Vietnamese (10): No such thing as Britain


I wonder what it’s called in Vietnamese.

The difference between England, Great Britain, the United Kingdom and the British Isles is one of the great semantic challenges of – what shall I even call it? The English-speaking part of Northwestern Europe, let’s say.

If it’s a semantic challenge in English, the language of the natives, imagine what it’s like in translation, especially in languages spoken far away. In Vietnamese for instance. This has several different names for nearby nations such as the Chinese and Koreans, but no separate word for ‘Britain’. All it has is Anh for ‘England’ (or ‘English’), and the meaning of this one syllable has had to be stretched to near-breaking point in order to express all the political subtleties.

The results are remarkable:

  • Great Britain: Đảo Anh – ‘English island’.
    Well, England occupies over 60 percent of the island. But are the Welsh and Scots going to like it?
  • Great Britain, alternative translation: Đại Anh – ‘Great England’.
    This may cause even worse blood among the two junior partners. ‘Great England’, forsooth! The Vietnamese too consider this second best, but that’s because the same name also refers to Daying County in China.
    Strangely, Brittany – Little Britain, basically – does have a Vietnamese name of its own: the French colonisers have taught the Vietnamese to call the French region ‘Bretagne’.
  • United Kingdom (UK): Vương quốc Liên hiệp Anh và Bắc Ireland – ‘United Kingdom of England and Northern Ireland’.
    This is tricky. Shouldn’t that be ‘United Kingdom of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland’? A bit on the long side though. For now, at any rate. Or perhaps just ‘United Kingdom’, Vương quốc Liên? I’m not sure why, but a Google search suggests this is never used. Perhaps there are some other ‘united kingdoms’ in East Asian history?
  • British Isles: Quần Đảo Anh – ‘English Group of Islands’ or ‘English Archipelago’.
    Ireland has long disliked being subsumed under the term ‘British Isles’; being considered part of the ‘English Isles’ will go down no better there, I suspect.

Finally, you may wonder about the terminology for American English versus British English. The Vietnamese are well aware of the difference. They label the language (tiếng) of the New World Anh Mỹ, the other… Anh Anh.


Vietnamese (9): Back from Hanoi


Turtle Tower (Tháp Rùa) in Hoàn Kiếm Lake, central Hanoi

For three wonderful weeks, I’ve explored a few neighbourhoods of Hanoi, tasted local cuisine, enjoyed the balmy weather, met several lovely people – and studied the Vietnamese language. Studied hard, and loved almost every moment of it. Yes, the food was distinctive and delightful, but one can only spend so much time eating. That left me loads of time for other delights: those feeding my linguistic hunger, which borders on the insatiable.

‘So can you chat with the Vietnamese now?’ The answer is simple and disappointing: no, or as close to no as makes no difference. I can definitely read a lot more than before, I may be able to express a few more things than I used to, but when it comes to listening – an essential ingredient of any chat – I remain an embarrassing underachiever. Continue reading

Vietnamese (8): My first micro conversation

VVictories, however minor, are good for the morale. So I was very pleased this morning when I found I fully understood the short message sent to me by Huyền, my Vietnamese teacher (not in picture). That is to say, I knew ten of the eleven words (plus the emoji) and I could guess the other one. Guessing words from context is a common thing to do, even in your mother tongue sometimes, so I don’t consider that to be a stain.

Of course, I’d read and understood sentences before, but this was the first time someone actually communicated something to me in Vietnamese, and I got it; this was about something approaching real life, a micro conversation if you like.

Her message was in reply to my recommending a book (which I did in English, though the book is in German). She wrote back,

Cảm ơn bác vì quyển sách hay. Cháu sẽ đọc nó 😀

that is, ‘Thank you for the interesting book. I will read it :D’ My sparkling repartee was không sao – ‘don’t mention it’, ‘you’re welcome’. Still, I would say that under a lenient definition, that qualifies as a genuine dialogue in Vietnamese, with the required two participants.

Next stop: understanding simple spoken sentences. Huyền is trying those on me too, but with spectacularly little success so far.


You can find the other blogposts about my adventures in Vietnamese here.

Vietnamese (7): How one language can help another

DDR-VNI discovered something amazing during last night’s lesson with Huyền, my Vietnamese teacher. We were discussing my pronunciation of the sound written as ư, which I’m not familiar with from other languages. I have trouble vocalising the ư in a way that’s clearly and consistently different from the common or garden u (/u/, as in boot). Several sources, including Huyền herself, had suggested all kinds of tips and tricks for ‘placing’ the vowel properly in my mouth, such as these: Continue reading

Vietnamese (6): a bit of ngôn ngữ học

ngThe pronunciation of Vietnamese is hard for several reasons. Every syllable carries one of six tones, indicated by five special accents (à, ả, ã, á, ạ) that turn Vietnamese writing into equal parts text and score. The numerous different vowels and diphthongs are no piece of cake either. To give just one example: the language has a shorter and a longer ‘uh’ sound (spelt as â and ơ respectively).

But while these things look intimidating right from the start, something unexpectedly treacherous lurks behind the seemingly innocuous letter combination ng. As in English and other Germanic languages, this pair stands for the sound heard in sing and singer; the phonetic symbol is ŋ. In Vietnamese, however, this sound can also appear at the beginning of a word, as in ngai for ‘throne’. We don’t do that in English, or any other European language that I’m aware of for that matter. As a result, it’s surprisingly difficult for us, or for me at any rate, to distinguish words beginning with ng from those beginning with n. And since ngai and nai (‘deer’) have different meanings, ignoring the difference is not an option. Continue reading

Vietnamese (5): travel!

Panorama_of_HanoiDid you think I had stopped learning Vietnamese? I can’t blame you, for I thought so too. But I’ve managed to rekindle the dying flame with a bold plan: I’m going to visit Vietnam. That’ll teach me! (Hopefully in the literal rather than the idiomatic sense of the phrase.) I haven’t booked the tickets yet, but the idea is to spend three weeks in Hanoi next spring. And that perspective has already given me just the motivation I needed to go back to my books. Or rather, go back to one and start on another. Continue reading

Vietnamese (4): Flipping the flashcards, fixing the accents

5185390904_5945498ba3_bIn just under four months of – ideally – daily practice, I’ve mastered some 300 Vietnamese words.

Or have I? When I see them on my flashcards, there’s a fair chance that I recognise them and can tell what they mean. But if you were to show me words that I haven’t studied, likely as not I would believe I recognised and understood many of those also. The trouble with Vietnamese is that so many of its words look so damn similar. The letter a alone has 18 varieties, counting all the possible single and double diacritics. But my European eyes will focus on the a as such and my European brain will remember only the bare and unadorned a. I have to force them to pay heed to the scribbles above it – and sometimes even below it, as in ạ, ặ and ậ. Continue reading

Vietnamese (3): Harder than the language

vietnam-1745819_960_720“How’s your Vietnamese coming along?” people ask me, for it’s the sort of outlandish hobby that gets remembered. The answer is: so-so, could be better. I’m struggling with two problems, and I’m pretty sure that many serial language learners are familiar with them.

One is keeping up the self-discipline. I found that not too hard when I was at school, easy when I was staying in Latin America and very easy, indeed irresistible, when I was in love with a German woman. Using Duolingo, with its computer game based psychological tricks, also used to help. But studying at home from a conventional book and CD, motivated mostly by my wish to write an article in a year’s time, I find the going somewhat hard. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Vietnamese (1): why, and how to begin

vietnamese-alphabetAttending the Polyglot Conference in Thessaloniki, late last month, has inspired me to do a bold and daring thing: start learning Vietnamese. While the language may appear small in comparison to its northern neighbour, Chinese, it actually has no fewer than 80 million speakers. Moreover, one of these, a friendly and wonderfully efficient woman named Tuyết, happens to clean our house every fortnight, so I may have an opportunity for practice there – or at the very least, I will be able to surprise her one of these days. (Days? Make that ‘weeks’. Or ‘months’, more likely.) Continue reading