position

depending on the shape of the

Modern Khmer writing uses a baseline approach, with the primary consonant siton the baseline; some letters have descenders below the line. The remnants of a historical "top line" are built into some letters, in the part known as the 'hair' Khmer
ting
.

was

originally carved in stone

and written on palm leaves.

The symbols
Consonants
There are 33 consonant symbols, presented in table 44.1 organized by phonological characteristics representing their Indie origin. The symbols are arranged in seven
,

rows, five of which reflect the point of articulation of the consonant, proceeding for-

ward from the back of the mouth;


laneous
items.

the sixth and seventh rows are reserved for miscelin

One must keep

mind,

however,

that

these

phonological

characteristics apply to an ancient

form of the language, and

that the presence of

voiced aspirates
ries 2,"

at that stage is doubtful.

Boxed

letters are "series i," others are "se-

and

this

determines the pronunciation of vowels following them (see below).


vary, especially with regard to the retroflexes

Methods of transliteration
Transliteration
is

and v/w.

generally based on the historical/Indic values of the letters, and

therefore

it

can differ greatly from transcriptions, which are based on the modern pho-

468

PART

VII:

SOUTHEAST ASIAN WRITING SYSTEMS

TABLE

44.1:

Khmer Consonants

SEC

HON

44:

KHMER WRITING

TABLE 44.2:

470

PART

VII:

SOUTHEAST ASIAN WRITING SYSTEMS

TABLE 44.3: Khmer Consonants with Subscript Forms"


Velar

TABLE

44.4:

Khmer Vowel Series

PART

VII:

SOUTHEAST ASIAN WRITING SYSTEMS

TABLE
I

44.5:

Khmer Numerals

SECTION

44:

KHMER WRITING

'At that time, he fished out a trei-rah (kind of fish)

and then got a rabbit which

was drowning

in the water.'

From a Khmer folktale.

Bibliography
Diffloth, Gerard. 1992.
vol. 2, pp.

271-75.
J.

New York:

"Khmer." International Encyclopedia of Linguisrics, Oxford University Press.

ed.

William Bright,

Henderson, Eugenie

A. 1952. "The Main Features of Cambodian Pronunciation." Bw/Z^fm of the

School of Oriental and African Studies 1952: 149-74. Huffman, Franklin E. 1970. Cambodian System of Writing and Beginning Reader.
University Press.
Jacob, Judith
.

New Haven: Yale

M.

1968. Introduction to Cambodian. London: Oxford University Press.

1974.

Concise Cambodian-English Dictionary. London: Oxford University Press.

THE WORLD'S WRITING SYSTEMS

''="^-'='^
William Bright