La toponymie khmère / Khmer Toponymy

by Saveros Pou

How we can understand (or not) the names of ancient Khmer temples, settlements and landmarks in their modern forms.

Khmer Inscription Angkor Wat

Publication: Bulletin de l'École française d'Extrême-Orient, Vol. 53, No. 2, pp. 375, 377-451 (EFEO/JSTOR)

Published: 1967

Author: Saveros Pou

Pages: 76

Languages : French, Khmer

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While Sanskrit remained the medium for religious and official inscriptions and topographical designations, the Khmer language was rapidly developing as a specific linguistic system among the general population.

Based on a thorough epigraphic analysis, but also an intimate knowledge of modern Khmer idiomatisms, the study vividly shows how Sanskrit names mutated through Khmer pronunciation, or how the popular tradition often opted for renaming buildings and places according to its own worldview, with a predilection for references to geophysical characteristics or specific flora — and fauna in a lesser extent — encountered in the area. 

While derivatives from Siamese, Vietnamese or Cham languages were not uncommon, in particular in the northernmost and southernmost regions, a genuine Khmer toponymy developed through the centuries. Sometimes, the phonetic similarity between Sanskrit words was played on, as with the words ´sri´ (glory) and ´stri´ (woman).

With some fascinating insights on the etymology of major toponyms (Angkor Wat, Bayon, Koh Ker…), the study also considers the instances where a famous, official site-naming simply disappeared to be substituted for a humbler, realistic designation. This is the case with Mahendraparvata, then the name of the mountain on top of which Jayavarman II established a temple proclaiming its ´god-king´authority against the Javanese invaders in the 9th century, a name still mentioned two centuries later in the Sdok Kak Thom inscription but never used in Khmer oral traditions, this hill being known as Phnom Kulen (Mountain of the Lychee Trees). ´Spontaneous naming´, as the philologists would say…

Note on Bayon’ name: It has been said that the Bayon Temple was initially named Jayagiri (Mountain of Victory in Sanskrit), and that much later the French explorers called it The Banyan Temple’, due to the number of banyan trees in the area; in the Khmer pronounciation, Banyan’ became Bayon’…

However, Saveros Pou offers two possible etymologies for the name: 1) Pa Yantra, The High Yantra”, yantra being a circular building. 2) Vaijajanta, Indra’s Palace”, mutated into Vejayantaratna in Khmer recitation, then Veyant, heard as Bayon in modern times…

  • This study is only a part of the dissertation presented by the author for her doctorate in Linguistics and Epigraphy. Saveros Pou had started her researches under the guidance of distinguished Angkor scholars such as George Coedès, François Martini, Au Chhieng, Jean Filliozat and Louis Renou.
  • In another publication, Saveros Pou furthered her research on the naming of Ancient Khmer monuments.

(Photo: Inscription within Angkor Wat)

Tags: toponymy, linguistics, Old Khmer, sanskrit, epigraphy, Bayon

About the Author


Saveros Pou

Saveros Pou (Saveros Lewitz in the 1960s-1970s) ពៅ សាវរស (1929, Phnom Penh- 25 May 2020, France) was a French linguist of Cambodian origin. A retired research director of the CNRS in Paris, a specialist of the Khmer language and civilization, she carried out extensive work of Khmer epigraphy, starting as a young researcher with her teachers George Cœdès and Jean Filliozat.

Born in a high-society and learned family — her uncle, Nhieuk Nou (19001982), was okhnya mahamantri’, Royal Palace secretary, and her grandfather, Ker Nou (18641958), a judge and pandit’ (sage) –, Saveros Pou went to the Sutharot Girls School and Lycée Sisowath before moving to France for higher education, to become a leading researcher in linguistics and social history of Cambodia, as well as a respected teacher for several generations. Residing in England in the 1970s and 1980s, she furthered her research in several US universities, in particular in Hawaii. 

Her work in the field of etymology, specifically applied to old Khmer (from 6th to 14th centuries) was seminal, while her varied skills enabled her to tackle areas such as the very rich processes of derivation in Khmer, religion, codes of conduct, zoology and botany, culinary art, etc. This encyclopedic approach is reflected in her Dictionnaire vieux khmer-français-anglais.

She is the author of more than 150 books and articles, published in several orientalist journals such as the Journal Asiatique and the Bulletin de l’École française d’Extrême-Orient. Saveros Pou’s last book published before her death was Un dictionnaire du khmer-moyen (Phnom Penh, Buddhist Institue, Sāstrā Publishing House, 2017). 


Saveros Pou in 1970 (photo Reyum/​Mikaelian)