Interesting Facts about Vietnamese

April 1st, 2013
Interesting Facts about Vietnamese  | One Hour Translation

Vietnamese is a language filled to the brim with interesting quirks and fascinating history, including some of these examples.

Tones and Borrowings

Vietnamese is a language made more complex than its vocabulary might indicate by its liberal use of tone. For Westerners this is usually the most challenging aspect of the language, as the meaning and connotation of many if not most Vietnamese words and phrases are changed by the use of six tones used in the inflection and pronunciation. Mandarin Chinese, which many people think of as an incredibly difficult language, has only four.

Speaking of Chinese, Vietnam has many, many words borrowed from Chinese. This is a testament to the thousands of years that China has been the most influential power in the area. Many common words and phrases such as dong y (agree), chau au (Europe), and hang khong (airline) come directly from the Chinese language.

Poetics

Vietnamese is also a very beautiful language, filled with poetry. When you start learning other languages you can start to feel like English is kind of bland and almost utilitarian in nature. In fact, the Vietnamese word for The United States is Nuoc My, which translates to “country beautiful.” Somehow the U.S. has not returned the favour!

If you’ve ever eaten or, more importantly, smelled a durian fruit, you might not be surprised to learn that the words for it in Vietnamese (sau rieng) literally translates to “private sorrow.” Personally, I enjoy durian, but can understand why that fruit makes people sad.

One of my favourites is li xi, literally “luck money.” Luck money is handed out to children and young people during the New Year (Tet) celebration. I love the concept and I love how they give it such a happy name!

Odd Transliterations

Vietnamese is also filled with borrowed words that have gone through the blender. Vietnamese doesn’t handle the sound of the letter “F” very well, so when they borrowed the word sofa from English they made it into ghe xofa. They love to make dishes involving steak, but when they borrowed the word beefsteak they turned it into bit-tet. At first glance you wouldn’t know that these words were not Vietnamese but were borrowed, which is part of what I find fascinating about language in general!