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The People and Language of Cambodia

The People and Language of Cambodia

By Wendy Updated Jun. 24, 2021

What makes up a country is first and foremost its people. The Kingdom of Cambodia is populated by an estimated 17 million people, 90% of whom belong to the Khmer ethnic group. The Khmer people in Cambodia date back to the Khmer Empire, which flourished from the 9th to the 15th centuries.

The link between the country’s identity and the Khmer people is clearly evident in its name. ‘Cambodia’ in the Khmer language is ‘Kampuchea’, or more colloquially, ‘Srok Khmer’. The word ‘Kampuchea’ is derived from the Sanskrit term ‘Kambujadesa’, which translates to ‘Khmer Empire’, and the term ‘Srok Khmer’ means Khmer’s Land.

The ethnic groups and languages in Cambodia reflect the historical identity of Cambodia as the land of the Khmer people, but also Cambodia’s openness towards interactions with and influences from neighboring peoples.

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The Khmer People

Khmer people make up the majority of Cambodia’s population. The Khmer first arrived in Cambodia no later than 2000 BCE, probably from India, and they brought with them agricultural practices and rice cultivation. Back then, the Khmer were a part of Greater India, adopting Indian religion, science, and customs, and borrowing from Indian languages.

The modern Khmer strongly identify their ethnic identity with their religious beliefs and practices, combining Therevada Buddhism with elements of indigenous ancestor-spirit worship, animism, and shamanism.

Most Khmer people live in rural villages, and work either as rice farmers or fishermen. Throughout the year, their lives revolve around the wat (temple) and Buddhist ceremonies.

The Khmer Loeu

In Cambodia, ethnic groups other than the majority Khmer can be classified as indigenous or non-indigenous. The indigenous minorities are collectively referred to as ‘Khmer Loeu’, which means ‘upland Khmer’. They comprise approximately 17-21 ethnic groups, most of whom speak Austroasiatic languages related to Khmer.

The Khmer Loeu population is estimated to be more than 140 thousand people and they constitute the majority in the remote mountainous provinces of Ratanakiri, Mondulkiri, and Stung Treng, in the northwest of Cambodia. Most live in scattered temporary villages, with only a few hundred inhabitants.

The non-indigenous ethnic minorities of Cambodia include the Vietnamese, Chinese Cambodians, and the Cham people.

The Vietnamese

As of 2013 there were an estimated 61,000 Vietnamese speakers in Cambodia. Before the Cambodian Civil War, there used to be a lot more Vietnamese living in Cambodia, but they were nearly “eradicated” during the war.

Due to the long history between the two people groups, many Cambodians have mixed Vietnamese and Khmer ancestry, but no longer speak Vietnamese and identify themselves as Khmer. Such people are engaged primarily in aquaculture in the Mekong Delta of the southeast.

The Chinese Cambodians

Chinese Cambodians constitute only about 1% of the population, but they dominate the business community, politics, and the media. Most are descendants of 19th-20th century Chinese settlers who came to Cambodia in search of opportunities in trade and commerce, during the time of the French protectorate.

The Cham People

The Cham people are descendants of refugees from various wars of the historical Kingdom of Champa. Champa was a contemporary and a rival of the Khmer Empire. The Cham people in Cambodia number approximately a quarter of a million, and are primarily farmers and fishermen.

Historically the Cham were concentrated in Kampong Cham province, although now increasingly they live alongside ethnic Khmers in many areas. They speak Western Cham, which is no longer mutually intelligible with the closely-related Eastern Cham, spoken by Cham in neighboring Vietnam.

In contrast to the Khmer who are Theravada Buddhist and to the Cham in Vietnam who are Shivaite Hindu, the vast majority of Cham people follow Sunni Islam. During the Khmer Rouge reign, the Cham were particularly targeted for persecution and it is estimated that up to 90,000 Cham people were killed in the genocide.

Other Ethnic Groups

There are also small numbers of Thai ethnic groups in Cambodia, including the Thai, Lao, Tai Phuan, Nyaw, Shan, and Kola. Recently there have also been Hmong immigrants who reside along the Lao border, and Burmese peoples who immigrated to Phnom Penh.

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Khmer is the official language of Cambodia. Although it belongs to the same language family as Vietnamese, unlike Vietnamese, it is not a tonal language. The language is much influenced by its proximate neighbors such as Thai, Lao, Vietnamese, and Cham, and also by Sanskrit and Pali.

The Khmer script, like many other Southeast Asian scripts, is adapted from the Pallava script, which initially developed in Southern India around the 6th century. Khmer developed the first alphabet, and this was later adapted for the Thai and Lao scripts.

Apart from standard Khmer, which is spoken through the Central Plain and is the dialect taught in schools and used in media, there are two main dialects distinguished in Cambodia: Phnom Penh Khmer spoken in Phnom Penh and Khmer Khe in Stung Treng, a northern province bordering with Vietnam.

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