What’s in a Yuon?

BY KENNETH T SO AND SOPHAL EAR
Nov 02, 2010

Barbarians, hill tribes, outsiders, yuon... Why have racist names existed across Southeast Asia for years?

However, when we speak in English or French, it is more natural to use the word Vietnamese or Vietnamien, and it would become awkward to use the word yuon. For example, if we want to say that “fishermen are mostly Vietnamese”, and both words, yuon and Vietnamese, are used in a Khmer sentence, the result would be as follows: pourk neak nisart trey keu chreun tè youn, or pourk neak nisart trey keu chreun tè choun cheat vietnam. It therefore requires more syllables to use the word Vietnam to describe the Vietnamese because we have to say choun cheat vietnam (literally National of Vietnam) to describe a Vietnamese person. We cannot say pourk neak nisart trey keu chreun tè vietnam because Vietnam is a country. In Khmer, the word Vietnamese per se does not exist unless one uses the word yuon.

Some might compare the word yuon to the word “nigger”, but that is too strong and ahistorical a comparison. In any case, to have called someone in 1860 racist for using the word “nigger” would be historically inaccurate.

It is rare in the Khmer language to have a racist word attributed to different ethnic groups. However, this does not mean that salty language does not exist. To the contrary, when wishing to disrespect someone, we add an adjective “a” in front of the word that we intend to use. If we say a yuon, then it is a sign of disrespect, but not necessarily a racist remark. To be racist requires that the following words be used: a katop (equating a Vietnamese to a diaper), a gnieung (a probable play on the common Vietnamese family name Nguyen) or a sakei daung (equating a Vietnamese to a coconut husk). Some might compare the word yuon to the word “nigger”, but that is too strong and ahistorical a comparison. In any case, to have called someone in 1860 racist for using the word “nigger” would be historically inaccurate. These were conventions then, and evolved out of fashion later.

The only basis to this is when, during the

Lon Nol period (Khmer Republic 1970-1975), yuon was indeed used in a derogatory fashion during attacks on Vietnamese people. Thus, the word took on a negative connotation in the 1970s and was allegedly banned in the 1980s when Cambodia was occupied by Vietnam. Sour Vietnamese soup, samlar machou yuon, became samlar machou vietnam, but reverted to its original name in the 1990s. Of course, the Khmer Rouge also used the word yuon, as when they characterised the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) as yuon-TAC, an agent of the Vietnamese-backed Cambodian People’s Party. But again, just because the Khmer Rouge and the Khmer Republicans hijacked the word does not mean it must now be abandoned in everyday language.

 

179 Vietnamese-Khmer sour soup (Photo by Erik Davis)

 

* The views expressed in this article are the authors’ alone and do not represent the views of their employers or the US government.

 

This post was originally published on Socheata Vong in February 2010.

A version of this article first appeared in Vietnamese in the online journal Talawas (Autumn 2009)

A Khmer version of this article was published in the Koh Santepheap Daily on April 2, 2010

 

Sophal Ear is an assistant professor of national security affairs in Monterey, California. Kenneth T So is an engineer and Khmer historian.

Source: The Phnom Penh Post