Nearly every conversation with Huyền, my former (and, who knows, future) online Vietnamese teacher, throws up new linguistic surprises.
The other day, I asked her if she would mind translating a business letter into Vietnamese for me. She wouldn’t mind, she answered, but she wasn’t sure she could do it. Writing Vietnamese was not her strong suit.
I was absolutely gobsmacked. Here was a university-educated polyglot, an easy talker who runs her own successful little company – and she felt that writing her mother tongue, which she speaks every day with dozens of other native speakers, was not her strong suit? How on earth could that be?
‘Well, I’m perfectly fine with the spoken language, but written Vietnamese is quite different’, she said. ‘Much more formal.’ I realised I had actually experienced that myself: many times when I had learnt some new word, say sử dụng for ‘to use’, she would comment that, yeah, that’s correct, but it’s very formal. What we actually say is … upon which she’d teach me another word, sometimes similar (in this case dùng), sometimes entirely different. Of course, other languages too, including English, have their formal and informal registers, but it looks as if in Vietnamese, the abyss is particularly wide. (I’ve heard the same thing claimed about Tamil and Welsh.)
Anyway, Huyền was willing to give it a go. But when she sent her translation back a few days later, she suggested that I submit it to my other former Vietnamese teacher, Loan, for revision. She studies literature, and surely she would be better at this sort of language. Loan was happy to help, but as it turned out, she likewise felt that she lacked in skill: before sending her edited version back to me, she asked a university teacher for another revision.
I probably have a more than presentable letter now, which suits me fine. But the whole thing gives me a lot of pause. What’s going on here? Why do well-educated Vietnamese people feel that writing an acceptable letter is beyond their competence? Is it because of a wide difference between the formal and the everyday – with companies insisting perhaps on all business correspondence being in the choicest style? Is it because Vietnamese culture frowns more deeply upon mistakes, linguistic and otherwise, than my egalitarian Dutch culture? Is it due to a wide linguistic gulf between young Vietnamese people – outward looking, speaking and studying in English – and the establishment of the older generations, who grew up during either the war or the austere, repressive socialism that held sway for a good decade thereafter? Or is it because of something else still? I don’t know; my gob hasn’t been unsmacked yet
In today’s Skype conversation between Huyền and myself (or ‘between me and Huyền’, as Vietnamese etiquette would have it), a fresh surprise came up. But that’s for the next blogpost. For now, let me just mention that she and I (I and she) will be giving a talk about her language at the Polyglot Conference in Ljubljana later this month: me in person, she on screen. The title: Ten Reasons to Learn Vietnamese (and Five to Regret It).
Just to add to Siôn’s comment, I think one of the reasons formal Welsh is still in use is that there are many dialects of informal Welsh, some with significant differences. I have a Swedish relative who’s learnt some Welsh, and she’s remarked that Norwegian, Swedish and Danish are far more similar to each other than the dialects of north and south Welsh are.
Historically this was because the regions of Wales are fairly isolated from each other due to the terrain. It’s really only been since the 1960s that a national Welsh-language press and media has arisen, and public bodies have started using Welsh in official documents (public affairs were conducted in English previously).
So the question they face is, which version should they use? They would obviously like to be widely-understood, but if they use an informal register it would mean picking a geographical dialect – which could be seen to be favouring one area over another (not a good look for a national public body).
So they generally play it safe and use a somewhat-fossilised formal language, which is seen as being neutral (because *nobody* speaks it) at the cost of being removed from everyone’s day-to-day language. This formal/literary Welsh has now become the ‘standard’ even though no-one actually speaks it. It’s a sort of lingua franca I suppose, but one that very few are entirely comfortable with – the example you give of perfectly intelligent people being unsure if they can write a letter sounds very familiar.
A brief look at Quora and Wikipedia suggests Vietnames also has several very different dialects. I wonder if their use of formal language is for the same reason, then? Would be interesting to know more.
Thanks for the blog!
LikeLiked by 1 person
That is an excellent suggestion. Dialect diversity is indeed huge in Vietnam (even native speakers have trouble understanding certain dialects), and I strongly suspect that the formal language is much more uniform. Thanks!
What you say for Welsh (as an aside) is indeed true, Gaston.
Consider the following in descending levels of formality for “I am” ( > “I’m”):
Yr wyf i
All therefore 1st pers. sing. present tense, ‘be’.
Then you have the ‘other’ verbs – which have two forms: The periphrastic forms (with the auxiliary verb) which is preferred in speech and the short written form which is used in the formal literary language. Let’s take the verbal-noun (the ‘true’ form of the Welsh verb, as there is no infinitive), ‘canu’, ( = ‘singing’).
Canaf = I sing / I will sing (Present-Future Tense)
Dw i’n canu = I sing / I am singing (Present Tense)
Canasent = They had sung (Past Perfect Tense)
Mae nhw wedi canu = They are after singing ( = They had sung) (Past Perfect Tense)
So, you see, native speakers (and learners), ‘learn’ the short forms, almost like a second/foreign language, once they have mastered the more common in speech periphrastic forms. (I never introduce the short forms to my beginner WFL students, unless they remark they’ve seen something about it beforehand.
Why is the formal (written) so different and difficult compared to the informal (spoken) language? Many reasons, I guess – including that the written forms hark back to the translation of the Bible in 1588 (making Wales officially a Protestant nation under Queen Elizabeth I of England) – a book which did so much in ensuring the language’s survival after the subordinating of it under the “Act of Union” of 1535. Further, and also as a result of this “Act of Union” and subsequent English and British State policy in imposing the English language and driving the Welsh language out of the classroom, subsequent generations of Welshpeople became ‘illiterate’ in their mother tongue and could not write it. My great-grandmother (d. 1947) was illiterate all her life (in both Welsh and English, her will is signed with an X), and my own mother (b. 1925 has never felt at ease in writing (or indeed reading) Welsh – and will always look up English versions of forms etc. before she signs anything.
A good many of my compatriots then would not be able to ‘unpackage’ such forms as ‘canasent’ (see above), yet would quite accurately (and without as much as a blush) be able to use the foem ‘mae nhw wedi canu’ in order to explain a concept of ‘a past-in-the past’ for 3rd pers. plur.
Good luck with the Vietnamese. I hope you can use your skills learnt there and transfer them when you come to learn my mother tongue of Cymraeg!
Thank you, Sion! Most interesting.