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Khmer Influence in Thai

Khmer Influence in Thai

Face it. Khmer influenced the Thai language…

“The Siamese language began its formation not only from its original elements but also from a foreign root, the Khmer language to be specific.” Saveros Pou.

This kind of statement might be taken as an insult by some Thais. This is a sensitive issue, especially since this ridiculous clash about Preah Vihear temple. (A good adage in politics: to divert people from real problems, make up a good old chauvinist crisis).

Note that curiously the fact that ราชาศัพท์ comes from Khmer will be better accepted.

Khmer is a language of the Mon-Khmer family, Thai is a language of the Tai-Kadai family.

I don’t need to teach you this: The Khmer people had lived in peninsular southeast Asia long before the Tai people came from Yunnan.

But now take a look at the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Thailand, “About Thailand”:

This theory has been altered by the discovery of prehistoric artifacts in Ban Chiang. It now appears that the Thais might have originated here in Thailand and latter scattered to various parts of Asia, including some parts of China.

Nice shortcut: A settlement from the bronze age has been found in Ban Chiang (the oldest one in the world it seems), so they were Thai people, the Thais come from Ban Chiang !!

Note that the more historically convincing (to say the least) theory of the Yunnan origin is used by some Chinese to assert that southeast Asia belong to the people’s republic of China…

So if you want to calm down a staunch partisan of the “Thai language doesn’t owe anything to those bumpkin เขมร“, here are a few facts.

Many borrowed words trace back to the สุโขทัย era. They are everyday words still in use today: for instance เดิน, “to walk”.

ราชดำเนิน means the king passage.

ดำเนิน is “the walking”. It comes from ดำเนิน, “to walk”. This is not a Thai way of coining words, this is a typical Khmer way of coining words (which is called infixation). Because เดิน is a Khmer word (today pronounced daoe (diphthong xะ เxอ) in Khmer).

We can find the original Thai word for “to walk” still in use today in Lao: ย่าง. Lao has been a little less influenced by Khmer than Siamese (or at least Lao has retained more original Thai words in parallel).

As for ราช, “the king” of course it’s an Indian word (maharajah), but it must be stressed that all the Sanskrit and Prakrit words you can find in Siamese (that makes a real big chunk) have entered Siamese through old Khmer, because the direct Indian influence had already vanished when the Siamese founded their kingdoms.

And of course, modern Thai script stems from Khmer script (but the old ones didn’t: Lanna and Tham stem from Mon).

Note that Khmer script is still used today in ยันต์ and tattoo, and if your staunch partisan has this kind of tattoo, he will tell you this is ขอม, not เขมร (which is exactly the same of course).

Here are a few examples:
จมูก “nose”, in Lao you say ดัง
สะพาน “bridge”, in Lao you say ขัว
ยาย “maternal grandmother”, in Lao you say แม่ตู้
กำลัง for continuous tense, in Lao you (can also) say พวม

This Lao/Thai trick is not a general rule:
ก๋วยเตี๋ยว in Lao you say เฝอ. Of course this one is not true: ก๋วยเตี๋ยว is a Teochew word and เฝอ a Vietnamese word.

Some other words:
วัด “monastery” and also “to measure” (both from Mon-Khmer root meaning “to make a circle, to mark the boundary”)
ผสม “to mix”
ตำนาน “legend”
ตำบล “district” (from old Khmer “cluster of houses”)
สะอาด “clean”
เรียน “to learn”
อาจ “can” (the final จ gives away the Khmer origin)
เสมียน “clerk”
ทะเบียน “register”
ถนน “street”
ตรวจ “to examine” and ตำรวจ “police” (you see the khmer coining of words as in “to walk”)
นัก prefix for profession (meaning “a person” in khmer), as in นักเรียน and guess what, เรียน also comes from Khmer.

Some grammatical words now:
สำหรับ “for”
เพราะ “because”
หรือ “or”
โดย “by way of”

And this is a very small (untidy…) sample of words of Khmer origin.

เขมร is of Khmer origin! Today in Cambodia it’s pronounced khmae (diphthong xะ แx). But in Surin they didn’t drop the ร, they pronounce a beautiful rolled ร. (I love those rolled ร, บุรรรรีรรรรัมย์ !!).

And it’s a general rule, Khmer Surin tends to be more conservative than Cambodian Khmer in its pronunciation. So we can say that if you want to hear “pure” Khmer, you have to go to Surin…

Sua noy

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19 Comments

  1. Interesting article. I love learning about the etymology and provenance of the words we use. It’s such a shame that something as unavoidably and unequivocally shaped and developed by ‘outside’ influence as language is used as a nationalistic tool by some.

    Just think about the influence that other languages have had on English, making it not only a pretty complicated language to learn (because of the multifarious nature of its origins) but awesomely rich in synonyms and shades of meaning.

    A quick, off the top of my head, list of non-England English:
    German – sheep, swine, cow
    French – mutton, pork, beef
    Indian – jungle, khaki, veranda, shampoo
    Norse – knife, sky, kiosk, geyser
    Dutch – dam, keel, skipper
    Spanish – flotilla, guerrilla, tornado

    I wonder, would any of those countries lay claim to England based on the influence their language has had on it?

    And Thai seems little different to me. Is it not the case that words of archaic, Lao, Chinese or even English origins are used when they suit a particular purpose or situation, even when there is a perfectly serviceable ‘Thai’ alternative (think กู, ดัง, เจ๊ or แมนชั่น)?

    A bit like the internet, language pays no heed to international boundaries, and is all the better for it.

  2. English is a case study, with virtually two parallel groups of vocabulary : Anglo-Saxon and Latin, since the Norman conquest. The humble plebeian (latin word…)would make do with his humble STOOL, Guillaume le conquérant would sit on a CHAIR. Can you TOLERATE that kind of English? That’s the kind of English I can’t PUT UP WITH !

  3. So glad you put this post up Cat and Sua Noi. I often use many of these examples in my “ความเป็นไทยคืออะไร” workshops with Thais. It’s interesting to watch the different reactions and emotions that it draws. I like to combine these examples with words that can be linked to Middle Chinese. After a while, ‘Tai Thai’ words are a lot less than what most Thais have been brought up to believe.

  4. Not only is the Thai alphabet largely copied from Khmer, but I suspect that Thai dancing, martial arts, architecture etc all derive from Angkor. The first ‘Thai’ state, Sukhotai, gained independence from… Angkor. Most people in Thailand are descendants of the people who lived here before the Thai population group emigrated from Southern China. The much disputed temple by the Cambodian border, Preah Vihear, was built before Thai people were anywhere near. No one will admit that of course (except people from the province in question) since being Cambodian, Mon, Karen or other ‘non-thai’ ethnicity in Thailand means being a 2nd class citizen.

    Thai linguists protect an unnecessarily difficult writing system with the justification that different spellings show the origins of different words – Thai, Sanskrit or Khom (Khmer). They tend to overlook that all the Indian culture in Thailand (and there is a lot of it) probably came by way of Angkor.

    I trained Bokator for a while in Cambodia. For claiming that Muay Thai originated in Cambodia, Grand Master San Kim Sean, who is recreating the ancient Cambodian martial art, has been threatened with death by Thais. Interestingly, Muay Boran, the predecessor of Muay Thai in Thailand, is very strong in Surin and Buriram, two Thai provinces that are still ethnically Khmer.

    This is a sensitive topic in Thailand. A friend of mine knew a teacher who hid from his fiancees family that he could speak Cambodian as it would lower him in their eyes. Also, Thais publicly lay claim to many cultural manifestations that certainly did not originate in Southern China but are nonetheless the historical heritage of many Thais since most are sure to have the blood of the peoples who lived in modern Thailand before the ethnic Thais arrived flowing in their veins. Shhh… Don’t tell. ;o)

  5. For Stu : I would like to know more about links between Thai and middle Chinese, where can I find more about it?
    It makes me think about the question of the Tai family of languages in China : whereas the Zhuang felt 100% Chinese and were happy with it, as they all spoke Chinese, the communist party had made big efforts to nurture a kind of “Zhuang revival”, in order to oppose the nationalist Kuomintang, which had “insulted and ridiculed thair language”. Funny,uh? It’s the opposite in Hainan where the wild Li had always resisted against Chinese. Li is the only Tai modern language with the consonant g (voiced velar), isn’t it wonderful? That’s the kind of marvellous fact which makes me feel like going out in the street and tell everybody I come across !

    For Nils : yes, the etymological spelling makes Thai so difficult to write correctly (and a tourist in a taxi asking to go to “soovarnaboomee”…)
    It’s a bit like French versus Italian or Spanish, French has kept different spelling for words of Greek or Latin origin (photographie versus fotografia). By the way, for a reason I don’t know, the “ph” to note the sound “f” (labio-dental fricative) has been retained in Vietnamese quốc ngữ, so a Vietnamese in Bangkok will tell you “I have been to Lumfini, I will take the skytrain to From Fong or Safan Khway”.
    You say
    “They tend to overlook that all the Indian culture in Thailand (and there is a lot of it) probably came by way of Angkor”
    It’s not that simple. As I wrote, Sanskrit words have entered Siamese through old Khmer, BUT NOT Pali words, which came from Mon (ลพบุรี). Remember that Theravada buddhism came from the Mon, not from the Khmer. So you can’t strictly say that ALL the Indian culture came by way of Angkor.

  6. Fascinating stuff, Cat and Sua. This really helped me to understand a little bit better the relationship between central and northern Thailand and the northeast. I’d made the (wrong) assumption that somehow central Thais wanted to protect their language and culture but in fact were frequently denying their relationship with their origins in Khmer and Mon cultures, which they look down upon. Kind of colours their hysterics negatively, I think. Of course, I’m drawing my own conclusions from your discussion of Khmer influences and could be totally off the wall. Nevertheless, much food for thought.

  7. The word for “walk” is of Khmer origin. The Tais of old learned that from Angkorian fronteir troops who provided them a safe passage south on the “king’s road” after the Tais homeland, NanChao was been sacked by the Mongols. The word for “help” is also of Khmer origin. Help, walk, kings road, were probobly the first words coined into the Thai lexicon.

  8. An excellent article. Having studied both Thai and Khmer, the the overlaps in vocabulary (and some grammatical structures…which is source of much linguistic discussion) were impossible to ignore. Sua Noi seems to have an amazingly good grasp of this topic. Truly a joy to read.

    Of course the similarities do not mean you can just go be fluent in Khmer because you speak Thai! Having just recently made a trip to Cambodia I was shocked at how difficult it was to understand people…although reading and being able to speak was a great help. I was so relieved when Cambodians at the border spoke Thai…. How embarrassing…

    -Jonathan

  9. “the overlaps in some grammatical structures…which is source of much linguistic discussion”

    Yes! That’s what makes mainland Southeast Asia so fascinating : languages share significant similarities in grammatical structures. A striking example is the ได้ structure (meaning can, get … you can write 45 pages of grammar with ได้) : the same structure exists in Khmer (baan) and Vietnamese (được), they even share the idiom ก็ได้ (ที่ใหนก็ได้, na na na ก็ได้…), ko baan in Khmer, cũng được in Vietnamese. What am I saying! they even share the structure ก็ (75 pages in your grammar textbook)!!
    Speaking of ได้, new learners of Thai, please don’t pronounce it with an excruciatingly long “a” “daaaaaaay”, please, oh please…it sounds like a pretentious twit high-so in a TV soap opera…

  10. A little late on this, but I’ve found article very interesting.

    A note: The other way is true also for Thai loan words into Khmer: For example: ผ้าห่ม( Khmer specifies it to a type of thin satin blanket only) and in some expressions, such as (Min Noy) “ไม่น้อย”– though it doesn’t work so much in Thai as much as it does in Khmer slang.

    Speaking of slang สำเพ็ง (?) ( Hope it’s spelt right…) means prostitute in modern Khmer.

    More Khmer words in Thai:

    ตักบาตร Tak Bat– Khmer for “putting (rice) into monk’s alms bowls)
    รำ- Rom Dance
    รัฐมนตรี– minister
    พระ– “god(s)”
    มงกุฎ– crown

    ( I can understand some Thai news and watch Khon by listening for Khmer words and using the smattering of Thai that my family uses from time to time because we’re from Battambang (or พระตระบอง– which was what it was called for a time). The Thai spelling comes largely from Google \(“/)/ … I’m not really Thai literate, though the letters that make the same sounds look kinda sorta the same sometimes)

  11. arnell anderson

    October 16, 2013 at 2:34 am

    Once you learn to read and write the Thai language you will come upon many words that are the same in the Cambodian language and you will be thrilled that you are learning so much about language. a question: I heard the word for place( haang), also comes from the Khmer, is that so?

  12. Michel Boismard

    July 20, 2014 at 4:31 pm

    Sua Noi,great insight of yours! Would you please enlighten me(us all!} on this:
    Which of the following categories of Thai words are Khmer in origin:
    Prefixed: มะ กระ ทะ ตะ ตระ ประ and other อะ words ?
    …Or is it just the case that some words are,some aren’t ?
    เคารพ
    Michel B.

  13. James Sok San

    April 4, 2015 at 4:24 pm

    Well, English uses words from other languages, but they never refuse to say that the words are borrowed.

  14. “White Thais” are in fact the latest colonizer of southeast asia. Khmer never had any influence on white Thais. Why? in fact, Khmer empire was sacked down by white Thai race minority from the north, and the white thai race minority then established thai race-led kingdoms ( Siam, Lanna and Lanxang kingdoms), colonizing dark khmer people, dark mon people and other dark aboriginals who were in fact citizens in the sacked down Khmer Empire.

    White thais have many tribes and their culture is similar to east asian culture. Thai Siam’s dress is like a mongolian dress (high hat and long robe worn by kings (today kings of thaitified mon blood) on the coronation day.

    Siam does not mean “dark” but in fact means a white thai race tribe named”siem” who conquerred the west part of the Khmer Empire (today central part of Thailand), and the pronunciation “sa-yam” is in fact an akward pronunciation by khmer people and mon people there who were forced by white Siam thai’s army to speak tai ka dai language in place of their original mon-khmer language. It was like indian people who were forced by England to speak english but colonized indian people failed to speak english like native english speakers could.

    . Today, all white thai races live back north in east asia (today China). But dark khmer people, dark mon people, dark malay people in southeast asia still identify themselves after “Thai” because they had been colonized by white thai race for up to 500 years and had been brainwashed misbelieving that they are sth thais.

    A lot of people in thailand know well that thais are in fact people from the north. we are not thais at all. The term “thai” is civilization, not a race because we people in thailand are in fact not thai blood.

  15. Interesting. Do you have any papers that you could point me to to read more about that. I have studied many Tai languages both ancient and modern – I haven’t found anything with the ‘Sa-yam’ you mentioned there yet. I’d be interested to read more about that.

  16. @Sua Noy, the same structure exists in Khmer doesn’t mean it originates from Khmer or Vietnamese. In fact, this structure also exists in the Zhuang language, a subgroup of Tai language group. It’s clearly by far that the Zhuang language hasn’t been influenced by Khmer, so I believe the ได้ structure doesn’t come from Khmer or Vietnamese, maybe those language has that structure natively, or maybe comes from the Proto-Tai language group, instead of the other way around.

  17. Franky Farangsonpha

    July 20, 2016 at 7:14 am

    Very very interesting, the relation between Khmer and Thai language. I am interested about an ethnic issue. I see that khmer speaking Isarn people tend to have different characteristics then other Isarn people. First of all they tend to be taller, they tend to be darker skinned, there is often more expression to be found in their face. I wonder where ethnically this group comes from. Is it from Cambodia, or is it just this region of Surin, Buriram, Sisaket? I also find “SO” speaking communities in various parts of the north-east (Kusuman, Sakon Nakhon), but also other areas. Are they in some way related to the khmer of Surin, Buriram, Sisaket?

  18. As for ขอม being the same as เขมร, I think not. It is difficult to access the works of Jit Phumisak here, unfortunately, but from what I know of him I was impressed enough to give one of my sons his first name! Khun Jit apparently explained that the Khom (ขอม) ruled the Khmay (or Khmer, or Khmen, เขมร) for a long while, but due to a master to slave ratio of less then 1%, could not continue to maintain power. My understanding is that the Khom descended from the ancestors of Cambysus (Cyrus, Darius the Great) who died in the sands between Egypt and Libya… I sure wish I could make a stronger case for this than I can, but personally find it easy to believe.

  19. Sorry to break it to you, but obviously Thai language and culture is originated from Khmer. As many of you may already know the Khmer Empire were the biggest ruler of South East Asia. It has highly influenced on many neighbors countries. All the old Khmer generation knows this. And many Khmer can understand Thai words because they are old school khmer words that are still used in the country side today. The only reason why Thai language sounds different from Khmer it’s because they speak with the Khmer royalty words that are not common to use in an everyday khmer language. Those are called Sanskrit words. Khmer only used it speaking to the royal highness or praying to Gods or speaking to monks. There’s no point in using khmer sanskrit words if they’re speaking to a normal human being. Because these words are valuable and they come in a form of baley. So pretty much Thai stole the royalty words from the khmer that they only use in pa sa baley (khmer chating). And ah saw khom (writings on Angkor temple walls) were one of the oldest writing. This was a khmer style written from the origin royalty words in royalty language to state something meaningful aka khmer cursive. Back then there were no such thing as a thai or a siem/theif (known by thai ppl as siam). Khmer neighbors were Burmese or aka kola, they were the oldest people who lived in the Khmer empire centuries and we’re able to read ah saw khom and embareced it in their writting as well. So was Lao, because they were also strongly influenced by Khmer. Thats why they have little of khom style in them. But once the thai (siem aka, theif) invaded the khmer empire all the ancient kola people vanished and some khmer from the royalty as well which caused the Khmer to lost their ah saw khom and other core value cultures. Long story short thai aka siem (theif) invaded Khmer land many times that even the city Siem Reap was renamed after it. Siem Reap (Thai/theif defeated) is the actual meaning. This is to never forget the history today that thai took over many of khmer land and Khmer were able to re-conquer some back. Thai does not have sanskrit. Without sanskrit there will be no khmer tattoos and with just the legs, (which thai stole from Khmer writing) cannot be used to write sanskrit baley or will not work the magic. Btw there are no such things as dark skin khmer. Chao da Quan stated khmer from Angkor are very light skin especially the Apsaras. And when they leave the palace they have big umbrella to cover from the sun. The only reason why khmer tend to be darker because the new generation are farmers, and definally no big umbrella with thosands servants to protection them from the sun. Despite light or dark they still remains the genes and features of the Angkorian. Big eyes, strong tall nose bridge, wide nostril, big thick lips, thick bones, tall and thick curry hair. In conclusion there is no doubt that the thai language, culture, and traditional originated from khmer, because it’s clearly written in stone.

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