LINGUIST List 11.2470

Wed Nov 15 2000

Sum: Khmer Vowels

Editor for this issue: Marie Klopfenstein <>


  1. Robert R. Ratcliffe, Khmer vowels

Message 1: Khmer vowels

Date: Mon, 13 Nov 2000 18:12:34 +0000
From: Robert R. Ratcliffe <>
Subject: Khmer vowels

Thanks to all who responded to my question about Khmer vowels. Here's a

 Karen Fisher-Nguyen informs me that a 1952 article "The main features
of Cambodian pronunciation" Bulletin of the School of Oriental and
African Studies 14:149-174 by Eugenie
Henderson, is the first to describe the Mon-Kmer feature known as

Lance Eccles tells me that "there's some discussion -- though not very
much -- of the two vowel
registers in Judith M Jacob, Introduction to Cambodian (Oxford
UP,1968)." The author of this work describes the contrast as tense and

Mary Constance Parks surmised "I would guess that she is referring to
the state of the glottis.
Constricted glottis is creaky voice, and spread glottis is breathy
voice. It is likely that Khmer
uses these features distinctively, as many Southeast languages do (e.g.,
White Hmong)."

Mard Picard referred me to p. 316 of Ladefoged/Maddieson, which
describes vowel contrasts in Parauk, a related Mon-Khmer language. The
difference here does indeed seem to depend on degrees of glottal
constriction. He also referred me to two articles on the phenomenon in
nothern-khmer and four on the same phenomenon in related languages.

The most detailed response came from Marjory Meechan who says that
"Khmer vowels are somewhat of a mystery." She refers me to her MA thesis
[Meechan, M. (1992) Register in Khmer: The laryngeal specification of
pharyngeal expansion. MA. University of Ottawa] and to Lee, Thomas
(1983) An acoustical study of the register distinction in Mon.
University of California Working Papers in Phonetics 57: 79-96. She says
" Lee found that there was a consistent and significant difference
between the overall pitch of vowels of one register as opposed to the
other. The register distinction in these languages is ostensibly the
result of the loss of a voicing distinction in Khmer. I argued in my
thesis (and also see Denning below) that the distinction is probably
best represented with the feature [lowered larynx]." She included some
other references as well.

Finally Johannes Reese asked me to post a summary since the phenomenon
appears to represent "the development of tone in Cambodian, the almost
last language without it in the area." It does sound a bit like that
from Ms. Meechan's post, but tonogenesis is not something I'm
knowledgeable about.

Thanks again to everyone. I feel I have gotten in a bit over my head,
but I'll pass the references on to my colleague professor Ueda, and hope
she will take them up.

Best Regards

- -----------------------------------------------------------
Robert R. Ratcliffe
Associate Professor, Arabic and Linguistics,
Dept. of Linguistics and Information Science
Tokyo University of Foreign Studies
Asahi-machi 3-11-1,
Fuchu-shi, Tokyo
183-8534 Japan
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