Posts Tagged With: alphabet

The Language From Hell

OK, I have been grousing about the Vietnamese language for over a week now, so it is time to tell you something about it. Here are some important characteristics that make it next to impossible for a Westerner to master. In fact, as nearly as I can tell it is basically impossible for a Westerner to even get the basics right.

First, it is tonal like Chinese. Chinese has five tones (including the so-called neutral tone); Vietnamese has six. Some of these are readily apparent to the Western ear (by which I mean, me); others sound indistinguishable from one another, so right off the bat you’re in trouble. You can’t even hear the differences among the tones, let alone say them correctly. Each of the tones is represented by a particular accent mark.

Second, the variation in meaning associated with the differing tones is vast. You know about pho, the Vietnamese soup, which is actually ritten phở  and pronounced sorta, but only sorta, like “fuh”. (And note that last letter: it is an o with two accent marks. More on that in a moment.)  Do not confuse this soup with the word phò, which with its different accent (and only one them) over the means “bitch” or “hooker”.  It’s pronounced more like “faw”, with a tone going downward.

Third, the alphabet, though using Roman letters like our own, has 29 letters including eleven vowels: a, ă, â, e, ê, i, o, ô, ơ, u, and ư. There is no F, J, K, or Z. Now at this point you may be thinking, “That’s not 11 vowels, it’s just the usual 5 plus some with accent marks for different tones.” Nope. Those accent marks are not the ones that indicate tones; they are a different set that differentiate separate vowel sounds rather than creating a “new” letter with a different appearance. You can apply an additional tonal accent mark to most of those vowels, as in phở as I mentioned above. In this case the last letter is the ơ from the list of vowels above (the 9th of 11); the little thingy that looks like a question mark on top of it is the tone indicator.

Because of the multiplicity of vowels and tones, there are words that can be pronounced eighteen slightly different ways, all with different meanings. We got a small taste of this during an impromptu language lesson that Phil delivered on the bus, which included a handout that listed the six possible tones and meanings of the word ma, to wit:

  • ma (ghost)
  • (mother or cheek)
  • (which, that)
  • mả (tomb)
  • (horse)
  • mạ (rice seedling)

Good luck with that. Phil read them off, had us practice, and then quizzed us. He’s a total sweetheart who always treats us with the greatest affection and respect, but even he couldn’t hold a straight face as we mangled the list; he actually burst out laughing at our pathetic pronunciation attempts. One implication is that those handy dandy phonetic “Common Words and Phrases” lists that you see in guidebooks are utterly useless; the odds of those phonetic lists guiding you to a successful enunciation of a desired Vietnamese word or phrase is essentially zero.

So how did this all come about? I mean, China is right next door so why doesn’t Vietnamese writing resemble Chinese? The answer is, that it used to. It was the missionaries (it’s always the missionaries, isn’t it?) who needed something that they could read to guide their pronunciation and be able to learn the language so that they could convert the heathens. The effort was spearheaded by Portuguese missionaries in the early 17th century, but it took a good 150 years before it broke out of clerical circles and came into wide use by the general population. By World War II it was the de facto official script. So in other words, it’s pretty recent, in general use only since the 1890’s or so.

The upshot of all this is that looking at all the signage on any Vietnam city street is to understand what severe dyslexia must feel like. You see all the letters and words in an alphabet that looks familiar, and your brain keeps involuntarily searching for recognizable words and syllables and coming up empty. Your brain, of course, does not know that the roots of all these almost-familiar letter combinations are in Chinese; it looks like there should be familiar words in there somewhere, but there aren’t. So far I have come across only three Vietnamese words that resemble their Indo-European counterparts, interestingly all of them beverages: bia (beer), trà (tea), and cà phê (coffee). That’s a pretty short list.

So the result for us is that, unlike on all of our previous exotic trips we will end this one exactly as we began it, linguistically, which is to say in complete ignorance. After ten days here, all I can say is xin chào (hello), cảm ơn (thank you), and xin lỗi (sorry, pardon me), all of them so atrociously as to be barely recognizable to the locals. But it’s all good… we’ve been eating so well, and so much, on this trip that we can’t speak with our mouth full anyway.

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Categories: Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Iceward, Ho!

In less than a week we embark on an itinerary that one could fairly call “eclectic”, even by our peripatetic standards: 10 days in Iceland, followed by 4 days each in Paris in Prague. Why those choices? We’ve been to Paris many times and love it; it’s been 8 years since we were last there, and we felt it was time to go back. Prague has been on our bucket list for some time; we know many people who have visited and come back raving around it. And Iceland seems to have gotten very trendy in the past few years, with hordes of visitors descending upon the little island, so we figured it was time to do our part. Here’s our route, just south of the Arctic Circle:

2018-08-29 20_06_49-Reykjavík, Iceland to Reykjavík, Iceland - Google Maps To give you an ideal of the scale, the island is roughly 400 km across; our driving route, the aptly-named Ring Road (marked in blue) is about 900 miles (1500 km) long. You’d think that 10 days would be more than enough time to cover that distance, but it’ll be tight: a lot of the route is slow going, and of course there is a lot to see along the way. These include geysers, glaciers, waterfalls, volcanic landscapes, glaciers, waterfalls, volcanic landscapes, glaciers, and waterfalls. And geysers.

Some fun facts about Iceland:

  • The native population is about 350,000, but the island hosts over 2 million visitors a year. In other words, if you say to a random stranger, “Þú ert með fallegt land.” (“You have a beautiful country”), the highest-probability response, spoken ver-r-r-y loudly and slowly, is, “SORRY… I… AM… FROM… OMAHA.”
  • Those entertaining-looking glyphs Þ and ð in the previous paragraph are both pronounced “th”. (Fun sub-fact: English used to have such a letter too. Its name was “thorn” — really — and it looked rather like the letter y. So on those pseudo-Olde-English signs that you see that say things like “Ye Olde Haberdashery”, the “ye” is actually the word “the“. You’re welcome.)
  • Speaking of language, modern Icelandic is essentially identical to Old Norse. This means that present-day Icelanders can easily converse with Eric the Red during seances.
  • Iceland is renowned for its impressive variety of remarkably disgusting foods, which include fermented shark and “sour ram’s testicles”. (Research topic: Are there Chinese restaurants in Iceland, and if so do they serve sweet and sour ram’s testicles?) Supposedly they also make really good ice cream and hot dogs. Guess what we’ll be eating.
  • The famous volcano whose massive eruption disrupted North Atlantic air travel in 2010 is named Eyjafjallajökull. Do not be intimidated by the word, for it is actually surprisingly easy to pronounce: just remember that it rhymes with Þeyjafjallajökull.

At an average latitude of 65° — just a hair south of the Arctic Circle — Iceland is not famed for its clement weather. And of course at that latitude, you are stuck in more or less endless night in midwinter, and get to enjoy 24-hour daylight in midsummer. But we’ll be there in September, not far off the equinox, and so neither the temperatures nor the length of the day will be particularly extreme: sunrise will be at about 6:30 AM and sunset around 8:15 PM. The daytime high temperatures will be  about 50° F (11° C), the nights several degrees cooler.

What will be cold is the water, at a cryonic 36° F (2° C). The reason this matters is that we have booked a snorkeling trip (!) at Silfra, a volcanic fissure that is essentially the boundary between the two tectonic continental plates that Iceland straddles. (Hence all the volcanoes and geysers.) It is known for its stunningly clear water, volcanic rock formations, and hypothermic tourists. I’ll report on this when it happens.

Finally, we are of course hoping to see the aurora borealis. This is definitely a crapshoot; we’re at the early end of the season for it, and as of this moment the weather forecast calls for a lot of clouds and rain, at least for the first half of the trip.. But perhaps we will get lucky.

So wish us luck, watch this space, and remember this traditional greeting: “Þjónn, ég pantaði gerjað hákarl en þetta eru hrútur“, which according to Google means, “Waiter, I ordered fermented shark but these are ram testicles.”

 

Categories: Europe, Iceland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

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