Changing Planet

Tracking the Origins of Cambodian Sign Language

Mist-covered Bokor Mountain in Kampot Province, one of the last Khmer Rouge strongholds, held until the 1990s.

PHNOM PENH – In a dim room at the Deaf Community Center in Phnom Penh, I watch as Chamroeun, a deaf Cambodian and staff member at Deaf Development Programme, narrates the history of Cambodia. As history unfolded before my eyes, I couldn’t help but think about its implications for deaf people.

In front of a slide of the various incarnations of the Cambodian flag, Chamroeun spun through the centuries, crouching and raising his arms into an archer’s pose, becoming a soldier in battle during the Angkor empire. He then straightened, bending his arms into a regal pose to become a king atop an elephant, umbrella carriers at his side. He acted out the battles with Siam, the fall of the Angkor Empire, the arrival of the French, and then independence from France. As we entered modernity, Chamroeun became Lon Nol, the U.S.-backed Prime Minister deposed in 1975, then King Sihanouk in exile in China, and finally, a Khmer Rouge solider. His epic performance concludes with an reenactment of the 1979 Vietnamese invasion.

History Lesson at Deaf Community Center-Phnom Penh from Erin Moriarty Harrelson on Vimeo.

Refracted waves of light from the film illuminate the room, making the ceiling appear as if it was the surface of a swimming pool. Large pieces of paper taped to the wall flutter as strategically placed whirring fans gently cool the room. When I turn away from the film to look out the window, a heavy rain has blurred the view, now an unfocused photo saturated by an Instagram filter.

As the grainy black-and-white newsreel flickered on the whiteboard, grim scenes of ant-like Cambodians trudging in long, twisting lines, emptying baskets of rocks and dirt melted into scenes of an eternally grinning Pol Pot, walking from a car into the Olympic Stadium, speaking to villagers in a forest, and finally, rows of saluting black-clad Cambodians with kramas tied around their necks.

IMG_0074 - Version 2

After the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979, civil war raged in Cambodia for almost twenty years. Thousands of Cambodians congregated in refugee camps on the Cambodian-Thai border. Yellowing A-1 sized papers—reports and grant proposals with scribbled notes in the margins— found in the archives at Deaf Development Programme situate the beginnings of Cambodian Sign Language in these camps.

Realizing there were deaf people among the refugees, humanitarian workers at the camps established a “Deaf Project” with funding from the International Rescue Committee. According to an ancient report, the deaf Cambodians at these camps “learned basic sign language…with a strong influence of American Sign Language because the coordinator of the Deaf Project was fluent in American Sign Language.” This report does not explain further what the ‘basic sign language’ was. Was it American Sign Language? Thai Sign Language?

In 1996, the Cambodian Disabled Peoples’ Organization created a space for deaf people to come together. For some deaf people, it was the first time they had ever met anyone else like themselves. In this shared space, the process of creating and documenting a national sign language began.

Samath, one of the first deaf people involved in this process, described it to me:

“The group leader held up a fruit and asked us, ‘What is the sign for this? What is the sign for that?’ We each showed her different signs and one became the sign for the object or concept. Later, they chose me to become a staff member and I went out to the provinces to lead sessions. We wanted to be sure to include signs from all the provinces. It was hard because there were some students who just sat there, not understanding what we wanted from them. ”

While Cambodian Sign Language is in use, the process of documenting Cambodian Sign Language continues as a joint project between Deaf Development Programme and Krousar Thmey. The two organizations are translating the national curriculum of Cambodia into sign language. They have completed the textbooks for grades 1-3. As they translate the curriculum, new signs are being invented by a committee.

Next week, I will write in more detail about the language situation in Cambodia and the work of the Cambodian Sign Language committee.

Below is a translation of my blog, “Tracking the Origins of Cambodian Sign Language” into Cambodian Sign Language.

Erin Moriarty Harrelson, a PhD candidate in anthropology at American University, is one of five grantees selected from among 864 applicants for a Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, which is the first of its kind. Moriarty Harrelson will travel throughout Cambodia for nine months, exploring the emergence of a post-Khmer Rouge deaf culture. She herself is deaf and will use video, text, photographs, maps, and drawings to document the lives of deaf Cambodians as they encounter each other for the first time and learn Cambodian Sign Language—a language that is still being developed and documented.
  • Kamakar Khmer

    Erin,
    May God bless you. You are my angel.
    Thank you for your help.
    KK.

  • Kamakar Khmer

    Erin,
    May God bless you. You are my angel.
    Thank you for your help.
    KK.

  • Adam Schembri

    Great article, and fascinating project! I’m a hearing linguist who worked at the Deaf Development Program briefly in 2003, and I heard that same stories about the emergence of Cambodian Sign Language in the border camps, and always wondered about the emergence of the language. I look forward to reading more about your work!

  • Adam Schembri

    Great article, and fascinating project! I’m a hearing linguist who worked at the Deaf Development Program briefly in 2003, and I heard that same stories about the emergence of Cambodian Sign Language in the border camps, and always wondered about the emergence of the language. I look forward to reading more about your work!

  • Noah

    Noting that the emergence of many Sign Languages are rarely explored and documented, this is a great project. Being a student of Sign linguist and deaf culture i find the article educative. Eagerly waiting for the next ones. wish you all the very best :).

  • Noah

    Noting that the emergence of many Sign Languages are rarely explored and documented, this is a great project. Being a student of Sign linguist and deaf culture i find the article educative. Eagerly waiting for the next ones. wish you all the very best :).

  • Tod Carter

    សួស្តី! អរុណ​សួស្តី! ឈ្មោះរបស់ខ្ញុំគឺ Tod Carter បាន​ពីសហរដ្ឋ​អាមេរិក។
    ខ្ញុំកំពុងស្វែងរក​តារាង​អក្ខរក្រម​ដៃនៃ​សញ្ញាភាសា​នៃប្រទេសកម្ពុជា។
    ដូច្នេះ​ខ្ញុំកំពុងធ្វើការ​លើការកាត់បន្ថយ​ការគ្នា alpbabet
    ខ្មែរ​នៅក្នុងអក្ខរក្រម​សៀវភៅដៃ … តើ​អ្នកយល់ពី​ការបកប្រែ​របស់ខ្ញុំ​?
    ខ្ញុំស្ទើរតែ​មិនដឹងថា​ជាច្រើននៃ​ភាសាខ្មែរ។​
    អរគុណ!

    Hi! Good morning! My name is Tod Carter from United States of America.
    I am looking for the manual alphabet chart of sign language of
    Cambodia. So, I am working on cutting each khmer alpbabet in manual
    alphabet… Do you understand my translation? I barely not know much
    of the Khmer language.
    Thank you!

  • Tod Carter

    សួស្តី! អរុណ​សួស្តី! ឈ្មោះរបស់ខ្ញុំគឺ Tod Carter បាន​ពីសហរដ្ឋ​អាមេរិក។
    ខ្ញុំកំពុងស្វែងរក​តារាង​អក្ខរក្រម​ដៃនៃ​សញ្ញាភាសា​នៃប្រទេសកម្ពុជា។
    ដូច្នេះ​ខ្ញុំកំពុងធ្វើការ​លើការកាត់បន្ថយ​ការគ្នា alpbabet
    ខ្មែរ​នៅក្នុងអក្ខរក្រម​សៀវភៅដៃ … តើ​អ្នកយល់ពី​ការបកប្រែ​របស់ខ្ញុំ​?
    ខ្ញុំស្ទើរតែ​មិនដឹងថា​ជាច្រើននៃ​ភាសាខ្មែរ។​
    អរគុណ!

    Hi! Good morning! My name is Tod Carter from United States of America.
    I am looking for the manual alphabet chart of sign language of
    Cambodia. So, I am working on cutting each khmer alpbabet in manual
    alphabet… Do you understand my translation? I barely not know much
    of the Khmer language.
    Thank you!

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