Khmer script for English (ខ្មែរ ស្ក្រិប្ត ផួរ ឥងគ្លិឆ)

Southeast Asia is home to many different writing systems, all of which are pretty much descended from the Pallava script originating from southern Asia. After having a go at adopting Thai and Burmese to write English phonetically a while back, I shall now turn my attention to another elegant Southeast Asian script: Khmer.

Khmer script allows consonants to be placed under or around each other, a useful property for writing a language like English with potentially complex syllables like /stɹɛŋθs/, which can be easily rendered as ស្ត្រេង្ឋ្ស in this Khmer script adaptation. (It looks complicated at first, so I’ll get around to explaining it soon)

Adaptation process

Adaptation of consonants

Like Thai, Khmer script has multiple letters for the same consonant sound.

In Khmer orthography, consonant letters are classed into 2 categories: the ‘a’ series and the ‘o’ series. Like the other scripts of South and Southeast Asia, Khmer is an ‘abugida’, where a consonant letter has a default vowel sound that is modified by diacritics around the letter. In Khmer, the ‘a’ series letters are pronounced with an ‘a’ vowel, and the ‘o’ series letters are pronounced with an ‘o’ vowel.

E.g. /ka/ = ក, /kɔ/ = គ.

The ‘o’ series letters corresponded to the voiced consonants in old Khmer, meaning that a long time ago, the ‘o’ series letter គ was actually pronounced as /ga/, and sound changes in Khmer eventually transformed its pronunciation to /kɔ/.

That’s why in my adaptation, I use ក for the /k/ sound, and គ to write /g/. And likewise for /p/ ប and /b/ ព, and /t/ ត and /d/ ទ. Basically, I’m basing it off the historical pronunciation of Khmer script.

Also, Khmer script has separate letters for aspirated and palatal consonants, and letters that once represented retroflex and breathy voiced consonants. On the other hand, English doesn’t have either retroflex or breathy voiced consonants, but quite a bit of fricatives like /f/, /v/, /θ/, /ð/, /z/, /ʃ/ and /ʒ/. In this adaptation, I used some of these extra consonant letters to represent the English fricatives and affricates:

  • ផ /pʰ/ -> /f/
  • ភ /bʱ/ -> /v/
  • ឋ /ʈʰ/ -> /θ/
  • ថ /tʰ/ -> /ð/
  • ឌ /ɖ/ -> /z/
  • ច /c/ -> /tʃ/
  • ជ /ɟ/ -> /dʒ/
  • ឆ /cʰ/ -> /ʃ/
  • ឈ /ɟʱ/ -> /ʒ/

(the IPA transcription represents its historical pronunciation, not the current one)

Many of the other consonants were fairly straightforward as well: /n/ ន, /ŋ/ ង, /m/ ម, /ɹ/ រ, /h/ ហ, and so on.

Adaptation of vowels

As for the Khmer script vowels, mapping them to English language vowels was straightforward as well: /a/ = ា, /ɛ/ = េ, /ɪ/ = ិ, /ʊ/ = ុ. I did allow for a bit of artistic interpretation though, as in Khmer the meaning of the vowel diacritics depends on which series the previous consonant was (e.g. កា = /kaː/, គា = /kiə/). Also, to make it more compact, I made /ɔ/ ួ and /ju/ ឹ, which are somewhat different from their original Khmer values.

I also re-used a few non-vowel diacritics as vowels:

  • ់ – originally for shortening the length of the preceding vowel. In this adaptation, I use it for the schwa /ə/.
  • ៉ – originally for indicating that an ‘o’ series consonant is to be treated as an ‘a’ series consonant. In this adaptation, I use it for the ‘a’ like sound of /æ/, since /a/ is already represented using ា.
  • ះ – originally for /h/ in final position. In this adaptation I use it to represent rising diphthongs that mostly end in /ɪ/, e.g. /ɔɪ/ ួះ is basically the vowel for /ɔ/ ួ with ះ after it.

Also, as with my previous adaptations of abugidas, I do not use the inherent vowel concept, as I reckon that it only adds an additional layer of complexity.

Anyway, here’s the letters:

Letters

Consonants កួន្សួន់ន្ត្ស

/p/ (port)/b/ (born)/f/ (free)/v/ (van)/m/ (muse)
/t/ (tree)/d/ (drive)/θ/ (thank)/ð/ (the)/n/ (new)
/k/ (call)/g/ (get)/x/ (loch)/ɣ/ /ŋ/ (sing)
/s/ (soon)/z/ (zoo)/ʃ/ (share)/ʒ/ (azure).
/tʃ/ (change)/dʒ/ (joke)...
/ɹ/ (run)/l/ (laugh)/h/ (house)/w/ (way)/j/ (yell)

Subscript consonants សាព្សក្រិប្ត កួន្សួន់ន្ត្ស

Khmer script allows a 2nd consonant letter to go under or around another letter to represent consonant clusters. In Unicode Khmer, this is triggered by putting the coeng sign ្ between the consonant letters.

In the following table, I use the letter for /k/ ក as the 1st letter for demonstration purposes – in practice, any letter can be used.

/kp/ ក្ប/kb/ ក្ព/kf/ ក្ផ/kv/ ក្ភ/km/ ក្ម
/kt/ ក្ត/kd/ ក្ទ/kθ/ ក្ឋ/kð/ ក្ថ/kn/ ក្ន
/kk/ ក្ក/kg/ ក្គ/kx/ ក្ខ/kɣ/ ក្ឃ/kŋ/ ក្ង
/ks/ ក្ស/kz/ ក្ឌ/kʃ/ ក្ឆ/kʒ/ ក្ឈ.
/ktʃ/ ក្ច/kdʒ/ ក្ជ...
/kɹ/ ក្រ/kl/ ក្ល/kh/ ក្ហ/kw/ ក្វ/kj/ ក្យ
/k(nil)/ ក្អ....

Vowels ភាវ់ល្ស

Vowel diacritics are placed either on the top, bottom, right, or left of the consonant. Some of them surround it on both sides.

/a/~/ʌ/ (sun)/æ/ (can)
/ə/~/ɜ/ (sure)/ɛ/ (red)
/ɪ/ (bid)/iː/ (bead)
/ɔ/ (pot)/ɔː/ (call)
/ʊ/ (pull)/uː/ ុ់ (pool)

Diphthongs ទិផ្ឋួង្ស

/aɪ/ (side)/aʊ/ (now)
/ɔɪ/ ួះ (toy)/oʊ/ (dough)
/eɪ/ (say)/ɪə/ (hear)
/ʊə/, /wə/ ុះ (tour)/juː/ (news)

Triphthongs ត្រិផ្ឋួង្ស

/aɪə/ ៃអ់ (flyer)/aʊə/ ៅអ់ (tower)
/jʊə/ ឹអ់ (cure).

Independent vowels​ ឥន្ទិបេន្ទ់ន្ត ភាវ់ល្ស

Khmer script comes with its own set of independent vowels, used to spell words starting with a vowel. Even in the original Khmer orthography, not all vowels have standalone versions – for all the other vowels not mentioned in the following table, the vowel diacritic is added to the letter អ, e.g. /æ/ = អ៉.

/a/ /ɪ/ /ɔ/ /ʊ/
/ɛ/ /iː/ /ɔː/ /uː/
/aɪ/ /eɪ/ ឯះ/ɔɪ/ ឲះ/oʊ/
/aʊ/ /juː/ យុ/wə/ វ់.

Numerals នឹម់រ់ល្ស

0 1 2 3 4
5 6 7 8 9

Punctuation បាង្ចុឯះឆ់ន

  • Comma ។
  • Full stop ៕
  • Colon ៖

Special cases ស្បេឆ់ល កែស់ស

When the vowel diacritic for /a/ ា is added to the /p/ letter ប, they form a special ligature បា to prevent confusion with /h/ ហ.

Syllable structure​ សិល់ព់ល ស្ត្រាក្ច់រ

Khmer script allows a consonant to be placed below or around another consonant, a very useful feature for writing consonant clusters like ‘kt’ and ‘str’ in a compact manner. E.g.

  • /stɹakt/ = ស្ត្រាក្ត (literally ‘stɹa-kt’), and
  • /stɹɛŋθs/ = ស្ត្រេង្ឋ្ស (literally ‘stɹɛ-ŋθs’).

Although it is possible to place any letter below /ɹ/ រ, in practice it tends to look bad on most Khmer script fonts, especially if there are other subscript consonants nearby – /təɹm/ should be ត់រម, not ត់រ្ម.

/s/ ស, /ɹ/ រ or /j/ យ, will work fine though, as the subscript forms of these letters wrap around the previous letter without sticking out too much: /ɛɹs/ = ឯរ្ស.

Explanation of ស្ត្រេង្ឋ្ស

‘Strengths’ in Khmer script for English

  • /s/ = ស
  • /st/ = ស្ត (ស + subscript version of /t/ ត)
  • /stɹ/ = ស្ត្រ (ស្ត + subscript version of /ɹ/ រ, which wraps around the left of its consonant)
  • /stɹɛ/ = ស្ត្រេ (ស្ត្រ + vowel diacritic for /ɛ/ េ, placed to the left of its consonant)
  • /ŋ/ = ង
  • /ŋθ/ = ង្ឋ (ង + subscript version of /θ/ ឋ)
  • /ŋθs/ = ង្ឋ្ស (ង្ឋ + subscript version of /s/ ស, which wraps around the right of its consonant)

Sample texts

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

យុនិភ់រ្ស់ល ទិក្ល៉រែឆ់ន ឲផ ហឹម់ន រៃត្ស

ឲល ហឹម់ន ពីង្ស អរ ពួរន ផ្រី អ៉ន្ទ ឥកុះល ឥន ទិគ្និតិ អ៉ន្ទ រៃត្ស៕ ថែ អរ ឯន្ទៅទ វិឋ រីឌ់ន អ៉ន្ទ កួន្ឆ់ន្ស អ៉ន្ទ ឆុទ អ៉ក្ត តូអ់រទ្ស វាន អ់នាថ់រ ឥន អ់ ស្បិរិត ឲផ ព្រាថ់រហុទ៕

(អរតិក់ល ១ ឲផ ថ់ យុនិភ់រ្ស់ល ទិក្ល៉រែឆ់ន ឲផ ហឹម់ន រៃត្ស)

Excerpt from a short story I wrote a while ago

For comparison, you can view the original one here.

ឰ ហ៉ទ អ់ ស្ត្រែន្ជ ទ្រីម ថ៉ត នៃត៕

ឥន ថ៉ត ទ្រីម។ ឰ ផៅន្ទ មៃសេល្ផ អ់វែក់និង។ លៃឥង ឲន សួផ្ត គ្រីន គ្រាស។ ឥន អ់ ផ៉ន្ត់សិ ៨-ពិត វ់ល្ទ ស់រៅន្ទ់ទ ពៃ កួម្បឹត់រ្ស៕ ថ់ លុមិន់ន្ស ឲផ ព្លិង្កិង មូទេម្ស អ៉ន្ទ វោម។ ចៀរផុល ចិប្តឹន មឹឌិក ផិល្ទ ថិ ឯរ៕ ឲល្ថូ ឯភ្រិឋិង លុក្ទ ព្លួកី អ៉ន្ទ ស្កវេរ។ ឥត ព្រួត មី ព៉ក តុ ថូឌ ទែស៕ ឲផ ឲល ថ់ កួម្បឹត់រ្ស ឰ សោ។ ១ ឲផ ថេម វ់ឌ ប្លែឥង មៃ ផែភ្រ់ត សួង! ឰ ជាម្ប អ៉ន្ទ លីប ឥន ជួះ ឪភ់រ ថ់ សៃត៕ ឰ ថេន សោ មៃ ហៅស។ អ៉ន្ទ ឰ សេទ “ហៃ” តុ មៃ ពេស្ត មែត្ស។ ហុ វ់រ វែតិង ឳត្សៃទ៕ វី វោក្ទ តុគេថ់រ។ ហ៉ភិង អ់ ចៀរិ ច៉ត អពៅត អ់ កួម្បឹត់រ គែម ឰ វ់ឌ វ់រកិង ឲន អ់រលៀរ៕

“សូ វាត្ស ថ៉ត កុល គែម គួនា ពិ អ់ពៅត។ ឯះ?” វាន ឲផ ថេម អស្កទ៕
“ឥផ យុ ល់ភ្ទ មារិឪ។ យុល ល់ភ ថិស!” ឰ សេទ៕
“ឲស់ម!!! កាន្ត វែត តុ សី ឥត!” ឥន្សៃទ មី ថ់ ផៃអ់រ តុ កីប មី គូឥង ពិកែម ស្ត្រួង្គ់រ៕

វី វោក្ទ ឥន្តុ អ់ ភិភិទ សាន្សេត៕ ឰ រេមិនិស្ទ ថ់ មេម់រិស ឲផ បាស្ត សាម់រ្ស។ ប្លែឥង រេត្រូ ភិទិឪ គែម្ស ឥន ថ់ កុល ឆែទ។ ឥភ់ន ថូ ថ់ សាន ឳត្សៃទ បីក្ទ អ៉ត ៤២ ទិគ្រីស អ៉ន្ទ មេល្ត់ទ ឯភ្រិឋិង ឯល្ស៕

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