I'm in Cambodia and trying to learn what I can of the Khmer language without a teacher.

I've noticed some inconsistencies in the Wikipedia articles as I try to get better at both the writing system and the vowel system.

The vowels section of the Wikipedia article on the language lists several symbols for which there are no counterparts I can find in the vowels section of the Wikipedia article on the Khmer alphabet:

  • [ɑ]
  • [ɔə]
  • [ĕə]
  • [ŭə]
  • [ŏə]

Is this due to different analyses or due to different IPA symbols or something else?

  • No constructive criticism to accompany the downvotes? Commented Feb 24, 2015 at 6:31

4 Answers 4


Actually, there is no inconsistency in the two Wikipedia articles you gave the links to.

The vowels [ɑ], [ŭə], [ŏə], and [ĕə] are written with the help of a special diacritic sign called bântăk (a small vertical line written over the final consonant of a syllable, ់).

  • in a syllable with inherent [ɑː] without any diacritical vowel symbols, bantak shortens the vowel to [ɑ], UN transcription á.

  • in a syllable with inherent ô, the vowel is modified to [u] before a final labial, otherwise usually to [ŭə]; UN transcription ó.

  • in a syllable with the a dependent vowel symbol (ា) in the o-series, the vowel is modified to [ŏə], UN transcription , or to [ĕə] before k, ng, h.

As for [ɔə], to write it another diacritic sign is used, sanhyoŭk sannha (័), its o-series pronunciation becomes [ɔə] before final (silent) r.

All this is written just in the next section of your Wiki article. See also this section of the same article.

And specially for you here is the book @neubau refers to, complete and downoadable for free, it is the ultimate and precious guide to the Cambodian system of writing which is probably the most complicated among the phonetic writing systems of the world. Please, read the sections that begin at pages 8, 24, and especially 47.

  • 1
    I have read through those Wikipedia articles so many times but as you say it's all so complicated so difficult to soak in which I guess makes it easy to overlook. I searched the page for each IPA symbol (or pair) but didn't read each section minutely again at that stage. Thanks! Commented Feb 6, 2015 at 14:48
  • Do you mean to say that it will be easier when I get to Myanmar in a couple of months to tackle their writing system? (-: Commented Feb 6, 2015 at 14:56
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    @hippietrail - Myanmar (Burmese) writing system is also very complicated, and that language has tones marked in writing, still it it is much simpler than the Khmer script, it doesn't have those 2 series of consonants, and the number of vowels is considerably less than that of Khmer.
    – Yellow Sky
    Commented Feb 6, 2015 at 15:13
  • By the way, did you notice I created a proposal for Southeast Asian languages on Area51 some weeks ago? It could use your attention (-: Commented Feb 6, 2015 at 15:33
  • 1
    @hippietrail - No, I haven't ever visited that area. I'll have a look, thank you.
    – Yellow Sky
    Commented Feb 6, 2015 at 15:42

I don't know (I know nothing about Khmer), but one thing going on here is that the first article is talking about vowel phonemes (it uses slashes), and the second one about is talking about pronunciations (it uses brackets). Phonemes are idealized targets of articulation and need not correspond in an obvious way to actual pronunciations. I think that matters are even more complicated when it comes to the representation of diphthongs -- there is no rule that says the two symbols in the phonemic representation of a diphthong have to correspond to what those symbols would mean used for separate phonemes (in slashes) or for separate phones (in brackets). If you asked the authors of articles on phonology what their policies were about all this, they might not be able to tell you.

  • Good point. I hadn't noticed even after cutting and pasting and even typing those square brackets many times. I'll do some more investigating and might leave messages on the articles' talk pages. Commented Feb 6, 2015 at 4:26

Huffman has the best approximations when attempting to describe how khmer words are pronounced, but they aren't more than approximations, as the khmer language is very lenient with vowel pronunciations. This means the spoken language is completely idiosyncratic and cannot be accurately represented using the written vowel symbols. I.e. the same written vowel will be pronounced differently in different spoken words. There are a couple written vowels that are always pronounced the same, but the majority have several different idiosyncratic pronunciations in real life. Even the vowel lengths are often not pronounced as they are written. You really have to learn each word individually to get the right pronunciation. Right now the best resource out there is kheng.info, which has numerous recordings of word pronunciations. You can copy paste their frequency list into the large box on the starting page. There is absolutely no way to learn proper pronunciation without hearing a native speaker say each word individually.


Those seem to be taken from Huffman (1970) p.24 and following, which is available on Google Books:

Cambodian vowel symbols

Note that you must also take into account whether the initial consonant is first or second series.

  • Yes I'm aware of the -a and -o consonant classes resulting in (usually) two readings per vowel symbol but just didn't mention it in my quesiton. Commented Feb 6, 2015 at 8:40

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