From my earliest years as a child, when I first discovered that people spoke languages other than English, the different languages of the earth have fascinated me. As a child I taught myself Italian and French; in high school I had four years of Latin; in college I studied German, then enlisted in the army to go to language school to study Chinese, the language that intrigued me the most. Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I had been surrounded by speakers of Chinese. I knew that the language, because of its writing system, was too difficult for me to teach myself. I looked forward to a full year of intensive study, six hours a day in the classroom, two hours a day of private study, five days a week.
But when I got to the school, the army told me I was not to learn Chinese but Vietnamese, a language I had never heard of—back in those days (1958), we didn’t call that part of the world Vietnam, we called it French Indochina. I had no choice in the matter. I was a soldier and followed orders.
The study of Vietnamese turned out to be a revelation. Here was a language that had no grammar like that of western tongues—no verbs, nouns, declensions, or conjugations. All words were a single syllable that could be combined with other words to create what was called a “compound” to allow for the expression of more complex ideas. Any word could be used as the equivalent of any part of speech in western languages. Function and meaning depended on context and word order.
Most challenging for westerners were the tones used in monosyllabic Vietnamese. Words with a soft ending, that is, no hard consonant, changed their meaning entirely depending on which tone was applied to them. There were six tones: level (no tone), rising, falling, rising-broken, falling rounded, and low with a glottal stop. Words with a hard ending—a hard consonant like a t or p—could have either the rising tone or the low glottal stop tone.