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I know that Khmer and Vietnamese are considered genetically related (Austroasian language family) but I don't know what were and/or are significant commonalities to justify that consideration.

I also know that Thai and Lao are genetically related (Thai Kra-Dai language family) and anyway share some similarities with languages of the region such as with Vietnamese per sprachbund.

Although I am not a speaker of both, I assumed that Khmer and Vietnamese will share more than Khmer and Thai do, but when I tried to do three small comparisons (numerals, words and writing system) most often I found the contrary.

Edited question to fix an embarrassing mistake in comparison 1 and apologize to user drooze

Comparison 1: Khmer numerals

I ask both user drooz's and that community's pardon for my embarrassing mistake regarding Khmer numerals; when publishing this question I wrote:

Numeral names are different

Which is wrong; and I did so, perhaps, due to misunderstanding this table in Wikipedia (further details in edit summary):

enter image description here

But, after I listened to Khmer numerals in Google translate, I do recognize a significant similarity to Vietnamese numerals in the modern versions of the two languages:

  • Zero: soun (សូន្យ) which I find a bit similar to Vietnamese số không but very similar to Thai ศูนย์
  • One: moui (មួយ) almost identical to Vietnamese một
  • Two: pir (ពីរ) different from Vietnamese hai
  • Three: bei/bay (បី) almost identical to Vietnamese shorter version of số ba, which is ba
  • Four: buon (បួន) almost identical to Vietnamese bốn
  • Five: bram (ប្រាំ) similar to Vietnamese shorter version of số năm, which is năm

Furthermore, thanks to user drooze I have learned that the other five numerals are different due to different indexing method (at least in the modern versions of these languages):

Khmer uses a bi-quinary system, which means that both base 5 and base 10 are used. This makes it difficult to compare numbers like six, seven, ... between the languages. For example, Khmer six is pram muəj which literally means five-one.

In saying this, the Vietnamese numbers can be shown to be cognate to other Austroasiatic languages which don't use the base 5 system.


Comparison 2: Khmer words

Here are some words I personally grasp as fundamental or basic in generally all human languages, in modern Khmer, mostly compared with modern Vietnamese and modern Thai:

  • I: khn(i)hom (ខ្ញុំ) which is quite different from how it is said in both languages and:

    • Totally different than modern standard Thai feminine I (chan ฉัน, or dichan ดิฉัน)
    • Totally different than modern standard Thai masculine I (phom ผม)
    • But is likely closer to:
    • ancient Thai for unisex I (gu กุ) which is obsolete
    • Isan-Thai for unisex I (khoi ข่อย)
    • Northeastern Thai for unisex I (kha-nawwoi ข้าน้อย);
  • You: anak (អ្នក) which is quite different from how it is said in both languages but maybe closer to Thai khun (คุณ)

  • They: puokke (ពួកគេ) which is similar to Thai pw(a)g-kaw (พวกเขา), although a bit similar to Vietnamese họ
  • Hello: suostei (សួស្តី) which is perhaps closer to Thai sawat-dee (สวัสดี) than to Vietnamese xin chào
  • Please: saum (សូម)
  • Thanks: saum arkoun (សូមអរគុណ) which is a bit similar to Vietnamese cảm ơn
  • Name: ch-mom (ឈ្មោះ) which is a bit similar to Thai chuu__'e (ชื่อ) but different from Vietnamese Tên
  • If: brau-s'en-bae(a) (ប្រសិនបើ)
  • And: ni'ng (និង)
  • Or: ryy () which is similar to Thai ru__e (หรือ) and different from Vietnamese hoặc là
  • Is: ku (គឺ) which is similar to Thai ku__e (คือ) and different from Vietnamese
  • For: samrheab (សម្រាប់) which is similar to Thai samrhab (สำหรับ) and different from Vietnamese cho
  • Yes: bat / chas (បាទ / ចាស) which is similar to Thai chai (ใช่) and different from Vietnamese Vâng
  • No: tei (ទេ) which is constructively and possibly vowely similar to Thai ma'i (ไม่) but different from Vietnamese Không
  • Not: minmen-te (មិនមែនទេ) which is similar to Thai ma'i (ไม่), while both are different from Vietnamese không phải
  • Food: aha'(n) (អាហារ) which is is closer to Thai a-han (อาหาร) than to Vietnamese món ăn món ăn`
  • Language: pasa (ភាសា) which is similar to Thai pha-sha (ภาษา) but not to Vietnamese ngôn ngữ
  • What?: a-way? (អ្វី?) which is similar to Thai arai? (อะไร?) but not to Vietnamese gì? (which is actually pronounced similar to zi)
  • Why?: hetoa-wei (ហេតុអ្វី) which is similar to Thai tha-mhai (ทำไม) but maybe a bit less to Vietnamese tại sao?

I assume and might be wrong that modern Khmer and modern Thai share at least tens of words and "roots" of words.


Comparison 3: Symbols of the writing system

I understand Khmer and Vietnamese writing systems were always very different, unlike Khmer and Thai sharing many writing system symbols derived from Sanskrit with a small fragment not from Sanskrit.

Khmer and Vietnamese writing systems seems to me way different than for example German and English writing systems.

My question

As I assume and might be wrong that strong numeral sharing isn't enough to conclude genetic proximity as it might be due to sprachbund, I ask what is the base for the assumption that Modern Khmer and Modern Vietnamese share genetic proximity?

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    This is a comment not an answer, because I know very little about these languages. But few of the words in your list are "fundamental" in linguistics: Greetings and social words are very variable in languages, changing with fashion, and with contacts to other societies. They often get renewed, either with new words or with new uses of existing words. And observations about scripts rarely tell you anything at all about the languages that use the scripts. – Colin Fine Dec 9 '19 at 21:06
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    When looking for "fundamental words", a canonical starter is the Swadesh list. But in the end, only systematic correspondences and the possibility of a reconstruction count. Look up the Wikipedia articles of the involved language families. – jk - Reinstate Monica Dec 10 '19 at 10:29
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    BTW, writing systems are accidental to languages and do not tell anything about genetic relations. Only the spoken languages really count. – jk - Reinstate Monica Dec 10 '19 at 10:31
  • Per comments and embarrassing mistake I feel very bad from, I have firmly edited the question (almost rewriting it in a sense, but not in a way disconnecting it from the answer) while asking this community's pardon; you are welcome to go through the edit plus edit summary to try to understand how I felt and why I felt the need to take urgent responsibility. – user24141 Dec 10 '19 at 18:29
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In speaking of a comparison of vocabularies between the languages, one may refer to the Swadesh list, which is a commonly used compilation of vocabulary items used for quantifying the relations between two languages.

I'll refer you to André-Georges Haudricourt, 1953 for the details, but the paper showed correspondences between Vietnamese and one or more of several Mon-Khmer languages for the word pair die & kill and numerous body parts, all but two of which are on the Swadesh list.

Numeral names are different

I'm not sure where you got this idea from - it is fairly obvious that many of the basic Austroasiatic numbers are cognate. Using IPA, with the Hanoi (capital city) standard of Vietnamese:

  • One
    • Khmer: muəj
    • Vietnamese: mot̚˧˨ʔ
  • Three
    • Khmer: ɓəj
    • Vietnamese: ʔɓaː˧˧
  • Four
    • Khmer: ɓuən
    • Vietnamese: ʔɓon˧˦
  • Five
    • Khmer: pram
    • Vietnamese: nam˧˧

Two is actually also cognate, but slightly less obvious, both from Proto-Mon-Khmer *ɓaar:

  • Khmer: piː or pɨl
  • Vietnamese: haːj˧˧

Note that

  • Only one and two are on the Swadesh list
  • Khmer uses a bi-quinary system, which means that both base 5 and base 10 are used. This makes it difficult to compare numbers like six, seven, ... between the languages. For example, Khmer six is pram muəj (literally five one).
    • In saying this, the Vietnamese numbers can be shown to be cognate to other Austroasiatic languages which don't use the base 5 system.
  • There are a lot of Tai borrowings in the Khmer numeral system, and a lot of Chinese borrowings in both the Khmer and Vietnamese systems. These are not compared (for obvious reasons).

Indirectly, there are a few other related arguments, explaining:


As a general statement of language relatedness and what features you should and should not be looking for to determine relation: borrowings or linguistic feature diffusions through geographic proximity are not a factor. Linguists rarely set up Ship of Theseus problems when classifying languages or determining their relations.

Allow me to draw an analogy. Let's say that you've lived your whole life in Latin America, but you discover that your great-great-grandparents are from Western Russia.

  • Is you speaking Spanish or Portuguese fluently and not speaking Russian at all a demonstration of you not being related to Russians?
  • If I wanted to know more about you, would I have a better chance of guessing your culture from your neighbours or from Russians?

  • Features like vocabulary borrowings, tonogenesis, or non-linguistic properties like writing systems are not an indication of relation, just like you speaking Spanish/Portuguese is not an indication of your relatedness with your neighbours.

  • Genetic relation is also less likely to be useful in learning the language itself compared with geographical proximity. Knowledge of Thai tones and Chinese vocabulary is far more useful for learning Vietnamese than knowledge of any feature of Khmer. Similarly, if I wanted to predict your culture, I would have more luck by guessing what it is based on your neighbours' culture than based on the culture of your distant relatives in Russia.

| improve this answer | |
  • Hello to you; thank you so much for the great answer; per comments and embarrassing mistake I feel very bad from (which I learned of after reading your answer) I have firmly edited the question, almost rewriting it in a sense, but not in a way disconnecting it from the answer, while asking this community's pardon; you are welcome to go through the edit plus edit summary to try to understand how I felt and why I felt the need to take urgent responsibility to fix my basic mistake and ask a better question; I believe minor edit to the answer will make this session more helpful to others. – user24141 Dec 10 '19 at 18:31
  • Of course, I gave you credit in the question part of the session for slapping me for my sore mistake. – user24141 Dec 10 '19 at 18:31
  • @JohnDoea Hello, reading through your question again, I think there are some issues with the way you're conceptualising word comparisons between languages. You are only supposed to compare cognates between languages; as you found already when trying to compare six between Khmer and Vietnamese, trying to match Khmer pram muəj to Vietnamese ʂa̰w˩˧ is not appropriate because they're made from different morphemes. – dROOOze Dec 11 '19 at 11:43
  • When you put those numbers through Google translate, you didn't identify the correct morphemes to compare. You said, bei/bay (បី) almost identical to Vietnamese shorter version of số ba, which is ba, but here lies the issue: you didn't immediately identify that the equivalent morpheme in Vietnamese is ba; số means number, and is not part of the word for three. Vietnamese số ba means number three, not three, so if you tried to compare Khmer បី to Vietnamese số ba, you're comparing Khmer three to Vietnamese number three. – dROOOze Dec 11 '19 at 11:47
  • So when you say, Here are some words I personally grasp as fundamental in generally all human languages, you are making the same conceptual error: you have to identify the equivalent morphemes to compare. Putting Words that are fundamental... through Google translate will not give you the equivalent morphemes between Khmer and Vietnamese, and you will make similar mistakes as comparing Khmer pram muəj to Vietnamese ʂa̰w˩˧, then get the idea that Khmer and Vietnamese don't share ancestral words. – dROOOze Dec 11 '19 at 11:50

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