If Yuon means barbarian, why do Khmers call themselves Yuon?
To most Cambodians, Yuon means Vietnam or Vietnamese. We have never regarded Yuon
as barbarians or an uncivilized race or nation. The word Yuon has been used by Khmers
for generations, since the contact between the two nations, Khmer Empire and Daiviet.
To most Khmers, the word Vietnam or Vietnamese is new. Most literature in Khmer early
20th century used the word Yuon rather than Vietnam or Vietnamese.
Unfortunately, some Westerners who are new to Cambodia pretend to know everything,
including the meaning of Khmer words even better than Khmers. Those Westerners dare
to explain or interpret the word Yuon as barbarians. They argue that the word Yuon
comes from Sanskrit word yavana, meaning foreigner, barbarian.
It is to be noted that the Cambodian-English Dictionary published in 1977 by the
Catholic University of America Press has been widely used by Westerners to learn
the Khmer language. On page 787, line 15 of the left column, there is an entry of
the word Yuon with a brief explanation in brackets that "(poss. rel. to S. yavana
As can be seen in the brackets, the explanation says that the word Yuon possibly
relates to Sanskrit, meaning foreigner or barbarian. This is just the unclear and
subjective conclusion of the authors of the book and cannot be found in other dictionaries
of the Khmer language. The unclear and subjective explanation or interpretation of
the word Yuon by those Westerners not only destroys Khmer language, but also confuses
the world about Cambodians.
The most authoritative dictionary of Khmer language, published in 1968 by the Buddhist
Institute under the supervision of Buddhist Supreme Patriarch Chuon Nath, clearly
explains about the meaning of Yuon. On page 955 the word Yuon has the following meaning:
"Yuon (noun) ethnic people from Tonkin, Annam, and Cochinchina. Examples: Tonkin
Yuon, Annam Yuon, Cochinchina Yuon. In ordinary language, Tonkin Yuon are often called
Hanoi Yuon, Annam Yuon are called Hue Yuon, Cochinchina Yuon are called Prey Nokor
(or Saigon) Yuon."
To Khmers, the word Yuon has no negative meaning. The word yuon has been used to
name villages, Buddhist temples, canals, people, etc. In Koh Thom district, Kandal
province there is a Buddhist temple called Wat Po Yuon. Will this temple mean the
temple of barbarians? To Khmers, Po Yuon means the bo-tree of Vietnamese and nothing
Along National Route 1 in Kien Svay district, Kandal province, there is a canal called
Prek Yuon, meaning canal of Vietnamese. Many Khmers are named Yuon. Are Khmers who
have the name of Yuon barbarians ? No one on earth would name him/herself barbarian.
Some Westerners have arrogantly changed the name of geographic locations or landmarks
in Cambodia. They have renamed Monivong Bridge to Vietnamese Bridge, Tuol Tumpoung
Market to Russian Market. This is not acceptable for Khmer people. Those particular
people who just understand a few Khmer words arrogantly pretend to be scholars of
the Khmer language. The real scholars of the Khmer language are the Khmer people
of all generations since the existence of Khmer nation .
Therefore, please, stop victimizing the Khmer language and destroying it for political
purposes. The word Yuon has been used by Khmers for generations before the Khmer
Republic, Democratic Kampuchea.
If the word Yuon means barbarian, it is the Vietnamese who should protest the use
of word Yuon by Khmers, but we have never heard the Vietnamese or Vietnamese government
officially protest the use of word Yuon.
- Sok Sisovan - Phnom Penh