The Vietnamese Language

I confess to the readers: I am an addicted linguist. Languages have always intrigued me. As a child, I taught myself French and Italian. Before I was through, I’d become proficient in seven languages. I can’t claim I’m still comfortable in all of them—facility in languages fades if they are not regularly read or spoken—but my fascination is as strong as ever.

My favorite language, other than English, is Vietnamese. That may be because I know it better than any other. I learned it during a full year of intense study at the Army Language School and used it constantly for the next fifteen years.

What charmed me when I first learned Vietnamese, and still captivates me today, is the underlying thought processes, the way of thinking, evident in the way the language works. The logic inherent in Vietnamese is totally unlike that of any western language I know of.

First of all, it is a tonal language. That means, among other things, that it is monosyllabic. And the intonation determines the meaning. For example, the word “ma” has completely different meaning depending on which of the six tones is applied to it. Spoken with a level tone, it means “ghost;” with a rising tone, it means “mother;” with a falling tone it means “but;” with a falling then rising tone, it means “skillful;” with a high broken (creaky) tone, it means “appearance;” and with the low constricted (glottal stop) tone, it means “rice seedling.”

Second, for complex ideas, words are combined. Two, occasionally three, syllables are strung together to express ideas like “national,” “brotherhood,” and “female.”

More tomorrow.

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