My Three Addictions (4)

My study of first Vietnamese and later Chinese revealed to me a totally different linguistic logic, quite alien to both Germanic and romantic languages. In these two tongues, there is no grammar as we westerners think of it—no nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, or other parts of speech. No conjugations or declensions. And tense is rarely expressed because the context makes clear what is intended.

One example of Asian language reasoning came to me when I was studying classical Chinese. In the text I was trying to translate were three characters, those for “he,” “mountain,” and “treasure. I couldn’t figure out what was meant. My teacher reminded me that in Chinese a word can function as any part of speech, and I was approaching that passage as if the second two characters were both nouns. The second of the three, “mountain,” here was used as an action word. What the text means was “He mountained the treasure,” that is, he piled it up so high it made a mountain.

These languages convey meaning by word order and context. For example, the word in Vietnamese is usually defined as the verb, “to be” in English. But it really functions as an equals sign—what comes before equals what comes after. For pronouns like “I’ and “you” in English, the Vietnamese use words that indicate the relationship between the speakers. The most common formal term for “I” is “tôi,” which means “servant” or “slave.” The formal “you” in Vietnamese is “ông” (grandfather, a revered figure) for a man and either “cô” (aunt, for an unmarried woman) or “bà” (grandmother, for a married woman).

It gets more complicated. For less formal relationships, “I” and “you” are expressed by a word that designates a family member. If I’m talking to an older man, I use anh (older brother) for “you” and em (younger brother or sister) for “I.” If I am talking to a younger man or woman, the words are reversed. A younger Vietnamese woman I know addresses me as chú (paternal uncle), so I must use chú for “I” and cháu (nephew or niece) for “you” with her. Misuse of the proper word can be insulting to a Vietnamese.

It gets worse yet. Both Vietnamese and Chinese are tonal and monosyllabic languages. For instance, the syllable “ma” in Vietnamese has six different meanings determined by the intonation. A hilarious story about Robert McNamara tells how he tried to cheer the Vietnamese during one of his trips to Vietnam by shouting “Viêt Nam muôn năm,” which means “Vietnam for ten thousand years.” But he got the tones wrong and ended up saying “The little duck, he wants to lie down.” The crowd dissolved in mirth.

More tomorrow.

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