Tone Development in Phnom Penh Khmer

Main Article Content

Naraset Pisitpanporn


Khmer is a non-tonal language; pitch level is not phonemic. This article explains how tones, or pitch contrast, develop in Modern Khmer, especially Khmer as spoken in Phnom Penh. At one stage Khmer was a language with phonation contrast. Later the vowel contrast developed and when the phonation was lost, the vowel became phonemic resulting in a complicated vowel system as seen in Modern Khmer.  However, sound change in Modern Khmer is in progress, especially Khmer as spoken in Phnom Penh. Khmer as spoken in Phnom Penh is undergoing sound change; the loss of /r/ takes place  in  consonant  clusters  containing  /r/  and  this  loss  causes  many homophones,  so  the  vowel  contrast  does  not  distinguish  meaning  in  some words. Tonal contrast is developing to compensate for the vowel contrast in order  to  distinguish  the  meaning. Tones development  in  Modern  Khmer supports  a  French  linguist’s  hypothesis,  Haudricourt  (cited  in  Errinton, 1976: 170),  who  hypothesized  that  Khmer  is  developing  into  a  tonal language. At the moment, there is 1 pitch contrast in Khmer as spoken in Phnom Penh; it is falling-rising.

Article Details

How to Cite
Pisitpanporn, N. (2013). Tone Development in Phnom Penh Khmer. Journal of Mekong Societies, 1(3), 107–120. Retrieved from