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Yuon may be neutral, but it’s not diplomatic

Yuon may be neutral, but it’s not diplomatic

Dear Editor,

Regarding recent comments on the origins of the word yuon, I would like to point out that the word vietnam is written in Chinese with two characters that mean “cross south”.

The term is used to describe the ancient tribes who inhabited parts of southern China and northern Vietnam more than 2,000 years ago.

These two characters are pronounced vietnam in Vietnamese, yuenan in Mandarin, etsunan in Japanese and yuotnam in Cantonese. Is it possible that the Khmer word yuon is derived from yuot in Cantonese?

If so, Cambodians have been using for hundreds of years a Sino-centric term to refer to the non-Han people who “went beyond” China to the south (rather than a Sanskrit word for “savages”, which makes little historical sense but is still trumpeted by anti-Vietnamese Cambodians).

Regardless of etymology—and like it or not—the term yuon is still used in everyday speech among the Cambodians I know, including ethnic Vietnamese. Indeed, I often hear ethnic Vietnamese Cambodians using it casually among family and friends, including with ethnic Khmers.

But languages evolve, nuances change with context and usage adapts to social settings.

For example, I once hosted a lunch for visiting Vietnamese journalists that included Vietnamese sour soup as one of the dishes. The cook, a Sino-Vietnamese Cambodian, used the term samlor machou yuon in the kitchen and switched, slightly tongue in check, to samlor machou vietnam when bringing it to the table. Rather than blind adherence to political correctness, this was simply out of courtesy to the guests.

I suspect that yuon will continue to be used in casual conversation among Cambodians for many years to come, just like the Cantonese use gwailo (ghost person) to refer to Caucasians in informal settings.

But is it statesmanlike for a member of parliament to use the word yuon when publicly criticising a fellow ASEAN member? I think not.

Otherwise, government officials would be publicly using the term siem in their criticism of the current Thai government.

Peter Starr
Resident representative
Independent Journalism
Foundation

Send letters to: [email protected] or PO?Box 146, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The Post reserves the right to edit letters to a shorter length.The views expressed above are solely the author’s and do not reflect any positions taken by The Phnom Penh Post.

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