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.

The Vietnamese Language (2)

Continuing my description of Vietnamese, how it differs from western languages, and why it fascinates me:

In principle, Vietnamese uses no parts of speech. Broadly speaking, any word can be understood as functioning like any part of speech. Vietnamese shares this characteristic with Chinese. My favorite example comes from my years of studying Chinese. In a classic poem I came across the three characters that meant “he,” “mountain,” and “treasure.” I was stumped. My teacher, a Jesuit priest who had spent many years in China, reminded me that there are no parts of speech in Chinese. I figured out that the sentence meant “he mountained the treasure,” that is, he piled it up to form a veritable mountain.

I said “in principle” because many words in Vietnamese are nearly always used as action indicators (verbs), identity indicators (nouns), or as what I call “functionals,” words that suggest a linguistic role. One such functional is the word . It’s sometimes translated as “to be,” but its function is to equate the word before it and after it. It is used in sentences like “water is a liquid” and “I am an American.”

About a third of all Vietnamese words are borrowed from Chinese. These terms are considered restricted—they are only used with each other and only in compounds of two words. The vocabulary they form is more formal or poetic or lofty in usage than the commonly spoken language. More often than not, a native Vietnamese word exists with the same meaning for use in everyday speech. The Sino-Vietnamese terms serve in Vietnamese very much like words derived from Latin and Greek do in English. As a result, a formal or learned Vietnamese text may consist of 60 percent Sino-Vietnamese terms.

Part of the reason that so many Vietnamese words are derived from Chinese is that until the beginning of the twentieth century, Vietnamese was written in characters derived from Chinese. Only with the introduction of the Romanized alphabet, created by Portuguese missionaries, did the Vietnamese language begin to establish itself as an independent tongue.

More tomorrow.

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.

Ignoring the Facts as Vietnam Fell

The Burns-Novick documentary reminded me of the misinformation the U.S. government gave to the American people at various times during the Vietnam war. The revelation of the Nixon’s administration’s calculated lies shocked me, but my sense is that at other points during the war, the government statements were less an intent to deceive than an expression of wishful thinking. Ambassador Graham Martin’s failure to call for an evacuation during the fall of Saigon, for example, reflected his incapacity to accept the fact the North Vietnamese were preparing to launch an attack on the city—the idea that Saigon could ever fall to the communists was unthinkable.

One paragraph in Last of the Annamese reflects my own reaction at the time to untrue statements coming out of Washington. It describes the thoughts going through the mind of the protagonist, Chuck Griffin:

“Ahead of him lay the gruesome task of chronicling the collapse of the Republic of Vietnam [South Vietnam] whether or not his own government wanted to hear it. But the job was turning surreal. Wednesday, Secretary of Defense Schlesinger had said publicly that there was relatively little major fighting in Vietnam. Wasn’t anybody reading what Chuck and Sparky and Troiano [all working in the Intelligence Branch in Saigon] were writing? Were the Ford administration and Congress so determined not to get involved again that they were pretending there was no war? Or maybe it was lies for public consumption only. The Defense Intelligence Agency, the secretary’s own intelligence organ, had just issued a classified estimate, paraphrasing Chuck, that the Republic would last less than thirty days. And the Ambassador, under pressure from every side, looked the other way when employees and dependents, under a variety of pretexts, left the country. Why didn’t the story the government was telling the people match the facts?”

To this day I marvel over what I called the Cassandra Effect: foretelling what was going to happen based on signals intelligence and not being believed by military commanders and government officials. Every time the Cassandra Effect held sway, people died.


John McCain’s observations about leadership in the colloquy with Bob Woodward at the Naval Institute Conference on Military and Politics last Thursday led me to think through the nature of leadership anew. I’ve added one factor to my original thinking—McCain’s dictum that a true leader must always do the right thing.

Here are the things I think a person must do be real leader:

—Have a vision about a better future

—Shape a mission to achieve that vision

—Be humble

—Be passionately committed to the vision and the mission

—Know and care for the followers

—Never ask the followers to do something he or she wouldn’t do

—Always do the right thing, no matter what

McCain’s added factor of always doing the right thing adds a moral element that I see is essential. The leader cannot succeed over time if he or she is willing to compromise his or her own ethics and those of the followers. Put differently, leadership only works to achieve goals that all agree are morally good.

A Reader’s Response

A regular reader of this blog and a friend, Trinh Binh An, was born in Vietnam. She was twelve when Saigon fell. Some years later, she escaped from Vietnam and came to this country. Cô An responded to my blog post on the Naval Institute Conference on Military and Politics. She quoted the statement about the views expressed by conference panelists that the U.S. saw the enemy as communists when they were first and foremost nationalists, striving for independence:

“I am tottaly disagree this view ! Hồ Chí Minh and his group had killed many natiolists of other pasties such as Quốc Dân Đảng, Đại Việt . Before US got involved in VN, people in the South Viet Nam had been fighting over French and communists (they still nowadays) such as Cao Đài and Hòa Hảo . In the North Viet Nam, catholics and budists had teamed up together to fight against Hồ in Phát Diệm province .
“Hồ and his party is successful in brainwashing people, rules them in iron fists. They use all terrorized methods to achieve their goals. They follow Lenin and Mao ‘s communism not Max and Egel’s communism .”

I agree with Cô An’s characterization of the Viet Minh as ruthless dictators, and she is right that over the years they murdered members of other nationalist groups. But that doesn’t make them communists. When Hồ Chí Minh repeatedly approached the U.S. in the mid-1940s asking for help to free Vietnam from the French colonialists (we ignored his pleas), he was more nationalist than communist. When he got no help from us, he turned to China and the USSR, who continued to assist him with weapons and money long after the U.S. withdrew from Vietnam and ceased its support of the South Vietnamese government and people. Communism became the dominant doctrine of the Viet Minh, and they became more despotic as the struggle continued.

Late in the twentieth century, the government of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, as it now calls itself, abandoned a principal tenet of communism and adopted a capitalist economic philosophy. The result has been an economic boom, especially in tourism. So Vietnam is no longer a truly communist country. That doesn’t mean it is in any sense democratic; it is as much a police state today as it was during the Vietnam war.

The thrust of my original argument in this blog is that if the U.S. had assisted Hồ from the start, the nationalist character of the Viet Minh might have prevailed and democratic tendencies might have caused them to cooperate with other nationalist groups to achieve independence. The U.S. could have used its influence to thwart the growing autocracy as the regime was formed and insisted that the government include all nationalist groups and proceed with democratic principles dominant. It could also have pressured its ally, France, to grant Vietnam independence. Such actions would have been in keeping with the anti-colonialist philosophy inherent in American political thinking.

My sense is that history would have been very different and much better had we taken that route.

Naval Institute Conference on Military and Politics

I didn’t do a blog post yesterday because I attended the Naval Institute’s conference on the military and politics, a discussion of the proper role for military personnel, especially senior officers, in politics. Among the participants were Colin Powell, John McCain, Bob Woodward, John Allen, and Michael Mullen. Definitely an all-star show.

There was a broad consensus, with various shadings and disagreements, that professional military people can properly participate in the shaping of policy but should remain neutral in politics. Of far greater interest to me were observations offered by various panel members on issues directly bearing on this blog.

I was surprised that Vietnam came up frequently. The panelists generally agreed that the Vietnam war was misguided. The U.S. saw the enemy as communists when they were first and foremost nationalists, striving for independence. Their dedication went much deeper than ours did. They were willing to fight to the last man to oust the corrupt South Vietnamese government and foreign domination, first by the French, then by the Americans. U.S. commitment was nowhere near as strong.

Moreover, if Vietnam taught us nothing else, we should have learned that you can’t win a war when the U.S. population is not supporting the war effort.

To my understanding of the nature of leadership—that the leader must be focused equally on the mission and the well-being of his followers—John McCain, in a video interview with Bob Woorward, introduced another factor that was new to me: determination to do the right thing, no matter what. That adds a moral component that I had never considered.

The judgments about Vietnam, especially coming from the military, greatly comforted me. As a regular reader of this blog will recognize, they closely match my own views as expressed in text posted here going back to last November. My broadened understanding of leadership was more than welcome. In days to come, I’ll post a blog summing up my definition of the leader’s role.