Preference for the Northern Dialect in Vietnamese

In Last of the Annamese, I write of the refusal of South Vietnamese Marine Colonel Pham Ngoc Thanh to speak the northern dialect of the Vietnamese. That was, and still is, the preferred speech for native Vietnamese speakers. And it is the favored form of Vietnamese for the elite and educated, rather like the New England accent in English among Americans.

Thanh is of peasant stock. His people were muck farmers from central Vietnam. He detects phoniness and false airs among his superiors. He is determined to remain faithful to his forebears, the ordinary people who were the bedrock of Vietnam. He insists on speaking their language, just as calls his country An Nam, peace in the south. Hence, Annamese.

I spent the full year of 1959 at the Army Language School, later called the Defense Language Institute, at the Presidio of Monterey, California, in intense study of Vietnamese—six hours a day in the classroom plus two hours of private study every night, five days a week, for a full year. I was submerged in the language. Over time, I came to speak, think, and even dream in Vietnamese. All but one of my teachers were native northern dialect speakers. I spoke as they did.

The northern dialect is more precise than the central and southern speech. Its six tones are sharply differentiated, and its pronunciation is clear and exact. The other two dialects use two tones interchangeably and slur pronunciation so that some words spelled differently sound the same. For that reason, nearly all Vietnamese radio broadcasts I’ve heard stress the northern speech.

Besides, to me at least, the northern dialect is beautiful to listen to. The tones give the language a musical aura, and the sharp, clear pronunciation reminds me of the sound of small bells.

Among the other Americans I knew who spoke Vietnamese, almost all adapted their speech while they were in South Vietnam. I never did. And to this day, when I am speaking to native Vietnamese, they often remark that my northern dialect is more pure than theirs.

My preferences notwithstanding, I see Thanh’s choice as the right one. He was faithful to his heritage. I admire his strength and courage.

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