Cham language

Pronunciation [caːm]
Native to Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, China (Hainan Island), various countries with recent immigrants
Native speakers
320,000 (2002 – 2008 census)[1]
  • Western Cham (204,000)
  • Eastern Cham (73,000)
Cham alphabet, Arabic, Latin script
Official status
Recognised minority
language in
Language codes
ISO 639-3 Either:
cja  Western Cham
cjm  Eastern Cham
Glottolog cham1328[2]

Cham is the language of the Cham people of Southeast Asia, and formerly the language of the kingdom of Champa in central Vietnam. A member of the Malayo-Polynesian branch of the Austronesian family, it is spoken by 204,000 people in Cambodia and 79,000 people in Vietnam. There are also small populations of speakers in Thailand and Malaysia. Other Chamic languages are spoken in Cambodia and/or Vietnam (Raglai, Rade, Jarai, Chru and Haroi), on Hainan (Tsat) and in Aceh, North Sumatra (Acehnese). Cham is notable for being the oldest-attested Austronesian language, with the Dong Yen Chau inscription being dated to the late 4th century AD.

Dialectal differences

Cham is divided into two primary dialects. Western Cham is spoken by the Cham in Cambodia as well as in the adjacent Vietnamese provinces of An Giang and Tây Ninh. Eastern Cham is spoken by the coastal Cham populations in the Vietnamese provinces of Bình Thuận, Ninh Thuận, and Đồng Nai. The two regions where Cham is spoken are separated both geographically and culturally. The more numerous Western Cham are predominantly Muslim (although some in Cambodia now practice Theravada Buddhism) and use either the Arabic script or the Western version of the Cham alphabet while the Eastern Cham practice both Islam and Hinduism and use the Eastern version of the Cham alphabet. Ethnologue states that the two dialects are no longer mutually intelligible. The table below gives some examples of words where the two dialects differed as of the 19th century.[3]

Cambodia southern Vietnam
save from drowningsrongthrong
final consonants
in frontanapanak
lexical differences

Lê et al. (2014:175)[4] lists a few Cham subgroups.


Word formation

There are several prefixes and infixes which can be used for word derivation.[5]

  • prefix pa-: causative, sometimes giving more force to the word
    • thău (to know) → pathău (to inform)
    • blẽi (to buy) → pablẽi (to sell)
    • bier (low) → pabier (to lower)
    • yău (like, as) → payău (to compare)
    • jœû (finished) → pajœû (well finished)
  • prefix mœ-: sometimes causative, often indicates a state, possession, mutuality, reciprocity
    • jruu (poison) → mœjruu (to poison)
    • gruu (teacher) → mœgruu (to study)
    • téan (belly) → mœtéan (pregnancy)
    • boḥ (egg, fruit) → mœboḥ (lay an egg, give fruit)
    • daké (horn) → mœdaké (having horns)
  • prefix ta- or da-: frequentative
    • galuṇg (to roll) → tagaluṇg (to roll around)
    • dâp (to hide oneself) → dadâp (to be wont to hide oneself)
  • infix -n-: noun formation
    • pvâch (to speak) → panvâch (speech)
    • tiêu (row) → taniêu (oar)
    • dok (to live) → danok (house, living place)
  • infix -mœ-: no specific meaning
    • payău (to compare) → pamœyău (to compare)

Reduplication is often used:[5]

  • palẽi, pala-palẽi (country)
  • raḅaḥ, raḅaḥ-raḅœp (misery)

Syntax and word order

Cham generally uses SVO word order, without any case marking to distinguish subject from object:[6]

Dummy pronominal subjects are sometimes used, echoing the subject:

Inœû hudiêp dahlaknhuatongadẽi puthang nhu.
my wife's mothershebeather husband's younger sister
"My wife's mother beats her husband's younger sister."

Composite verbs will behave as one inseparable verb, having the object come after it:

Bloḥnhuḍiḥ dii apvẽianẽk lakẽi.
thenshelie at fire (i.e.: give birth)son
"Then she gave birth to a son."

Sometimes, however, the verb is placed in front of the subject:

"I fall."

Auxiliary verbs are placed after any objects:

Nhubahudiêp nhunau.
hebringhis wifego
"He brings his wife."

If a sentence contains more than one main verb, one of the two will have an adverbial meaning:

"He evaded death by hiding."

Adjectives come after the nouns they modify:[7]

"a big house"

If the order is reversed, the whole will behave like a compound:

"a noisy person"

Composite sentences can be formed with the particle krung:[8]

It is also possible to leave out this particle, without change in meaning:[6]

Dahlak brẽi athêh nankaa va dahlakdok dii palẽi Ram.
I give this horseto my unclewholive in the village of Ram
"I have given this horse to my uncle, who lives in the village of Ram."

Questions are formed with the sentence-final particle rẽi:[9]

"Can you write, child?"

Other question words are in situ:

"Where are you going?"


Like many languages in Eastern Asia, Cham uses numeral classifiers to express amounts.[10] The classifier will always come after the numeral, with the noun coming invariably before or after the classifier-numeral pair.

The above examples show the classifier boḥ, which literally means "egg" and is the most frequently used particularly for round and voluminous objects. Other classifiers are ôrang (person) for people and deities, ḅêk for long objects, blaḥ (leaf) for flat objects, and many others.

The days of the month are counted with a similar system, with two classifiers: one (bangun) used to count days before the full moon, and the other one (ranaṃ) for days after the full moon.[11]

Personal pronouns behave like ordinary nouns and do not show any case distinctions. There are different forms depending on the level of politeness. The first person singular, for example, is kău in formal or distant context, while it is dahlak (in Vietnam) or hulun (in Cambodia) in an ordinarily polite context. As is the case with many other languages of the region, kinship terms are often used as personal pronouns.[8]

Comparative and superlative are expressed with the locative preposition di/dii:[12]

tapaadiaï nhu
bigathis brother
"bigger than his brother"


There are some particles that can be used to indicate tense/aspect.[13] The future is indicated with shi or thi in Vietnam, with hi or si in Cambodia. The perfect is expressed with jϞ. The first one comes in front of the verb:

Arak nikăushinao.
"I will go now."

The second one is sentence-final:

Shit traakăunaojœû.
little moreIgoprf
"I'll be gone in a moment."

Certain verbs can function as auxiliaries to express other tenses or aspects.[14] The verb dok ("to stay") is used for the continuous, vœk ("to return") for the repetitive aspect, and kiœng ("to want") for the future tense.

The negation is formed with ôh/ô at either or both sides of the verb, or with di/dii[15] in front.[13]

The imperative is formed with the sentence-final particle bêk, and the negative imperative with the preverbal jvai/jvẽi (in Vietnam and Cambodia respectively).[13]


The Ming dynasty Chinese Bureau of Translators produced a Chinese-Cham dictionary.

John Crawfurd's 1822 work "Malay of Champa" contains a dictionary of the Cham language.

See also


  1. Western Cham at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
    Eastern Cham at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Cham". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. Aymonier 1889, chapt. IX
  4. Lê Bá Thảo, Hoàng Ma, et. al; Viện hàn lâm khoa học xã hội Việt Nam - Viện dân tộc học. 2014. Các dân tộc ít người ở Việt Nam: các tỉnh phía nam. Ha Noi: Nhà xuất bản khoa học xã hội. ISBN 978-604-90-2436-8
  5. 1 2 Aymonier 1889, chapt. X
  6. 1 2 Aymonier 1889, chapt. XXI
  7. Aymonier 1889, chapt. XIII
  8. 1 2 Aymonier 1889, chapt. XII
  9. Aymonier 1889, chapt. XIX
  10. Aymonier 1889, chapt. XI
  11. Aymonier 1889, chapt. VIII
  12. Aymonier 1889, chapt. XVI
  13. 1 2 3 Aymonier 1889, chapt. XV
  14. Aymonier 1889, chapt. XIV
  15. This happens to be homophonous with the locative preposition.

Further reading

  • Anthony Grant, Paul Sidwell, Australian National University. Pacific Linguistics (2005). Chamic and beyond: studies in mainland Austronesian languages (illustrated ed.). Pacific Linguistics, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Australian National University. ISBN 0-85883-561-4. Retrieved 2011-05-15. 
  • Graham Thurgood (1999). From ancient Cham to modern dialects: two thousand years of language contact and change : with an appendix of Chamic reconstructions and loanwords. University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 0-8248-2131-9. Retrieved 2011-05-15. 
  • Etienne Aymonier; Antoine Cabaton (1906). Dictionnaire čam-français. Volume 7 of Publications de l'École française d'Extrême-Orient. E. Leroux. Retrieved 2011-05-15. 
  • Aymonier, Etienne (1889). Grammaire de la langue chame. Imprimerie coloniale. Retrieved 2011-05-15. 
  • Aymonier, Etienne and Antoine Cabaton (1906). Dictionnaire Cam-Français. Paris: Leroux.
  • Blood, D. L., & Blood, D. (1977). East Cham language. Vietnam data microfiche series, no. VD 51-72. Huntington Beach, Calif: Summer Institute of Linguistics.
  • Blood, D. L. (1977). A romanization of the Cham language in relation to the Cham script. Vietnam data microfiche series, no. VD51-17. Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics.
  • Edwards, E. D., and C. O. Blagden. 1939. “A Chinese Vocabulary of Cham Words and Phrases”. Bulletin of the School of Oriental Studies, University of London 10 (1). Cambridge University Press: 53–91.
  • Vladimir Braginsky (18 March 2014). Classical Civilizations of South-East Asia. Routledge. pp. 398–. ISBN 978-1-136-84879-7. 
  • Moussay, Gerard (1971). Dictionnaire Cam-Vietnamien-Français. Phan Rang: Centre Culturel Cam.
  • Sakaya. 2014. Từ điển Chăm. Nhà xuất bản Tri Thức. ISBN 978-604-908-999-2
  • Various. 2011. Ngôn ngữ Chăm: thực trạng và giải pháp. Hanoi: Nhà xuất bản Phụ Nữ.
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