Dialect Variation as Evidence for Subgrouping in Khmer

Author: Nielson Sophann Hul (Cornell University)
Speaker: Nielson Sophann Hul
Topic: Language minorities and majorities
The (SCOPUS / ISI) SOAS GLOCAL CALA 2019 General Session


Jenner (1974), in “Observations on the Surin Dialect of Khmer,” states that the lower Mun valley was likely to be the earliest identifiable seat of Khmer power in the region. After the fall of Angkor, these speakers were isolated from the greater body of the Khmer diaspora and there has been much debate upon the effect that this has had on the Khmer Surin dialect also known as, Northern Khmer. Many scholars believe that this is likely a more historically conservative dialect of Khmer.

General Sessions Paper

In support of this view, my work offers linguistic evidence that the Northern Khmer dialect is likely to be more conservative than dialects in the south. In other words, the Khmer Surin are speakers of an older dialect of Khmer.

This leads us, more generally, to the question of subgrouping. Among the three major dialects of Khmer, namely Central Khmer, Southern Khmer, and Northern Khmer there is limited mutual intelligibility, which indicates a need for further subgrouping. By identifying specific innovations in speech, I propose that the southern dialects sub-group together based on a pattern of phonological reduction they share that excludes Northern Khmer.

NKCKSK([khmɛɪ.r(ə)]) ([khmaj][khmeː])

Using Central and Southern Khmer corpus data from Minh (1996) as a guide, I collected data from speakers of Northern Khmer in the Surin province of Thailand. I looked at 60 comparable lexical forms from the three dialects, and targeted word structures in which there was a tendency toward reduction. One example is in the pronunciation of the word ‘Khmer’ ខ្មែរ​ (see above). Note the presence of rhoticity in Northern Khmer, which has been lost in the southern dialects. Based on the presence of the character ‘រ’/r/ in the historical spelling of the word ខ្មែរ, we may deduce that the Northern Khmer dialect is likely to be the older form. Between Central and Southern Khmer there is a flattening of the diphthongal nucleus [aj] → [e:]. So, an incrementally stronger pattern of reduction in the Central and Southern dialects of Khmer presents itself in the data moving geographically southward, which suggests that these dialects together have been more innovative than Northern Khmer, with further differentiation between Central and Southern Khmer occurring.


Jenner, P. (1974). Observations on the Surin Dialect in Khmer. South-East Asian Linguistic Studies, Vol. 1(1), 61–74.

Minh, T. N. (1996). The phenomenon of monosyllabization in the Kiengiang dialect of Khmer. In The FISLL (pp. 1780–1797).