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Erin Moriarty Harrelson (Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, United Kingdom)
Abstract ID: 408
Topic: Linguistic Anthropology
General Session Papers
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What are the relationships between language ideologies and deaf languaging practices, if these practices involve undocumented or unconventionalised sign languages? As in any academic field, particular ideologies and practices dominate sign language research which, in turn, have diffused through deaf communities. They include ideas about language spread, change, documentation and standardization processes, and national sign languages as bounded entities. Some of these ideologies manifest through the ways deaf people perceive their linguistic identities, as well as their languages and/or communicative practices. They also manifest in language documentation practices.

Drawing on 14 months of ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Cambodia between 2012 and 2016, this paper examines mobile ideologies about sign languages and deaf people that circulated through Cambodia in the form of NGO projects, especially the Cambodian Sign Language development project. In 1997, an NGO in Phnom Penh undertook a project to incubate the development of a national sign language, Cambodian Sign Language (CSL), and subsequently, a national Deaf community. This project included the invention of signs for individual Khmer words by a committee, in addition to travel to different provinces throughout Cambodia to capture the signs used by deaf people in the provinces.

The CSL project took place in the context of a perceived “lack” of a national sign language or a widely shared sign language in Cambodia, as well as historical processes that disseminated American Sign Language (ASL) throughout Southeast Asia in the form of deaf education projects in Bangkok and Manila in the 1950s and then Cambodia in the 1990s. In the early days of the project, many of the foreign consultants, who came at different times from different countries, shared a concern with taxonomic classification, especially in terms of possibly foreign signs and the possibility that certain signs were invented by a hearing person. They conducted investigations to ensure these signs were not from Thai Sign Language, one of the sign languages used in Vietnam, nor invented by a non-deaf person.

This paper examines the ideologies that drove the practices of the CSL documentation project and asks, what is it that drives such ideologies and practices? Indeed, sign language varieties can emerge and disappear quickly, especially in areas experiencing violence and displacement, but the ideologies and practices involved in sign language work can sometimes constrain and devalue the creative communicative practices of deaf people, especially if it includes non-conventionalized signing or communicative practices that do not involve a national or named sign language.

Keywords: language ideologies, sign languages