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 o 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)
- má (mother or cheek)
- mà (which, that)
- mả (tomb)
- mã (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.