Signing and Belonging in Nepal

By Erika Hoffmann-Dilloway

Categories: Anthropology, Linguistics
Imprint: Gallaudet University Press
Hardcover : 9781563686641, 176 pages, June 2016
Ebook : 9781563686658, 176 pages, June 2016
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The author, a linguistic anthropologist, made numerous trips to Nepal between 1997 and 2006, living in the country for months at a time. She studied Nepali Sign Language (NSL) as a collection of overlapping but diverse practices, whereby recognition, belonging, and distinction within and across a DEAF social category are indexically produced. The book seeks to show how both personas and larger social formations like ethno-linguistic identity (e.g., DEAF), or nationality (e.g., Nepali) affect and emerge from interactive language use, while closely attending to rather than erasing all the rich variation that entails.



While many deaf organizations around the world have adopted an ethno-linguistic framing of deafness, the meanings and consequences of this perspective vary across cultural contexts, and relatively little scholarship exists that explores this framework from an anthropological perspective.
     In this book, Erika Hoffmann-Dilloway presents an accessible examination of deafness in Nepal. As a linguistic anthropologist, she describes the emergence of Nepali Sign Language and deaf sociality in the social and historical context of Nepal during the last decades before the Hindu Kingdom became a secular republic. She then shows how the adoption of an ethno-linguistic model interacted with the ritual pollution model, or the prior notion that deafness results from bad karma. Her focus is on the impact of these competing and co-existing understandings of deafness on three groups: signers who adopted deafness as an ethnic identity, homesigners whose ability to adopt that identity is hindered by their difficulties in acquiring Nepali Sign Language, and hearing Nepalis who interact with Deaf signers. Comparing these contexts demonstrates that both the ethno-linguistic model and the ritual pollution model, its seeming foil, draw on the same basic premise: that both persons and larger social formations are mutually constituted through interaction. Signing and Belonging in Nepal is an ethnography that studies a rich and unique Deaf culture while also contributing to larger discussions about social reproduction and social change.


Erika Hoffmann-Dilloway is an associate professor and chair of the Anthropology Department at Oberlin College.



  • Runner-up, Society for Linguistic Anthropology Edward Sapir Book Prize


"The great strength of the book lies in the author’s lucid interweaving of linguistic analysis of the indexical connotations of Deaf Nepalis’ communicative practices with the daily manifestations of language ideologies...this book succeeds well in addressing its main audiences of students and scholars of linguistic anthropology, Nepal anthropology, and international sign language and Deaf Studies."

— HIMALAYA, the Journal of the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies

"Signing and Belonging in Nepal is a touching and authentic reflection on the often-unexpected nuance in the ways deaf people work within particular cultural milieus to find one another, organize, and advocate for their unique status as a community...The detailed contextualization and analysis of the sociopolitical frameworks of deafness and Nepali Sign Language presented in this book will be of great interest to scholars from an array of fields. Readers, educators, and students in medical anthropology, disabilities studies, and linguistics alike will recognize the anthropological influence in the undercurrent propelling the book: the illustration of how ethnolinguistic frameworks of deafness have different ‘meanings and consequences’ within and across cultural contexts."

— Language

"Signing and Belonging in Nepal presents an insightful examination of what deafness means in the cultural, linguistic, political, religious, geographic, and social contexts of Nepal. This book is extremely engaging and readable and presents many interesting accounts of what deafness means in Nepal."

— Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education

"Hoffmann-Dilloway effectively outlines her arguments and nicely introduces theories of language and social categories for the introductory reader. This is a welcome addition to the anthropology of deaf people, especially those who live in the Global South."

— Sign Language Studies

"Hoffmann-Dilloway’s ethnography is an inspirational example of an ethnography of language and society that is as accessible and honest as it is illuminating. Her casual register may serve as a departure from the genre, but the aspiring readers who are its target audience will find it a welcoming introduction to linguistic anthropology."

— Himalayan Linguistics

"Hoffmann-Dilloway’s book signals the beginning of a comprehensive scholarship that focuses on deaf people, signed languages, and signing communities in contemporary Nepal through not just one lens, but several lens from different angles."

— Journal of Linguistic Anthropology