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Khmer, or Cambodian, is the official language in Cambodia and its ancient roots are steeped deep in history, with Old Khmer dating back to 600CE and standing as the official language of Angkorian kings. Influenced by Sanskrit and Pali, Khmer stands out from its neighbours because it is not a tonal language, with stress placed on the last syllable.
The moon plays a pivotal role in the lives of Cambodians. As a predominantly Buddhist country, the Khmer calendar is lunar-based, with the majority of religious festivals, such as Khmer New Year and Water Festival, dictated by the full moon. The Khmer word, chhan, is often used as a male or female name and comes from the Sanskrit word for moon: canda.
You don’t have to look further than the ancient temples that dot the country to see the importance placed on gods in Cambodia. Angkor Wat’s walls are etched with legends featuring gods, divine spirits, deities and other ethereal creatures that draw on Hindu and Buddhist legends. Tep derives from the Sanskrit word deva, which means “god” or “divine”.
Cambodians love to appreciate beauty and you’ll often hear the phrase, “sa’at” — or “sa’at nas” (“very beautiful”) — being thrown around. Whether it’s elderly women clucking over a child, a fellow female admiring your hair or someone commenting on a social media update, this is one word that is worth knowing.
From the love songs blasting out of speakers throughout the country to the romantic soap operas streamed on TV, Cambodians can be soppy when it comes to matters of love. Srolang is the word for love, with “Knyom srolang nyek” meaning, “I love you”.
Sticking with the romance theme, Khmers often affectionately refer to their girlfriend or boyfriend as songsaa, which directly translates to “sweetheart”. Cambodia’s first private island resort is called Song Saa because it is comprised of two small islands, Koh Bong and Koh Oeun, which directly translate as “brother and sister island”, but the term can also be used between lovers.
Flowers feature heavily in Khmer culture, with lotus flowers given as offerings, petals strewn by monks during blessings and flowers adorning the hair of traditional dancers. The Khmer word for “flower”, bopha, originally derives from Pali and directly translates as “blossom”.
If you’re heading to Cambodia, then bong is a word you’re going to pick up pretty quickly because everyone is your bong. Directly translating as “brother”, it is also used for women — although “sister” is bong srei — and can refer to a friend, peer, lover or someone slightly older.
Cambodian names often reflect traits and symbols of strength, courage and beauty that parents hope will be picked up by their young. Nimol is one such name that is usually reserved for boys; however, there are plenty of female Cambodians sporting it. Nimol translates as “flawless” but embodies phrases such as, “without blemish” and “without doubt”.
Wealth and prosperity are also highly desirable attributes in Cambodian society, with pich — “diamond” — being another popular name bestowed on sons. The precious gemstone is so highly revered that the man-made island off Phnom Penh that is studded with development in the form of high-quality condos, hotels and other projects, is named Koh Pich, or “Diamond Island”.
While the British like to talk about the weather, Cambodians prefer to chit chat about food. And with rice featuring heavily in the Khmer diet, it’s little wonder that the word for “rice”, bai, appears in sentences when there isn’t even a grain in sight — although that’s highly unlikely at a Cambodian table. For example, “Moul nyam bai” means “Come eat,” regardless of whether there’s a bowl of rice on the table or not.
This is the most popular Cambodian family name, and with the important role strength and power traditionally play in Khmer society, it makes sense why the name is so common. Derived from the Sanskrit word, jaya, chey means “victory” or “victorious”.