Posts Tagged With: missionaries

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.

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

Hip, Hip, Hula

On the third Sunday of every month — which was yesterday — part of the waterfront main drag of downtown Kailua-Kona is closed off to auto traffic in favor of the “Kona Sunday Street Stroll”, which is pretty much exactly what you are picturing. About 100 local vendors set up tents, and it’s worth an easy hour or so to stroll among them. Some of these are for food, including that Hawaiian perennial, shave ice, and — our personal favorite — a local lady who makes popsicles out of fresh-pressed local fruits. Trust me, you want a lilikoi (passion fruit)-banana popsicle. I also tried a rather bizarre mixture: a pineapple-papaya-chili pepper popsicle. The chili peppers were in little chunks, scattered dangerously throughout. I came to think of it as a Menopause Popsicle: you’re happily working your way through the sweet refreshing fruity ice, when POW! Hot flash!

The non-food vendors: jewelry, tee shirts, photographers (you have no idea how many metal-printed photos of lava and sea turtles are out there), and herbal panaceas. The latter are usually advertised as having been extracted from some species of flora that no one has ever heard of, but which can nonetheless provide relief from pretty much everything.

Certainly the highlight of our walk — besides the popsicles and shave ice — was the hula demo on the grounds of the Hulihe’e Palace, the former Kona waterfront vacation home of Hawaiian royalty, built in the early 1800’s. Here was the scene yesterday at about 4:30 PM:

Hulihee Hula 02172019-060-Edit

Hula — especially Hawaiian hula – is a complicated and subtle art form. Many mainland hula demonstrations include an admixture of Tahitian hula, which is the one with the very rapid tempo drumming. the tall headdresses, and the women with the inhumanly fast hips. Traditional Hawaiian hula is different: the pre-Western kind, called hula kahiko, is a story-telling medium centered on the arms, hands, and face. It’s performed to a song and accompanied only by a percussive double gourd. Here’s what I mean by it being gestural:

I like to think that the pose on the left means, “Please silence your cell phones.” Other examples from yesterday:

Hulihee Hula 02172019-043

Hulihee Hula 02172019-006

At this point, someone out there who is reading this post is thinking, “Wait a minute. What’s with the 19th century prom dresses? Where are the grass skirts?” Here’s where it gets complicated.

First of all, the original Hawaiian female hula dancers never wore grass skirts. They wore very elaborate, multi-square-yard skirts made of kapa cloth, which is a fiber made from a certain pressed tree bark. And they did not wear coconut-shell bras. (No sane woman anywhere ever has; they’re some late 19th century guy’s fantasy, which I’ll get to in a moment.) They did not wear any tops at all.

The whole topless women thing did not sit well with late 18th century missionaries, or at least with their wives. It became necessary to cover the immodest heathen, and so they did. To keep the missionaries placated the hula halaus (schools) adopted the grandmotherly garb that you see above, and much of both modern day (‘auana) and traditional (kahiko) hula are performed that way. Men’s hula, on the other hand — much more stylistically aggressive and less subtle than the women’s dance — was and still is performed in loincloths and maile leaf adornments.

So where did the whole grass-skirt-and-coconut-bra shtick come from? The answer, believe it or not, is vaudeville. Vaudeville got its start in the 1880’s about a century after Cook’s arrival and eventual death in the islands. Knowledge of Hawaii’s existence had seeped into popular knowledge by then, and theater producers were always on the lookout for exotic material for their productions. “Girls from a tropical island” was bound to occur to somebody sooner or later. But the topless thing clearly wasn’t gonna fly, and the authentic kapa skirts weren’t going to work either: they were expensive, labor-intensive to maintain, and, well, insufficiently sexy for their intended purpose. Enter the grass skirt: cheap, easy to fix or replace, and just a bit suggestive. Ditto the coconut bras. The skirts also had a certain historical precedent in that they did somewhat resemble Tahitian hula skirts, which are indeed made from grasses and leaves but are ankle-length and thick.

This dress scheme was wildly successful, and soon every vaudeville act with a Hawaiian number was dressing their dancers in grass skirts, to the point that it eventually became everyone’s default mental image for Hawaiian hula. It was, in its way, one of the first viral memes. And of course, it filtered all the way back to its point of origin: if you plunk for the $49.95 Colorful Hawaiian Luau at whatever hotel you’re staying at, odds are good that you’ll see a hula dancer in a not-particularly-Hawaiian grass skirt.

Categories: Hawaii | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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