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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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am a Khmer-American and I totally agree with Ms. Navy Phim on the Khmer term 'youn'. It is a neutral term in itself. Just like the West coined 'Cambodia', and we, Khmer people, called our country 'srok khmer' - no difference, depends on the understanding of the Khmer language. Any other interpretation of this term is corrupted and un-Khmer in its original meaning. Khmer is no different than other races, we do have our own terms for other countries on this planet. It is a Khmer thing; one has to understand and speak our language to really know Khmerness.

9:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In the Khmer language, we called:

Laos: 'liev'
Thailand: 'siem or thai' but better known as 'siem'
Vietnamese: 'youn'
Chinese: 'chen or chin'
American: 'a keng or a meric'
French: 'barang'
Burmese: 'ko la'
Malayasian and Indonesian: 'chvea'

... and so on...

in correctness, we often say the word 'sehs' preceding the races' name. The word 'sehs' itself means 'race', literally like 'sehs khmer, sehs youn, sehs siem or thai, sehs liev, etc.'

If foreigners want to know the Khmer language, they should ask any native khmer speaker; I bet you the native Khmer speaker can tell you more on how to correctly say something in Khmer. And my suggestion, is try to avoid other foreigner who can speak Khmer as a second language because a lot of time, they do not or can not say the khmer word correctly, thus will either mispronounce it or mis-interpret it, especially if they have accent. So, my suggestion is to ask a native Khmer speaker, instead. thank you

10:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

have you ever play the fun game call 'telephone' where you line up 10 or more people, then whisper a phrase to the first person to pass it along the line to the very end. And eventually, the last person in that line is asked to shout the same phrase out loud so everyone can hear. And the same phrase has turned to something else that the referee did not understand or not familiarize with. Well, it's the same concept, here. The Khmer term 'youn' is being interpreted out of proportion. You see!

10:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I remeber an article I read about how the word Yuon originated. During the Angkor era and prior, Khmer, Cham, Mon, Chvea, and other nations and kingdoms called Vietnamese people Yavana which then became Yuon in the present time. Yuon isn't a bad word, its name given not by hatred or anything, it just somehow sound bad in the Khmer language. Even so the Vietnamese deserve a bad name anyways. History have shown that they've oppressed, connived, killed, cheated, and manipulated the Khmer people and nation over and over again. So for somebody to have the right to judge that Khmer people are ignorant and stupid should look a little bit more into the facts and both the Khmer and Vietnamese relationship.

12:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hmmm...while the author tried to give her honest views on this topic matter, i believe she only exacerbates the debate. especially her assertion that khmer people called Vietnanese "Yak Nam". my family certainly does not. this usage is offensive. am afraid the behavior comes from the writer.

12:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

wake up, we're talking about the term 'youn', here, not 'yak nam' or something else. please stick to 'youn'; this is what we are talking about and do not bring any other non-sense to this discuss, here. it is not the the topic here. in case you're not aware, we are talking only about the Khmer's term 'youn'. 'yak nam' is a personal name calling whereas 'youn' is the general khmer name for Vietnamese. don't mix it up.

3:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Khmer people call 'youn' for Vietnamese people since the 'youn' exist, so who are you trying to change our way of our language? I don't think it's going to stop here. yes, right!!

3:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

to 12:36pm
my guess is you are the author of the report. i am awake. quite awake, actualy. i am aware that the topic is about the term 'youn'. not about 'yak nam'. it was the author who provoke this debate. if i understood correctly, she said 'khmer people pronouced it 'yak nam'. where did you get this? khmer people do not call Vietnam 'yak nam'. if i am wrong, i definitely did not born in srok khmer!

5:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

^ ps...there are in fact 'some' people using the term 'yak nam' i still believe, it's wrong to make that generalization! not all khmer say that way.

5:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry, I see your point. However, I think some Western educators were making an argument over the term 'youn' in Khmer, not 'yak nam' or what have you. My point is officially, Khmer language for Vietnamese is 'youn', and some Westerners think the term 'youn' is derogatory (meaning offensive as in name-calling); and I'm, as a Khmer person, just trying to explain that our Khmer people have been using this word forever; and who are they (the people who think this word is derogatory)to judge the Khmer language. That's all. Please don't make it harder than this.

Khmer people may call the country Vietnam, but the people of that country will always be called 'youn' in Khmer. That's all. Please don't confuse the foreigner; that is why they were debating or arguing or bitching or whatever.

1:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For Khmer, it's not a big deal to call 'youn'. Many khmer people have many names for the Vietnamese like 'yak nam', 'viet cong', 'thief', or what have you; and these other names are all personal (meaning people are subjective in name-calling, thus they call it in a personally way). However, officially, Khmer called Vietnamese people, 'youn', a neutral, Cambodian name. So, any other names aren't official. Look, Khmer people also called people 'dog' which is offensive to Khmer people, but may not be offensive to Western foreigners. You see my point. So, 'yak nam or whatever is not officiall; and do not assume that all Khmer people use the word 'yak nam' like some people were saying. But the point is, it shouldn't matter. Instead, please help to educate foreigners the Khmer language as most of them do not have a clue about our language, let alone anything about Cambodia. Please educate them all.

1:42 AM  
Anonymous Youn-Mieng said...

Hi there,

I myself have a background as a vietnamese or what you call "Youn". I think the westerners have made a big deal about it (perhaps just for their agenda) about the way the word is used. For me, I have no problem with it. Our family uses it as well. It is just like the word "Mieng" that many vietnamese use to describe Khmer. We use it and no westerners have any problem with it. So, I would say that locally we have different terms to describe our neightbours and we don't have any problems with them. Westerners should learn more about these. If the word "Youn" is bad, so is the word "Mieng". I totally agree with most of you guys on this. If a vietnamese would not care of being called "Youn", why would those westerners? All they care is to break you up and serve their criminal interests of controlling us and eating us alive.

However, I would not like to be called "Ah - Youn" though. It is just like that I do not like to call Khmer "Thang Mieng", meaning "ah-mieng". It is kind of looking down to the person you refer to.

Anyway, everybody knows the history between the two people. This can't be changed. But, you know what, people in south vietnam, near pey norkor down to the mekong delta, may be related or racially mixed with khmer. They just happen to be nationally categorized as vietnamese or, like we call, "Youn", by the their leaders and their interest groups.

I hope this is not too much to further disagree with usage of the word "Youn". Many thanks.

8:56 AM  
Blogger psar tuoch said...

I totally agree with youn-mieng...My many generations born and raised in Cambodia, think of myself as a Cambodian. I just want to comment on anonymous (9:04AM) in "the Vietnamese deserve a bad name anyways. History have shown that they've oppressed, connived, killed, cheated, and manipulated the Khmer people and nation over and over again. So for somebody to have the right to judge that Khmer people are ignorant and stupid should look a little bit more into the facts and both the Khmer and Vietnamese relationship." this only show one's ignorant!

1:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

it's a term given by our ancestor from the get go. It's a NAME for crying out loud! Why do we even discuss about this none sense. People need to stop read into it. BTW! Who give a damn what the westerner/instigator think!

12:19 AM  
Blogger KhmerKandal said...

Khmer have every rights to use any terms toward anybody that are originally form by Khmer. If others can used any terms,so why can't we. Whether they like or not with terms,than its just too bad.

7:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In the ancient time, the old khmer people view the actual vietnamese as people of Yunnan (a south chinese province). They called them people of Yunnan ("Pourc Yunnan"). With the time, Yunnan becomes Yuon or Youn in khmer accent. It is a neutral word.
Vietnamese think it is a bad term because they think khmer don't appreciate them. So when vietnamese hear "Yuon" from khmer, they are believed insulted...

9:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a Westerner who studies Khmer and Cambodian culture/history, and has lived in Cambodia, I have always been told by my Khmer friends that 'Yuon' is derogatory. One man even stated it was the equivalent of calling a black person the 'N' word. Think about it: If I called a Vietnamese a 'Khmer' or 'Mieng' (even jokingly), they would smile and laugh and say, "Yeah, that's right. I'm from Kampuchea." But if I were to call a Khmer a ‘Yuon’ (also jokingly), well, they wouldn't be too happy to say the least. (I've witnessed a Khmer being called that in Cambodia. It's one of the few times I've seen people want to come to blows over a verbal insult.) I've also been told it's worse than being called crazy, or 'ch'goo-it'. These weren't Westerners who said this, these were Khmers.

And by the way, can we get away of this veiled racist B.S. - 'instigators', Westerners having an 'agenda', etc.? One thing that is constant in Cambodian history and contemporary society is scapegoating. Whether it's blaming the KR on being some big Chinese or Vietnamese experiment or plot, to the sad finger pointing going on here about a word (a word no less!!), the development of Khmer society post-KR certainly can't be helped by this incessant, "We're not capable of that, it must be someone else's fault," rhetoric which does no one any good.

On another note: Kampuchea = Cambodge (French) = Cambodia. This is just to show how the name evolved in English. It wasn't some overarching plot by 'instigators' or those with their own 'agenda' to control the Khmer language, just as 'A-merik' isn't some attempt by Khmers to control English. Some sounds/words change over time in any given language. One can find a conspiracy between ham and bread to make a ham sandwich if one looks hard enough. Relax, no one is out to get you.

5:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thai also call the Vietnamese as Yuon too.
We don't know what its origin is. Myabe from Khmer.

11:36 PM  
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8:52 AM  
Anonymous Khmer Mentality said...

Yuon isn't necessarily a pejorative term, but if many people are offended by the word, then we should stop using it out of consideration for their sensitivities. To insult on using it is just like insisting on being a racist jerk. There are other terms that are more politically correct.

8:15 PM  
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