Vietnamese (2): very early discoveries

adrOver 30 years ago, I studied some Danish from a book. As a result, I understand a lot of the written language, but my idea of what it sounds like is sketchy at best. That was a mistake I didn’t want to repeat with Vietnamese. So the first thing I’ve been concentrating on these past few days is pronunciation and how it relates to spelling.

The good news is that Vietnamese is much, much more consistent in this respect than is Danish (or English, or French). The not-so-great news is that quite a few of the spelling conventions are counterintuitive. And the really bad news is that many of the Vietnamese phonemes are hard to distinguish for my European ears. Plus there’s tones, of course, but I knew that, so it’s no news, just bad.

What’s odd about Vietnamese spelling? Well, for one thing, since it was designed by Europeans speaking Romance languages (such as Alexandre de Rhodes, pictured), it has inherited some Italian and Portuguese spelling quirks. For instance, the g, which is always pronounced hard (as in go), is spelled gh when followed by an e or i. That makes sense in Italian for reasons that you can look up elsewhere, but serves no purpose whatsoever in Vietnamese. A /k/ sound is spelled k before e and i, but c before o, a or the full vowel u, and qu when the u is pronounced as a mere glide, as in quả. Also, the /f/ sound is spelled as ph, as in Latin words of Greek origin. A few centuries ago, ph was apparently pronounced as an aspirated p, /ph/, so that’s why. It’s a reminder that even a good spelling system goes bad if it’s not occasionally updated to reflect evolving speech. Think Great Vowel Change.

In some other choices, the alphabet designers would have been well-advised to follow a European model, but didn’t. To give just one example, the s in Vietnamese is pronounced /sh/, whereas the x is pronounced /s/. This is the very opposite of what you would expect on the basis of Portuguese, and s for /sh/ is weird by any standard (except Hungarian).

More troublesome than this are the subtle differences between vowels, and especially between several diphthongs and triphthongs. The ư sounds a lot like the u (though I can tell them apart when I hear them side by side), and the ơ and the â are both schwas (you know, as the e in over), except that the ơ is longer. And as for the differences between iêu and ươu or ươi and uôi – please ask me again in a couple of lifetimes.

Add to this the visual clutter of tonal marks, which often make me overlook that there’s an ư or ô on the page rather than a mere u or o; and add to that the phonetic interference of the tones with all these vowels, and you’ll be getting an idea of what I’m up against.

To hack myself a path through this jungle of diacritics and vocal nuances, I have downloaded dozens of sound files from forvo.com, with native speakers pronouncing as many words. I’ve included several minimal pairs (and triplets, et cetera), in the hope that at some point chất, chát, chắt, chật and chặt will all begin to sound wildly dissimilar to me. (None of these words means ‘cat’ by the way. For that, Vietnamese has the endearing mèo.) Actually, I should make this list longer, because chậc, chắc, chạc and chạp are at this stage pretty indistinguishable too, given that these final plosives (t, c, ch and p) are pronounced very weakly.

Oh well. No-one said it would be easy. And at least my wife has had a couple of good laughs over my vocal antics.

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You can find all my posts about Vietnamese here.

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