Updated: Oct 18
In this series, I explore the language of a country and share my favourite words.
Vietnamese, known as tiếng việt (㗂越), originates as the native language of the Kinh people and today has about 90 million speakers around the globe. The Vietnamese people (Kinh) are an ethnic group originating from what is now northern Vietnam and southern China. This group is the majority ethnic group in Vietnam.
In the fairytale version...
According to legend, the first Vietnamese descended from the dragon lord Lac Long Quan and a heavenly spirit Au Co. They married and had one hundred eggs, from which hatched one hundred children. Their eldest son Hùng Vuong ruled as the first Vietnamese king. The predecessors of the Vietnamese people emigrated from present southern China to the Red River delta and mixed with the indigenous population.
Vietnamese is mainly spoken in Vietnam but can also be heard in Guangxi Province in southern China, Cambodia, and Laos; it also has a significant presence in England, France, Australia, the USA, and the Czech Republic.
The language is beautifully melodic and incredibly daunting. The difficulty of Vietnam's official language is a point of national pride. Locals gleefully tease you with “tiếng Việt khó!” ("Vietnamese is hard!").
Like the majority of South East and East Asian languages, Vietnamese is a tonal language. Meaning that for each syllable there are six different tones that can change the meaning of a word. Pronounce "ma" with a sharp, high rising vowel "má" you're talking about your mother, say it again with a high breaking rise "mã" you're talking about your horse.
If you can get past all the crazy tones, every other aspect of the language is extremely easy – far easier than what you might expect, especially compared to most European languages. The grammar is straightforward, there are no genders, it dispenses with "a" and "the", and there are no plurals. A modified version of the Roman alphabet is used, making it manageable to read signs and addresses when travelling around. Just like it's architecture and cuisine, the language embraces influences of Latin, Chinese, French, and English. Words like càphê (café - coffee), ápphích (affiche - poster), internet and e-mail are easy on Western ears.
The other easy factor is that words are perfectly logical. The word for motorbike taxis, xe ôm, translates literally into “hug vehicle.” A good portion of the vocabulary is formed by just combining two words in a logical manner, whereas in English you'd have to learn an entirely new third word that sounds completely different. If I told you that máy means “machine” and bay means “flying”, could you guess what máy bay means?
Đẹp | Beautiful
pronounced Depp (like Johnny Depp)
The simple act of saying đẹp while showing a local their photo and seeing their faces light up is utterly gratifying. My guide explained that it was a useful word to say when taking photos because it's often the case that locals might not have ever had their photo taken. They are often wary of a camera because they are unaware of their own beauty.
Duyên | Charm & Grace
Duyên encapsulates my view of Vietnam and it's people: charming and elegant. Just as Grace is used as a popular name for girls in the west, Duyên is a popular name for girls in Vietnam. An additional meaning translates to "the predestined tie that is believed to have people meet one another". A little word that carries a lot of weight.
If it is fated, we can meet even if we are separated by a thousand miles; but if it not be fated, we shall not encounter each other even if we are face-to-face.
Thương | Beyond Love
Vietnamese will define this word as meaning "more than love". In English, we tend to be limited in vocabulary options when it comes to expressing love. We are inclined to think of romantic love but of course, in reality, there are so many different forms of love that enter into our lives. Thương is tender, soft, long-lasting and is usually developed after a long relationship. This one word expresses a tender kind of love which you would sacrifice yourself for your loved ones; going beyond basic romantic love.
It's that feeling of endless warmth you had when you were little and your mother says that she loves you.
Kỳ Diệu | Magical
pronounced Key Zey-oh
It covers that sense of wonder and magic when you share the little moments in your life with loved ones, or when you learn something absolutely brilliant, or make a new discovery. The tones of both syllables are low, light, and flow softly down the tongue.