The Longest Alphabet in the World

A alphabet is a set of letters or symbols used to represent a sound or a relative sound in spoken language. There are hundreds of different alphabets in the world today. English has 26 letters, Hindi has as many as 50 but which language has the most letters?

With 33 consonants, 24 dependent vowels, 12 independent vowels, and several diacritic symbols, the Khmer language has the longest alphabet in the world. It is also one of the oldest in Southeast Asia. 

The Khmer language, also known as Cambodian, has a fascinating history, with Vietnamese, Thai, Lao, and French having an enduring influence on its vocabulary. 

Although there have been several attempts to characterize the pronunciation and spelling of the huge variety of words currently in use, Khmer is one of the most difficult languages to learn for English speakers.

Evolution Of The Khmer Language

Angkorian Old Khmer

Said to be originally derived from the Brahmi script of South India, with influences from Sanskrit and Pāli languages, Khmer has existed in written form since the 7th century. But the oldest scripture can be traced back to 611 AD. Up until the 15th century, the Khmer empire ruled over the mainland of Southeast Asia, with many of its cultural and linguistic practices rooted in Hinduism and Buddhism. 

Middle Khmer 

When the Thai kingdom overthrew the city of Angkor in 1431, the Khmers began moving south and a new language form emerged: Middle Khmer. 

Middle Khmer could be divided into three regional groups: Northern Khmer, Western Khmer and the various dialects of Central Khmer, including Standard Khmer and Khmer Krom. Over the next few centuries, Middle Khmer saw significant changes in its phonology, losing the voiced stops of Old Khmer /b, d, j, g/ and replacing them with voiceless ones /p, t, c, k/. 

Modern Khmer 

During the 19th and 20th centuries, Cambodia fell under the influence of French colonial rule before gaining independence in the 1940s. However, despite the French influences, the Khmer language has survived and is spoken by at least 15 million people in and near Cambodia.

What Makes Khmer Unique? 

Unlike some of its neighboring languages, the sounds in the Khmer language aren’t defined by tone and inflection but instead have a large number of distinct vowels. 

Dissimilarly to French or Spanish, Khmer does not have grammatical gender and there are no articles such as “he”, “she” or “it.” Gender may be described by adding the words “male” or “female”.

Possessives are implied by simply placing the words next to each other i.e the possessed and possession, or by forming a compound word.

Numbers aren’t used at all but can be expressed by using ‘some’ or ‘all’ or by duplicating the word, i.e  cru:k (‘pig’) cah (‘old’) cah (‘old’) for two old pigs. 

What is the Khmer Alphabet? 

The Khmer alphabet has a fixed order. It begins with vowels, followed by diphthongs, then consonants. These are grouped for the manner of articulation i.e. how your tongue, lips and palette make sounds. 

Vowels 

There are two types of vowels in the Khmer alphabet, dependent vowels and independent vowels. Dependent vowels have to be used with consonants while independent vowels can stand on their own. Khmer vowels contain a combination of diphthongs and triphthongs. Whereas English only has 3 diphthongs: /aɪ/ as in pie, /oʊ/ as in cow, and /ɔɪ/ as in boy, Khmer has 9. 

Consonants 

The consonants are categorized into 5 groups based on the position of articulation from the back to the front of the mouth. There is also a sixth miscellaneous group. In modern Khmer, the consonants are arranged into the categories – voiceless and voiced.  Consonant clusters can be found at the beginning but not at the end of words. 

While there are some phonological similarities between English and Khmer, for instance, the sounds /ʋ/ and /r/ are perceptually the same as the English counterparts /w/ and /ɹ/. English uses several fricatives, for example, the /ʒ/ in ship and the /v/ and vice. But these sounds are not found in the Khmer language. 


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