Khmer Honorifics: Re-emergence and Change After the Khmer Rouge

My research examines Khmer (Cambodian) honorific registers one generation after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. Honorific registers are a grammar system which encode in conversation the social identities and social relationship of speakers. I investigate Khmer honorific registers because honorific choices reveal an individual's worldview about identity and hierarchy. For example, the word “eat” in Khmer should be soay (សោយ)​ if the subject of the sentence is the king, chan (ឆាន) if it is a Buddhist monk, and si (ស៊ី) ​​if it is an animal. I say "should" because 1) not all Cambodians are fluent in all honorific registers and 2) Cambodians often break these rules for creative effects (using the "wrong" honorific to show anger or contempt toward someone, for example). Under the Khmer Rouge communist regime from 1975-1979, honorific registers were exploited to reflect communist ideologies. Since all Cambodians were theoretically equal under the regime, there was only one sanctioned word for "eat": hob (ហូប), the word "eat" that was commonly used among peasant farmers in the countryside. When the Khmer Rouge regime fell in 1979, Cambodians reclaimed their system of honorific register system, but their social, economic, and political landscape had drastically changed. Using language as a lens into society, I use Khmer honorific registers in order to understand how contemporary Cambodian society is changing in the aftermath of war and genocide.

Based on two years of ethnographic fieldwork in Cambodia from 2014-2016, using participant-observation, interviews, and archival research, I argue that urban middle-class Cambodians today have a narrower view of social hierarchy, which impacts their honorific repertoire. While the recent flattening of Khmer honorifics looks similar to the flattening that occurred under the Khmer Rouge, I argue that changes in honorific-use among the urban middle-class correspond to more contemporary issues. My findings shows that, while honorific-usage is often a choice, those choices are often influenced, and sometimes even limited, by an individual's social identity, background, and ideological values.

My project was generously funded by the Fulbright Program, the Center for Khmer Studies, and the Menakka and Essel Bailey Graduate Fellowship through the Center for the Education of Women. I am grateful for the dissertation writing support provided by the American Association of University Women and the Department of Anthropology at the University of Michigan.

Click the link below to hear to me talk to Carie Little Hersh, host of the podcast Anthropologist on the Street, about my research during the American Anthropological Association's 2019 Annual Conference in Vancouver, Canada.

Interviewing a professor and Buddhist monk in Battambang, Cambodia

Work in progress...

My Great-Grandfather's First Wife

This project examines Chinese migration into Southeast Asia, but from the point of view of the families and villages that were left behind. I use my great-grandfather's first wife in Wenchang, Hainan, China as a starting point. What happened to this woman after her husband and two sons left China to immigrate to Cambodia?