Thiếu Khanh


T́m cái này lại thấy cái khác. T́nh cờ gặp lại bài viết này.

Đầu năm 2010 ḿnh được mời tham dự một hội nghị quốc tế về Giới thiệu Văn học VN ra nước ngoài tại HN. Trong thư mời có yêu cầu gởi một tham luận. Hồi đó ḿnh không sẵn ư tưởng mà thời gian cũng chẳng bao nhiêu, nên lấy một bài viết cũ ḿnh đă gởi đăng trên báo Việt Nam News từ nhiều năm trước, vẫn c̣n mang tính thời sự, "biên tập" đôi chút và gởi đi. Khi vào hội nghị, ḿnh không thấy bản tham luận của ḿnh được in, nhưng ḿnh cũng không thắc mắc. (V́ các tham luận được in, không nhiều lắm, đều bằng tiếng Việt cả). Lần đầu tham dự một hội nghị quốc tế nên ngây thơ tưởng là có thể giới thiệu một tham luận bằng tiếng Anh! "Trẻ người non dạ mà!"
Đây là bài viết ấy:

Thiếu Khanh
(Nguyễn Huỳnh Điệp)



          You may blurt out: “What a question! Doesn’t it sound silly?” Yes. It may. But have you ever heard someone pronouncing Vietnamese words lispingly without tones or accents when they are speaking English? And have you ever felt confused or embarrassed when seeing Vietnamese words spelled out “barely”, i.e., without diacritics and accent marks, especially in an English text? People try to make the words look and sound English-like. They are anglicizing our mother tongue, aren’t they? Then, my question doesn’t sound silly at all.



We all know that, with sixteen vowel sounds and six tones, Vietnamese is one of the richest languages in the world in terms of tones and nuance. Our tongue has a long history dating back more than four thousand years, but its tones are relatively new. They are the result of a long process of evolution of the language. According to A. G. Haudricourt, a well-known French linguist, ancient Vietnamese “acquired” its first tones no earlier than the 2nd century AD. It was not until the 12th century, however, that the language reached its full development in tones.

The six tones serve a crucial function in distinguishing words semantically. Ba, bà, bá, bả, bă and bạ are different in sounds as well as in meanings. On the other hand, a word without sound distinguishers may be meaningless or polysemous as it can be expounded in different ways. “Vo de”, for example, does not make sense itself, but it can be thought to stand for vô đề (without a title, untitled), vỡ đê (a dam broken), vợ đẻ (one’s wife giving birth to a child), or Vơ Đệ (a man’s name) as well as other possibilities. A postman usually refuses to deliver a registered letter or parcel whose receiver’s name lacks expected accent marks or proper diacritics.

With the Latin alphabetical system in use now we find it easy to distinguish the sounds in writing. But this writing system has only been in use for some three hundred years, for almost two thirds of which the system was utilized only by western evangelists and a few local Christian priests. Until late nineteenth century, most educated persons in the country had to manage with their Nôm writing using Chinese characters as our forefathers had done when this kind of “rebus” was first introduced before the eighth century. We can imagine the difficulties our ancestors experienced when they relied on the Chinese hieroglyphics to transcribe our six-toned language and hand it down generation to generation. The Chinese writing system is without accent markers and is of a language which never exceeds four tones.

Then came the French. Those colonialist invaders used their language administratively and officially. Vietnamese was put down to the status of a second language in schools. The invaders belittled our mother tongue. They did not care how authentic the pronunciation and spelling of our language should be, e.g. Cồn Thiên or Con Tien, Hương B́ or Uong Bi. Nor did they face any demand to create accent marks and letters with specific diacritics for their printing machines to produce Vietnamese words orthographically. Thus, Vietnamese words, most of them names, appeared in French books and papers without sound distinguishing markers. This became a common practice at the time insomuch as it occurred to a lot of Vietnamese natives that they could make things look French-like, (hence “noble” or “superior”!), by ridding the words of all their accent elements. Unfortunately, this regrettable practice found its way into the habit of many Vietnamese intellectuals, a few among them writers, and this has lingered on until now.


Our perception

Let alone some writers who, for some reason or another maybe best known to themselves, have allowed such proper names “go bare” in their works, hence somewhat alien to readers, the common occurrence goes that quite a few people are wont to have their name cards printed bilingually. On one side of their cards are their names, titles or occupation and addresses in fully orthographic Vietnamese. On the other side of their cards, however, those things are translated into English. But Vietnamese proper names can hardly be rendered into any other language with ease. So, dropping all accent marks from the words was probably the best “method” they could have found for the circumstance. When all the sound distinguishing elements of the words are removed, anyway, the words are still not English. They appear to be a form of “quasi” Vietnamese. Such a card may look awkward to some people but as an individual idiosyncrasy, it does not matter much. However, when this practice wins its presence in printed media and especially in written literature and textbooks, the matter has come to a point that needs thinking about.

When studying English – or any foreign language – we practice pronouncing every foreign word carefully. We also practice the intonation, the prosodies and the rhythms of the language as well. Unluckily, English is not a toned language like Vietnamese. No accent markers are available to help make our pronouncing and speaking easier. Stress falls upon a certain syllable of a word and varies from word to word. What’s more, there is not a fixed correspondence between English spelling and pronunciation. For example, the letter “e” can be pronounced /i/, or /e/, or /ə/ as seen in the word “independence” or even with /ε/ in “eleven”. Or the sound /ai/ goes with various spellings as seen in aye, by, buy, die, hi, Thai, height, and guide. And so on. All difficulties and inconvenience notwithstanding, we could manage to learn the language. We even imitate the native speakers’ pronunciation and try hard to make ours as much like theirs as possible. We are undoubtedly conscious of the fact that if we fail to reproduce the language correctly, we cannot be understood, nor can we communicate with other speakers of the language. Additionally, in writing we always try to strictly observe English punctuation to a comma. In a word, we try our best not to make a mistake in writing and speaking the language. So do foreigners learning Vietnamese, if they do learn it. They would wish to pronounce correctly all words with any slight variation of tones. They would also wish to strictly observe the spelling to a small diacritic of a word.

Then, why do we, educated persons paying that much careful scrutiny to a foreign language, deliberately mispronounce and misspell words of our mother tongue to make them look and sound like exotic words? It is really a fallacy to think that by dispensing with tones in speech or accent marks in writing can we make things easy for foreign listeners or readers to understand. Actually, only when Vietnamese words appear with their complete distinctive features can they be fully perceived.

There are a great number of foreign words in English; many still retain their original native features, which do not exist in the English writing system. For instance, a cedilla, an acute accent mark, a grave accent mark and a French contraction form with an apostrophe usually attach to the French words respectively: façade, café, cause célèbre and hors-d’oeuvre… The Spanish tilde ( ˜ ) never leaves the word señor or El Niño. Otherwise, the words would change phonetically and could express something different from its usual meaning. The same holds true with the diaeresis ( ¨ ) above the vowel ï as in naїve.

Once at college, I disagreed with an American lecturer when she pronounced the word Sài G̣n /’saigən/. She said she was sorry to have used a pronunciation, which she had not known to be all Greek to non-English speaking Vietnamese, but she had heard people (including some Vietnamese who spoke English) articulate the word that way. She thought Vietnamese people in general would have to get used to it and accept it since it had entered people’s speaking habit internationally. “Even when it is incorrect?” I objected. The lecturer shrugged.

Many decades have elapsed since then. Reality has now confuted the lady. Many foreign businesspersons working in Vietnam can reproduce the word correctly /ʃaigͻ:n/. But it is strange when some Vietnamese still deliberately contort their pronunciation to make the word sound “international”.

We call the unit of Japanese currency Yen “iêng” or “yeng” while it is pronounced by English speakers /jen/. But the Japanese themselves keep referring to their currency with a sound like that between Vietnamese “en” and “ên”, and writing the word “えん”. They do not care whether the word is international or not. It is a Japanese word and much be pronounced accordingly. The syllable “YE” does not exist in their syllabic system.

Is it reasonable to deny our original background just to be “international”? I think it would be ridiculous to internationalize our word Sài G̣n and Hà Nội by pronouncing them /’saigən/ and /’hænͻi/, or to write and articulate such addresses as “Nga ba Vung Tau”, or “Nga Tu So” to make them look and sound English-like or whatever-on-Earth-like.

So, if you are living in Nguyễn Văn Cừ Street, just make it clearly Nguyễn Văn Cừ in your speech and writing. Do not lisp it Nguyen Van Cu. Even the imaginary “Strum language” has distinctive features in its speech sounds. Our great national hero Lê Lợi would be enraged if you addressed him King Le Loi!

Thank you for listening.


Thiếu Khanh
(Nguyễn Huỳnh Điệp)