The Vietnamese Language (3)

More on the Vietnamese language and my fascination with it:

Vietnamese has no grammar in the western sense. Not only are there no parts of speech, but there are no conjugations or declensions. Meaning is expressed by word order and context.

Word order is doer-action-object with many variations. The order can be reversed for emphasis when the context makes the meaning clear. Words that function like adjectives in English include within them the sense of the verb “to be.” So if you want to say, “the girl is pretty,” you say “the girl pretty.” But if an adjective follows a word that is functioning as an action word, the adjective modifies that word and therefore works like an adverb in English.

The equivalent of the definite article in Vietnamese is the classifier. But whereas English has only one definite article, Vietnamese had many. Which one is used depends on the meaning of the modified word. The most common is cái, used for many inanimate objects. Con is used for animals and children. Bài is used for compositions, like songs or poems. The meaning of the modified words depends in part on the classifier, and many classifiers can function by themselves like nouns in English.

Pronouns, per se, also don’t exist. The words the speaker uses to refer to himself and to the person he is addressing have meanings in themselves and are determined by the relationship.

Formal, polite, and distant relationship is expressed in tôi for “I” and ông for “you” if I am speaking to a man, and either or if I am addressing a woman. The underlying meaning of tôi is “your servant,” whereas ông means “grandfather.”  Cô literally means “father’s sister” or “aunt,” but it is used to delineate an unmarried woman, so it also means “miss.” And , literally “grandmother,” is used for a married woman and is the equivalent of “Mrs.” in English.

If the relationship is more familiar or intimate, Anh (older brother) is used by the speaker if he is male and older than his interlocutor, and em becomes the equivalent of “you.” For the younger person, em comes to mean “I,” and anh is “you.” This form of address is also used by couples in a love relationship.

And those are just a few of the many variants substituting for pronouns. The emphasis on relationships and honorifics tells us a great deal about the nature of Vietnamese society, and it highlights another feature of the language: In Vietnamese, context is of primary importance in expressing meaning.

Many of the linguistic practices I have described above also appear in Chinese, which has other sets of formative rules. As I hope these few examples have demonstrated, the underlying logic and cultural values of these Asian languages are radically different from those of western languages. In learning these languages, I also got a glimmer of the cultures that produced them. I was at the beginning and still am today mesmerized.

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