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Khmu language

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Title: Khmu language  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
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Subject: Khmuic languages, Khmu people, Laos, Languages of Laos, Austroasiatic languages
Collection: Khmuic Languages, Languages of Laos
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Khmu language

Khamu, Kamhmu
Native to Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, China
Native speakers
710,000 (1999–2005 census)[2]
Lao, Latin
Language codes
ISO 639-3 Either:
kjg – Khmu
khf – Khmu Khwen[3]
Glottolog khmu1255[4]

Khmu is the language of the Khmu people of the northern Laos region. It is also spoken in adjacent areas of Vietnam, Thailand and China. Khmu lends its name to the Khmuic branch of the Austroasiatic language family, the latter of which also includes Khmer and Vietnamese. Within Austroasiatic, Khmu is often cited as being most closely related to the Palaungic and Khasic languages.[5] The name "Khmu" can also be seen romanized as Kmhmu, Khmu', Kammu, or Khamuk in various publications or alternatively referred to by the name of a local dialect.


  • Dialects 1
    • Suwilai Premsrirat (2002) 1.1
  • Phonology 2
    • Consonants 2.1
    • Vowels 2.2
  • See also 3
  • References 4
  • Further reading 5
  • External links 6


Approximate location of Khmu dialects in Laos

As a minority language with no standardizing influence, many dialects have evolved. Dialects differ primarily in consonant inventory, existence of register, and the degree to which the language has been influenced by the surrounding national language(s). Dialects are, for the most part, mutually intelligible; however communication can be difficult between speakers of geographically distant dialects.

The dialects of Khmu can be broadly categorized into two groups, Western Khmu and Eastern Khmu.

  • Western Khmu dialects have fewer consonant phonemes and instead use phonemic register contrast, as seen in other Austroasiatic languages, of "lax" breathy register and "tense" modal register. In at least one dialect of Western Khmu, known as Khmu Rook, tonogenesis is evident as the register contrast has developed into a system of two phonetic tones with six phonemic realizations.[6]
  • Eastern Khmu dialects show the opposite tendency. Completely lacking either register or tone distinction, these dialects utilize a three-way distinction of stops (voiced, voiceless and aspirated voiceless) and nasals (voiced, voiceless, and pre-glottalized) in the syllable-initial position for phonemic contrast.[7]

Suwilai Premsrirat (2002)

Suwilai Premsrirat (2002)[8] reports the following locations and dialects of Khmu in Laos, Vietnam, China, and Thailand.

  • Laos: spoken in the 8 northern provinces of Luang Namtha, Udomsai, Bokeo, Sayaburi, Phongsali, Luang Prabang, and Chiengkhwang, with a few villages near Vientiane. Dialects include Khmu Rook, Khmu Lue, and Khmu Cuang (also known as Khmu Uu).
  • China: Pung Soa village (more conservative with voicing contrasts in the initial consonants) and Om Kae village (has tonal contrasts) in Sipsongpanna, Yunnan



The consonant inventory of Khmu is shown in the table below. The phonemes in the colored cells are particular to the dialects of Eastern Khmu. The phoneme /f/, present in dialects of both Eastern and Western Khmu, is a result of borrowings from the surrounding Tai languages.[9]

Labial Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Plosive Aspirated
Voiceless p t c k ʔ
Voiced b d ɟ ɡ
Nasal Voiceless ɲ̥ ŋ̥
Voiced m n ɲ ŋ
Preglottalized ʔm ʔn ʔɲ ʔŋ
Fricative Voiceless (f) s h
Approximant Voiceless *
Voiced w l r j
Preglottalized ʔw ʔj

* is technically a voiceless labio-velar approximant


The vowels of Khmu show little variation across the dialects with all varieties having 19 monophthongs and three diphthongs (/iə/, /ɨə/ and /uə/).[6]

Front Central Back
short long short long short long
Close /i/ /iː/ /ɨ/ /ɨː/ /u/ /uː/
Close-mid /e/ /eː/ /ə/ /əː/ /o/ /oː/
Open-mid /ɛ/ /ɛː/ /ʌː/ /ɔ/ /ɔː/
Open /a/ /aː/

See also


  1. ^ [3]
  2. ^ Khmu at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
    Khmu Khwen[1]
    at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  3. ^ [4]
  4. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "'"Khmu.  
  5. ^ Diffloth, Gérard (2005). "The contribution of linguistic palaeontology and Austroasiatic". in Laurent Sagart, Roger Blench and Alicia Sanchez-Mazas, eds. The Peopling of East Asia: Putting Together Archaeology, Linguistics and Genetics. 77–80. London: Routledge Curzon.
  6. ^ a b SUWILAI Premsrirat, author. 2001. "Tonogenesis in Khmu dialects of SEA." Mon-Khmer Studies: a Journal of Southeast Asian Linguistics and Languages 31: 47-56.
  7. ^ Suwilai, Premsrirat, et al. Mahidol University. Dictionary of Khmu in Laos.
  8. ^ Premsrirat, Suwilai. 2002. Dictionary of Khmu in Laos. Mon-Khmer Studies, Special Publication, Number 1, Volume 3. Salaya, Thailand: Mahidol University.
  9. ^ Suwilai, Prēmsīrat. The Thesaurus and Dictionary Series of Khmu Dialects in Southeast Asia. Nakorn Pathom: Institute of Language and Culture for Rural Development, Mahidol University at Salaya, Thailand, 2002. ISBN 9740501125

Further reading

  • Premsirat, Suwilai (1991). "Aspects Inter-Clausal Relations in Khmu". In Davidson, Jeremy H. C. S.; Shorto, H. L. Austroasiatic Languages: Essays in Honour of H.L. Shorto. University of London, School of Oriental and African Studies. pp. 123–140.  
  • Prēmsīrat, Suwilai. The Thesaurus and Dictionary Series of Khmu Dialects in Southeast Asia. Nakorn Pathom: Institute of Language and Culture for Rural Development, Mahidol University at Salaya, Thailand, 2002. ISBN 9740501125
  • Prēmsīrat, Suwilai. Khmu, a Minority Language of Thailand. Papers in South-East Asian linguistics, no. 10. Canberra, A.C.T., Australia: Dept. of Linguistics, Research School of Pacific Studies, Australian National University, 1987. ISBN 0-85883-365-4
  • Proschan, Frank. Kmhmu Language and Language Policy: At Home and Abroad. s.l: s.n, 1995.
  • Proschan, Frank. Poetic Parallelism in Kmhmu Verbal Arts: From Texts to Performances. s.l: s.n, 1988.
  • Smalley, William Allen. Outline of Khmu structure. American Oriental series. Essay, v.2. New Haven, Conn: American Oriental Society, 1961.
  • Svantesson, Jan-Olof. Kammu Phonology and Morphology. Travaux de l'Institut de linguistique de Lund, 18. Lund: CWK Gleerup, 1983. ISBN 91-40-04870-5

External links

  • RWAAI (Repository and Workspace for Austroasiatic Intangible Heritage)
  • Khmu in RWAAI Digital Archive
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