Cheryl Yin

University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

Cheryl Yin is a Ph.D. candidate in Linguistic Anthropology and from 2014-2016, she conducted ethnographic fieldwork in Cambodia, splitting time between Phnom Penh and Battambang. Her dissertation fieldwork was funded by the Fulbright U.S. Student Program, the Menakka and Essel Bailey Graduate Fellowship, and the Center for Khmer Studies. She is currently writing her dissertation in Ann Arbor, MI with support from the American Association of University Women’s American Dissertation Fellowship.

Dissertation Title: Khmer Honorifics: Re-emergence & Change after the Khmer Rouge

Dissertation Abstract: The Khmer language contains honorific speech registers. For example, the verb “eat” may be soay, chan, hob, si, etc. depending on status, context, and the speaker’s attitude. During their genocidal communist regime (1975-1979), the Khmer Rouge (KR) isolated Cambodia and implemented a policy of linguistic leveling, eliminating honorifics to create an egalitarian society; the only word for “eat” was hob. Following the collapse of the KR, Cambodia reintegrated into the globalized world. Cheryl conducted 2 years of ethnographic fieldwork in Cambodia to examine how the Khmer language, most notably its honorific registers, is changing in response to social, political, and economic changes in the aftermath of the KR. Specifically, how do Cambodians use honorifics to respond to external changes in their world or to reflect internal changes in personal beliefs? Preliminary analyses of the data show competing drivers of language change in the re-emergence of honorifics. Young Cambodians are re-flattening Khmer to flout social hierarchy due to the influence of English and Western ideals of democracy and justice. Older Cambodians, unhappy with language changes they observe, want Khmer to return to the 1960s; their language complaints are part of a larger narrative that is nostalgic for a pre-KR past when, according to them, there was morality and Cambodians respected social hierarchy. This research will shed light on how Cambodian society has coped with its volatile history through language-use and will contribute to Cambodian studies as well as linguistic anthropological literature pertaining to language ideologies, language change, and language standardization.