Editorial | Articles about Cambodia | Khmer

Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Word Yuon

By Navy Phim

I was reading Kenneth So's article on the word Yuon. I would like to submit my piece on it to your website also. It is an excerpt from my book "Reflections of a Khmer Soul." Please include at the end that it is an excerpt from my book and include my website on it too.

The word Yuon, like the term ethnic cleansing, has been a topic of many discussions in my journey. Yuon is a Khmer word that means Vietnamese. It is neither derogatory nor flattering. When my parents became friends with our Vietnamese-Cambodian neighbors, we called them Yuon. As we call Cambodia, Srok Khmer, we also called Vietnam Srok Yuon, land of the Yuon.

In "Khmer Language and the Term Yuon," Bora Touch argues:

To say that "yuon" means "savages," critics of the term are likely reliant on the Khmer Rouge's definition from KR Black Book (1978) p.9, a definition that is incorrect and baseless and was included by the KR for the purpose of propaganda. Some Khmer, including Khmer Krom, believe that "yuon" actually derives from "Yuonan," the Chinese word for Vietnam. Others believe it comes from the Yaun (Khan) dynasty, against whose armies both the Khmer and Cham did battle.

But in Cambodia, Yuon has somehow become a politically incorrect word that some view as derogatory.

Many Cambodian-Americans and local Cambodians disagree on the meaning of the word Yuon. If I were to accept that the meaning changed due to some occurrence in Cambodia and that people outside of Cambodia were out of the loop, I would hope that the world could accept that Yuon can still be used neutrally without a supposedly derogatory connotation. But I'm not convinced that the word has changed in meaning. I think people may change it for their own agenda. Unfortunately, it can bring misunderstanding and animosity when Yuon is used in Cambodia.

The new acceptable term for Yuon is Vietnam. As pronounced by Khmer people with our unique accent, it sounds like "Yak-nam," "Yak" being the mystical giant that eats humans. I prefer to think of my Vietnamese friends as Yuon rather than as blood-thirsty giants.

I also saw an Internet discussion asserting that the Laotian word for Vietnamese is Yuon or Kaew. To be able to live and have the dignity to use your language without others telling you that certain words have a negative connotation is a luxury that Cambodians do not have.
Excerpt from "Reflections of a Khmer Soul"

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