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Khmer and Thai: Language Similarities and Differences

Map of Thailand and Cambodia

The geographical proximity of Cambodia and Thailand, two neighboring countries in Southeast Asia, raises the question of whether their respective languages, Khmer and Thai, are similar.

In their written form, Khmer and Thai have a similar visual appearance because the Thai script was adapted from the old Khmer script. However, the two languages belong to different language families. In addition, Thai is a tonal language whereas Khmer is not.

Language Linguistic Family Related Languages
Khmer Austroasiatic languages Vietnamese, Mon
Thai Kra-Dai languages Lao, and a few others

There are, in general, more language-learning resources for learning Thai than Khmer. For instance, Thai is one of the languages available in the Pimsleur Language Program. For both languages, one is likely to find tutors on the Italki site.

Some historical background

Southeast Asian countries haven’t always looked the same on the map as they do today, and both Thailand and Cambodia have been influential in setting present-day borders. They share a border and have a long history of intermigration, trade, and—hundreds of years ago—war.

Nowadays, Thailand is one of the more advanced countries in Southeast Asia, while Cambodia is still recovering from Western colonialism and the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime of the late seventies.

A significant period in Southeast Asian history is that of the Khmer empire which lasted from the 9th to 15th centuries, covering at its peak much of what is now Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos. Architectural legacies of that empire include the temple complex of Angkor Wat, which appears on the country’s flag, and is the largest religious building in the world.

Temples in Thailand dating from the Khmer empire era bear witness to its far-reaching influence. The most famous of these is in the town of Phimai in the country’s northeast. After the empire fell, skirmishes and war continued between Cambodia and Thailand, and the town of Siem Reap near Angkor translates literally as “victory over Siam,” as Thailand was then known.

Different writing systems with a common origin

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

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 script and the Thai script 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).

Vocabulary comparison

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

Both of these languages 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
Some Khmer-Thai cognates:
Khmer Word Thai Word Meaning Origin
សិក្សា (seksaa) ศึกษา (suksaa) to study Sanskrit: शिक्षा (śikṣā)
បញ្ញា (panhnhea) ปัญญา (bpanyaa) intelligence or wisdom Pali: paññā; Sanskrit: प्रज्ञा (prajñā)
ឧស្សាហ៍ (uhsaa) อุตส่าห์ (utsaa) to work hard Sanskrit: उत्साह (utsāha)
វេលា (velea) เวลา (weelaa) time Sanskrit: वेला (velā)

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 in 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 both of these languages.

Specific pronouns in Thai as well as in Khmer are used when addressing Buddhist monks, as well as some which are used when addressing royalty.

Some additional similarities

The bottom line

The Khmer language and the Thai language 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.


(Map license)