Khmer and Thai: Language Similarities and Differences

Map of Thailand and Cambodia
Cambodia and Thailand are neighboring countries. Khmer and Thai are their respective national languages.

Khmer (the national language of Cambodia) and Thai (the national language of Thailand) belong to different language families.

A significant difference between Khmer and Thai concerns tones. Thai is a tonal language whereas Khmer is not a tonal language.

Khmer vs Thai writing system

Some letters used in Khmer and Thai
Examples of letters used in Khmer and Thai

There is a reason why written Khmer and written Thai look alike: the Khmer script and the Thai script have a common origin. Both descend from the Brahmi script which was used in ancient India.

As a result, the Khmer and Thai scripts share a common origin with the Devanagari script used for Hindi. One similarity between Khmer and Thai is that they do not use spaces to separate words (in contrast to Hindi).

Khmer and Thai vocabulary

Because Khmer and Thai belong to different language families, one might think that they have no vocabulary words in common. This is not the case.

Khmer and Thai have borrowed many Sanskrit words, particularly in the fields of religion and philosophy.

The following table contains some examples of words which are similar in Khmer and in Thai:

Table: Examples of similar vocabulary words in Khmer and Thai
Khmer Thai English
ភាសា (pheasaea) ภาษา (paasaa) language
ជីវិត (chivit) ชีวิต (chīwit) life
ទូរស័ព្ទ (toursap) โทรศัพท์ (toorasap) telephone
សត្វ (sat) สัตว์ (sat) animal
គ្រូ (kruu) ครู (kruu) teacher
អាហារ (ʼaahaa) อาหาร (aahaan) food
នាឡិកា (nealeka) นาฬิกา (naaligaa) clock
ប្រទេស (prɑteih) ประเทศ (bprateet) country
វិទ្យុ (vityu) วิทยุ (wittayu) radio
គិត (kit) คิด (kít) to think
អាន (an) อ่าน (aan) to read
ដើរ (daə) เดิน (dəən) to walk
ជួយ (cuəy) ช่วย (chûai) to help
លេង (leing) เล่น (lên) to play

Khmer and Thai are languages with many different pronouns

Khmer and Thai are languages which have many different pronouns, and the appropriate choice of pronoun depends on the relationship between the speaker and the listener.

This is similar to how French has both an informal and a formal “you” pronoun: “tu” and “vous”. In Khmer and Thai, there are not just two, but at least four or five different “you” pronouns. There are also several different variants of the “I” pronoun in Khmer and Thai.

Khmer and Thai have specific pronouns which are used when addressing Buddhist monks, as well as some which are used when addressing royalty.

Some additional similarities between Khmer and Thai

The bottom line

Khmer and Thai are spoken in neighboring countries (Cambodia and Thailand) and their writing system has a common origin. These languages have some cognate words (words with the same origin) as both have absorbed some Sanskrit vocabulary words. (see this comparison of Thai and Sanskrit)

However the similarities between Khmer and Thai are limited as they belong to different language families. Thai is closer to Lao than to Khmer (see this comparison of Thai and Lao).

To learn more about the Thai language, see these articles on Thai compliments and Thai words with multiple meanings.

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