Cambodians traditionally have only a last name and a first name, with middle names common only among royalty and the elite. Historically, Cambodians take their paternal grandfather's first name as their last name, which is why last names among Cambodians are as varied as first names.
Cambodian first names generally range from monosyllabic to quadrisyllabic. The number of syllables in a person's name often reflects the level of the parents' education or family's sophistication. It does not necessarily reflect a family's social status. As long as they feel comfortable with it, parents of humble means may come up with elaborate four-syllable names for their children, full of harmonic sound vibrations and profound meaning.
Nicknames are quite common among all classes of Cambodians. A nickname may reflect the child's character, attitude, physical appearance, perference, or family status (such as being the oldest or youngest child). Nicknames may also be the shortened form of a person's first name. When Cambodians shorten a person's name to create a nickname, they usually do so by referencing the last syllable of the name. For example, a person named Daravuth may be refered to by family and friends simply as Vuth.
Some well-to-do families, including the royal family, take the time to consult Buddhist priests or Sanskrit scholars before deciding upon a child's name. The royal family, in particular, understand very well the importance of powerful names and carefully choose beautiful sophisticated ones with majestic and unique meanings to endow a prince or princess.
Sanskrit and Pali roots
Sankrit is considered to be one of the most ancient languages in the world and provides the foundation of many Indo-European languages today. Sanskrit's influence on the East is similar to Arabic on the Middle East and Latin on the West. Asiatic Society founder Sir William Jones, having studied the internal structure of Sanskrit in detail, stated: "The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure, more perfect than Greek, more copious than Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either."
Sanskrit is unique among languages because of its emphasis on sound vibrations. Hindu philosophy explains that the entire cosmos sprang into existence from sound vibrations of the primeval word "OM." Sanskrit, believed to have been formulated according to this divine vibration, was considered to be the language of sages, the cultured, and the gods themselves. Because of its powerfully beautiful cosmic vibrations, Sanskrit was used primarily for scriptural purposes such as recording the mantras, the Vedas, and holy prayers. Through the course of time, this sacred language was carefully polished and perfected, with each word having a favorable, unique sound quality.
The rapid rise of Buddhism in the 3rd century BCE enabled the Pali language to come into prominence and rival the influence of ancient Sanskrit. Unlike Sanskrit, which was a language of the elites and the gods, Pali, like the religion it conveyed, was a language for the masses. While also considered sacred since it represents the language of the earliest, oldest teachings of the Buddha (and many believe spoken by the Buddha himself), Pali was meant to be learned and passed on by ordinary, though educated, persons. As monks traveled to Cambodia to spread their religion, they used Pali as the vehicle to communicate the Buddha's words. Even in today's Cambodia, thousands of years since the Buddha's enlightenment, texts and recitations of his teachings are still done in Pali.
Both Hinduism and Buddhism and their associated languages took firm root in Cambodia and heavily influenced the local people. From the sixth century AD until the 12th century AD, Hinduism was the state religion of the Khmer Empire. During the time of King Jayavarman VII, Cambodia's greatest monarch who reigned in the late 12th to early 13th century, Buddhism became, and still is today, the national religion. Even though Sanskrit, the main vehicle for Hinduism, gave way to Pali, the linguistic vehicle of Buddhism, the Khmer language is strongly influenced by both ancient languages. Most Cambodian technical and spiritual terms are still primarily Sanskrit or Pali, as are many Cambodian names.
Even though they may be of Sanskrit or Pali roots, the names in this directory are essentially Cambodian in nature. Cambodians never adopt foreign influence wholeheartedly nor forget their own distinctive culture. They tend to pick and choose what they like from other cultures, then add their own flare and preference to produce something new and unique in quality. Historians and archeologists have observed this process of Khmerization in Angkorian-era architecture and arts, where even though ancient Khmer temples and bas-reliefs have as their foundation Hinduism or Buddhism, their beauty is spectacular and different from anything produced anywhere else in the world. The same process applies to Cambodian names. Cambodians have carefully looked for specific meanings of Sanskrit, Pali or native Khmer words, and in many cases altered the spellings or sound variation to make them more pleasing to local senses.
CREATE YOUR OWN NAME
Unlike names in many other parts of the world that have become consistent, fixed and uniform, Cambodian names may be flexible, spirited and alive. If you understand the meaning of certain words and like the sound vibrations they produce, you can try putting them together to come up with a name as unique and special as your child.
Contents and materials from Directory of Cambodian Sankrit Names for Your Newborn
written by Fany Ros Khiev Seing and republished here with her permission.