Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Don't impoverish our language

Don't impoverish our language

Don't impoverish our language

I am appalled to see how hard a bias or a false notion, created by some fancy Western

journalists, can be put to rest. Mr Michael Coren, on page 6 of your well-esteemed

bimonthly Phnom Penh Post (June 20-July 3, 2003) raised again the question of the

meaning of the word Yuon.

During UNTAC time, myself and another French scholar had already put straight the

record on this issue, by explaining extensively the origin of this word "yuon",

which had no derogative meaning whatsoever. The effective Vietnamese occupation from

1979 to 1991 has imposed the word Vietnam, which is substantive not adjective to

anything related to the Vietnamese, formerly called Annamese or Dai-Viet.

It is now a political issue, because the Vietnamese had imposed this word during

their colonial time; why should we comply like during the Pol Pot time to use the

words they have decreed for us to use instead of the old ones, they deem feudal or

bourgeois? I refuse to do so, to oppose the diktat either by the Khmer Rouge or by

the Vietnamese colonialists who succeeded them.

It is not a human rights issue. It should be in the other sense, when you behave

like slaves by accepting dictators' diktats. This is the same parallel that you can

draw from the Vietnamese diktat and interpretation for political reason, which became

an issue between the Vietnamese collaborators and the resistance movements.

During the Pol Pot time, the word family was restricted to husband and wife, while

in the old time it is an extended family, and the word to eat which is hierarchical,

according to age, position and social status was reduced to "Hop", when

in the former times we have many words for that from the derogatory ones to the very

polite ones. By the way, why the Thai would not feel anymore insulted by our calling

them Siem, as they used to before, because of their wrong interpretation of the inscription

on the Angkor Wat bas-relief and their scholarly understanding of it after?

Now, to come back to the origin of the word "yuon" itself. Mr Michael Coren,

although he rightly traced it back to the Sanskrit word, made a wrong interpretation

of the word, by lending a meaning according to the Chinese view of anything external

to them as barbarians.

Yavana in Sanskrit, which became yuon in Khmer, because of the way we write the Sanskrit

word, simply means "foreigner". This word itself was used by the Indians

to name the Ionians who formed the core of Alexander the Great's Army fighting on

the Indus River. The Khmer, like the Thai and the Lao used this word, without any

sense of derogation.

When we want to insult the Vietnamese, we have other words than this one, as the

Vietnamese have words to insult us, or as the Thai. So we should learn our cultural

background carefully, and not get deviated by circumstances or by the superior persuasion

of our Western journalists, who are not always scholars.

It is a pity that Tong Vey got trapped in the political controversy of this word.

For my part, I refuse to change the meaning of a word, because of the accident of

history, I never use the word "hop" but "ñam" or "pi-sa"

or "totuol tean" to mean "to eat". Sorry for the false revolutionaries,

who are impoverishing the Khmer language.

This is not only the exercise of my freedom of belief and speech, but also our right

to defend the historical core of the Khmer language, that no one can lightly change

whimsically.

- Son Soubert - Member - Constitutional Council

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