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All Vietnamese in one word

Week 31, Episode 61

There is a word in the Vietnamese language that represents all its pecularities; one word that gives away all the main features of the language it belongs to. But before introducing this word, let me ask you a question.

Why Vietnamese is so different from all the other languages we Langventured into insofar? Is it its writing system? No, at least not now, since the letters of the Vietnamese alphabet are based on the Latin script and not Chinese as it was before. Is it the pronunciation? In a way, because some of the sounds this language has are not quite familiar to an English speaker.

But the thing that makes learning Vietnamese so different from learning any other out of 13 languages we've explored, including Hindi, Arabic, Finnish, French, is something these languages don't have—tones, that is a change in pitch.

This is why Vietnamese is called a tonal language. And if you thought that Chinese is difficult (because it has tones, too), you can relax now—after tiếng Việt ("Vietnamese language") Mandarin sounds will seem a piece of [moon]cake to you :)

So when you do start learning this awesome national language of Vietnam, remember to teach yourself to identify and correctly produce all its tones first, before getting to any vocabulary or grammar rules. Because the same word, if given a different tone, may mean something completely different or not have any sense at all. In both cases, the vast vocabulary you might have memorized will not help the communication if you don't know with which tone to say it.

Tones are a big part of the language, so let's show them some respect and devote a whole episode later on to get to know them better.

Another thing to consider when learning Vietnamese is the dialect. The choice will affect the pronunciation of the letters and words, and will also define groups of people who will understand you. It is not to say that the dialects are completely distinct, but they are not the same, either.

So what are we choosing from? Basically, between Northern and Southern dialects. Often, the Central dialect stands out. And some experts even categorize Noth-Central and South-Central dialects.

The whole essence, versatility and the pecularities of the Vietnamese language materialize in this seemingly simple word—dưa ("melon"). How?

First of all, it shows that Vietnamese is written in the Latin script, but has its own letters, too, like this letter ư in the middle with a tail up. 

Secondly, the word represents the unique way of Vietnamese pronunciation of the words that, though written in Latin, has its own sounds for the letters—there is no way the word dưa is going to sound as doo-ah as you might be guessing.

Thirdly, this word is pronounced differently in North Vietnam and South Vietnam, as they have their own pronounciation of the alphabet, which gives us an idea of the existence of different dialects in the Vietnamese language. In the Northern dialect you say it like "zoo-ah", while in the Southern dialect it is "you-ah."

Fourthly, there are three different tones that can be applied with it and the choice completely changes the meaning:

  • dưa means "melon" (mid-pitched tone, flat),
  • dứa means "pineapple" (rising tone),
  • dừa means "coconut" (falling tone).

And in the fifth, the word is short as the majority of the words in Vietnamese. In fact, the longest word in the Vietnamese language has... 7 letters! Even the words borrowed from other languages, like French, for example, get cut and/or shortened:

  • vi rút for "virus"
  • đốc tơ for "doctor"
  • dê rô for "zero"
  • ten nít for "tennis"
  • ma két tinh for "marketing"
  • ga ra for "garage",
  • tắc xi for "taxi",
  • etc.

Hopefully, now you have a pretty good image of the Vietnamese language—and just one word unlocks all its aspects for you.

So which ice-cream flavor would you like: dưa, dứa, or dừa? :)

Are tones difficult to master? For those who has never delt with them it is going to be challenging, no doubt. But it is yet too early to give up. Let's get down to this specific feature of the language—the tones!

Đi Nào! (Dee Nah-oh!) Come on!

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