Cambodian Linguistic Anxiety: Revitalizing Khmer through Media Personalities

Author: Cheryl Yin (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor)
Speaker: Cheryl Yin
Topic: Linguistic Anthropology
The (SCOPUS / ISI) SOAS GLOCAL CALA 2019 General Session


This conference paper analyzes metapragmatic commentary (Silverstein 1976), a commentary about language and language-users, that I encountered during my fieldwork in Cambodian from September 2014 to December 2016. After introducing myself to Cambodians as a linguistic anthropology who is interested in the Khmer language, without prompting some Cambodians produced unsolicited metapragmatic commentary about the dire state of the Khmer language. Some lament the corruption of the language, pointing to mistakes they notice in both spoken and written form. Others surmise that, with the prevalence of international schools, Khmer will cease to exist as the younger generation prefers to speak foreign languages over Khmer. I originally dismissed such comments because the Khmer language is nowhere near endangered and, as a descriptive linguist, I do not advocate any language variety over another.

I now consider their comments as a site of inquiry. These metapragmatic discourses echo other speech communities who feel their language is endangered or threatened. Cambodians are participating in a “complaint tradition” (Milroy & Milroy 1999) and in discourses of nostalgia (Hill 1998; Cavanaugh 2004), recalling a past golden era as they lament the demise of Khmer. Because not all Cambodians make such commentary, I ask: Who are (and who are not) making such comments, and why? Whose language is targeted as “wrong” or “corrupted”? And, what are these comments ultimately about? I argue that the fears and anxieties expressed by Cambodians are related to fears beyond language, fears about the changing cultural and political landscape they observe: the popularity of foreign languages (such as English and Korean) and foreign popular media, as well as large-scale developments funded by foreign companies. Using literature pertaining to language endangerment, language standardization, and nostalgia, I discuss Cambodian metapragmatic discourses in relation to discourses made by other speech communities who feel their language is threatened.

Lastly, I introduce Cambodian media personalities who, as an important node for disseminating language, are viewed as linguistic role models. Due to their visibility, special linguistic scrutiny is placed upon media personalities to speak “proper” Khmer. Like many other language communities who are concerned with the state of their language and participate in language revitalization efforts, I argue that Cambodians look at mass media as a possible tool to revitalize the Khmer language so it is important for media personalities to speak Khmer correctly.