Vietnamese (10): No such thing as Britain

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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. It 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 hiệp? 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

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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.

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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

Is half the world economy ours?

2146_lgEnglish is often called the world language, and not without reason, yet outside the Anglosphere and parts of Europe, it’s only spoken by an elite. Which makes me wonder: what proportion of world GDP accrues to the minority of the world population that speaks good English?

The question immediately runs into an operationalisational quagmire. Or to put it in language that does not contain the abstract suffix ‘ation’ twice in one word: it’s practically impossible to determine how many people speak English, and there’s bound to be no data whatsoever linking the number of English speakers in each country to their slice of the national pie. However, this need not stop us making a rough and ready estimate. I’ve tried to do just that, and my provisional and highly questionable ballpark statistic would be that 10% of the world population accounts for half of global GDP.

But some linguistically-minded economist, or vice versa, may have come up with something slightly more reliable. Do any of you know of such an effort? I’d love to hear about it!

Oh blast

Little-Bugger-Infant-RedWhat a pity! In Lingo, I claimed that “English has no loanwords from Bulgarian, with the debatable exception of the name of the Bulgarian currency, the lev, which literally means ‘lion’.”

I’ve just discovered that I missed one, and a very colourful one too: bugger. The invaluable Online Etymological Dictionary has this to say about it (I’ve edited the entry for clarity): Continue reading

Struggling with 한글

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The Hangul Museum in Seoul

To Romans like us, non-Roman scripts can be quite troublesome. Greek and Cyrillic I find manageable, for reasons that I’ve explained in Lingo, and so is Chinese thanks to pinyin, but most others are too complex for comfort. Now that I’m writing the Korean chapter of my next book, I’m having a brush with Hangul (or Hangeul). Even though all my sources are in English, not being able to read the Korean alphabet remains a handicap that rather tests my inventiveness.

One beautiful but somewhat troubling aspect of the script is that the letters are not placed on a line, but in a block. To the layperson’s eye, Korean looks like Chinese (though the differences are easy to spot once you know what to look out for). When Hangul was developed in the 15th century, Chinese characters had been in use for well over a thousand years in Korea, so it must have seemed only natural to make the new script look like them. The visual similarity was probably also intended to overcome the resistance of the traditionalists against the new-fangled way of writing. If so, the trick didn’t work, for Hangul wouldn’t triumph until the 20th century. Continue reading

Irish between ‘very old language’ and ‘1943 political construct’

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In July, I visited a 1500-year-old Irish inscription.

Last week I had a Twitter discussion with writer and translator Seanán Ó Coistín, who in an opinion piece in The News Letter, a major newspaper in Northern Ireland, claimed that ‘the Irish language is almost a millennium older than English’. It irritated me and I responded, in the less than gentlemanly tone that Twitter from time to time brings out in me: ‘Can we PLEASE stop claiming that language X is older than language Y? Hardly ever makes sense.’

And it doesn’t. Languages, except the artificial ones such as Esperanto and Klingon, simply don’t have an age. The best we can do is distinguish stages and identify some historic and prehistoric milestones. 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