Learn Khmer Script the Lazy-Ass Way: Part One: The Consonants

Photo by Kim Seng.

This post describes a mnemonic system for memorizing the consonants of the Khmer script. It is similar in spirit to my method for the Thai alphabet, but uses different gimmicks. Khmer vowels are handled in this post.

Here are the main issues that I encountered in committing the script to memory:

First issue: Khmer uses a three-way contrast for stop consonants rather than a two-way contrast as in English. For example, whereas English has unvoiced, aspirated T versus voiced, unaspirated D. Khmer has a three-way contrast:

Unvoiced, aspirated, like English "T"
Voiced, unaspirated, like English "D"
Unvoiced, unaspirated, kind of in between English "T" and English "D"

I don't want to get into some tangled web of Khmer phonology here—and I'm no expert, anyway. The point is that there are three categories to keep straight.

Second issue: Khmer consonants come with a built-in vowel, sometimes "A", sometimes "O." So this needs to be memorized along with the consonant sound. Example:

is pronounced something like KA, whereas
is pronounced something like KO.

Third issue: Khmer letters sometimes rely on rather minor (to my Latin-alphabet mind, that is) differences to make important distinctions. For example, the difference between Khmer letters:


is scarcely more than that between the Latin letters


but whereas the Latin letters are merely different styles of "S", the Khmer letters are completely different consonants. I found a few cases particularly diabolical; we'll visit those later.

The overall idea is to choose a name for each letter: something concrete and hence visualizable. The name also serves to encode various aspects of the letter, phonetic, visual, or both. Let's now revisit the first two issues identified above.

First issue: Khmer stop consonants show a three-way contrast between unvoiced aspirated, unvoiced unaspirated, and voiced. I used the same principle as Chinese Pinyin: represent aspirated Khmer stops by unvoiced English letters (P, K, T) and represent unaspirated Khmer stops by voiced English letters (B, G, D). The voiced Khmer stops are represent by a combination of the equivalent English voiced stop with a following "r" (Br, Dr). There are actually very few of these.

Second issue: Khmer consonants come with an inherent "A" or "O" sound attached. This is handled simply by using "A" or "O" as the first vowel sound in the name.

Khmer also includes a fair number of non-stop consonants (like English R, S, V, etc.). The first issue does not arise with these but the second does.

The names for the "A"-series stop consonants are given in the following table. Each cell shows the Khmer consonant, the English name, and an approximate representation of the pronunciation. I use an apostrophe to distinguish aspirated stops: thus t'a is aspirated t followed by a, while ta is unaspirated t followed by a. Don't worry about the words in parentheses just yet.

Unvoiced AspiratedUnvoiced UnaspiratedVoiced
(tailless) Kangaroo
(fluorescent) Chamber
(fluorescent) Jam
(fluorescent) Taxi
(fluorescent) Tarp
(fluorescent) Papaya

Some of the table cells are empty because the alphabet contains no letter in that category. On the other hand, the t'a cell contains two letters. So far as I can tell, these are identical in pronunciation (which unfortunately does not imply they are interchangeable, any more than "f" is interchangeable with "ph" in English).

The remainder of the "A"-series consonants are given in the following table. Again, don't worry about the terms in parentheses as yet.

Khmer letterEnglish namePronunciation
(inverted) Halo ha
(fluorescent) Lace la
Satellite sa
(fluorescent) Quasar !a

The last of these requires special attention. The sound of the consonant Quasar is a glottal stop. Since English has no letter to represent a glottal stop, I used "Q" instead. This also seems to be a common convention in Khmer textbooks.

The foregoing completes the list of "A"-series consonants. We turn now to the "O"-series. Again, we start with a table showing the stops in three categories:

Unvoiced AspiratedUnvoiced UnaspiratedVoiced

(fluorescent) Kookaburra
(fluorescent) Totem

And the remainder of the "O" series are in the following table:

Khmer letterEnglish namePronunciation
(inverted) Nozzleno

This wraps up the list of consonants, handling both the first and second issues identified above.

The third issue is not actually that difficult to deal with, but the explanation will be pretty lengthy. Let's take a comparative look at some of the consonants. Consider first this list:


Note that all these Khmer letters have in common the "gables" element:

The names of these letters therefore all contain the letter M as a clue to the shape. Initial M (as in Motor) does not count.

(If you are alert, you have noticed that one letter NYOtainori didn't make the list even though it contains the "gables" element. Unfortunately it was hard enough for me to find a word starting with NYO, so you have to remember this one on your own.)

Next consider this group of letters:


Note that all these have in common the "pompadour" on top:

And these letter names are distinguished by the letter P. Again, initial P (as in "Pomegranate") is irrelevant here.

Next group:


Note that the first two characters here "Rosebud" and "Voicebox" are almost identical: the only difference is that "Voicebox" includes a little extra fillip at the top:

The same structure is also at the upper-right of "Taxi". The clue for this structure is the letter X in the names "Voicebox" and "Taxi".

Note in particular the following five letters, which drove me to distraction:


These are the "Five Marx Brothers" of the Khmer alphabet:

Extraordinary measures are needed to keep them straight. The "M versus P" principle ensures that we won't confuse "Totem" with "Papaya", for example, but what about "Tarp" versus "Papaya"? I adopted the additional rule that letters with a smooth bottom:

get monosyllabic names ("Jam", "Tarp"), whereas letters with a crooked bottom:

get polysyllabic names ("Totem", "Papaya", "Jockstrap"). This "syllable" rule applies only to this group of five and cannot be relied upon for other letters. 

I wish this disposed of all opportunities for confusion, but no. Consider next this pair:


The only point of distinction is the orientation of the little loop at the upper left:


I would have liked to think of yet another way to use word forms to distinguish these two cases, but by this point the system had too many moving parts to fit another one in. So I use a descriptive adjective to identify those letters with left-facing loops, thus: "fluorescent Kookaburra." The other names qualifying as fluorescent are:

Chamber, Doll, Jam, Lace, Papaya, Quasar, Tarp, Taxi, and Totem.

Consider next this group of three:
In this case, two distinguishing features need to be remembered: (1) "Kangaroo" is missing the little serif at the bottom; and (2) "Nozzle" is written with reversed orientation. Therefore the "Kangaroo" is a "tailless Kangaroo" and the "Nozzle" is an "inverted Nozzle." These points are important not merely for distinguishing these consonants, but for distinguishing them from some of the vowel symbols to be discussed in the future. 

Similarly "Halo" is described as "inverted" to keep the orientation distinct from "Lozenge" and "Satellite."

Thus endeth the system for Khmer consonants. In a forthcoming post, I will take up the system for Khmer vowels, compared to which the consonants are a day at the beach.


KW said...

Your helpful English words for the Khmer consonants are very much appreciated and helped me understand how to pronounce them..
Do you have the same help for the Khmer vowels and independent vowels?
Or can you please direct me to a source that’s similar to what you presented?

Serge Gorodish said...

I'm really glad the system helps you. Actually I do have a system for the vowels (which are very complicated). I haven't written it up yet but I'll get started on that. Watch this blog for a new post pretty soon!

YY said...

Amazing, I like your way of grouping them.

parasitius said...

would be a deadly opportune time to publish thay vowels article! The lurkers in the dark of the internet are desperately awaiting....

Serge Gorodish said...

Thanks for reading. Thai vowels are here.

Parasitius said...

You mention Thai vowels, but I was really hopeful for something to follow this article - on Khmer vowels - even in draft form. Thank you

Parasitius said...

You hyperlinked an article on Thai vowels but I was really hopeful you might have a follow up in Khmer vowels instead, even if only in draft form? Thank you

Serge Gorodish said...

Okay, I do have a system. I'll get started on writing it up.

Serge Gorodish said...

I just posted a draft of the Khmer vowels. I plan to do a clean-up on the formatting, but all the content is there.