During my thirteen years of wandering around in Vietnam, I encountered many different versions of the Vietnamese language. The hardest to understand was that spoken by foreigners (mostly the French and Australians) and by the Montagnards, members of the mountain tribes who were not Vietnamese and whose native language was unrelated to Vietnamese. But I also had considerable trouble with the dialects of ethnic Vietnamese.
The three principal dialects were the northern, central, and southern. The preferred dialect was the northern. It was considered the most prestigious. Like the New England dialect of American English, the northern dialect of Vietnamese was language of the elite and well-educated. Its pronunciation distinguished carefully the six tones and many variations in vowels and consonants indicated by diacritical marks in the written language. And because all my Vietnamese teachers were well educated, it was the dialect I learned.
The southern dialect, like southern English in the United States, was spoken more slowly and blurred distinctive sounds. Two of the six tones were pronounced the same way (which led to southerners sometimes mixing up the tone symbols when writing), and many of the vowels were pronounced in a way that, to my ear, made them indistinguishable. As a result, I had far more trouble understanding southerners.
I can’t say much about the central dialect. I encountered it rarely, and people from central Vietnam almost always switched to the northern (or occasionally the southern) dialect when speaking to those not from the central part of the country. I did occasionally encounter a pure central dialect. I mostly couldn’t understand it. To me it sounded like the southern dialect spoken by someone with a mouth full of food.
Since my return to the U.S. in 1975, I have sometimes run into Vietnamese and have spoken to them in their language. Nearly all of them used the northern dialect with me, even though it was sometimes obvious to me from their pronunciation that they were not native northerners. They were always astonished that an American could speak Vietnamese.
All my languages (I have spoken seven) are fading. Lack of opportunity to practice means that the memory weakens. Vietnamese was far and away my best language—I spoke it constantly for thirteen years—but now it, too, is withering. That’s the way it is with languages. Guess I’d better get used to it.