Language & Culture

Do Vietnamese words have syllables?

Thảo ơi, I heard that Vietnamese is monosyllabic. Is that right?

Do Vietnamese words have syllables?

It’s true that in Vietnamese every syllable is written separately, and many words have just one syllable (such as cây, xem, vui). However Vietnamese words can still have more than one syllable. In fact the statisticians say the vast majority of words in Vietnamese do. *

Most of these are disyllabic (ie. they have two syllables). For example đồng hồ is a noun which means clock. Both syllables are needed for the meaning. It’s a word with two syllables which are written separately.

The same can be true of adjectives (eg. thông minh), verbs (eg. sắp xếp) and adverbs (eg. thỉnh thoảng).

To a lesser extent there are compound words where new words are formed by putting other words together. For example mắt trời. In these instances, knowing one of the words can give you a clue what the compound word is about (eg. if you know trời is sky, you can infer that mắt trời is something to do with the sky).

face + sky = sun (mắt trời)
face + sky = sun (mắt trời)

Tackling problems reading new words

As a Vietnamese learner it can be tricky, when reading, to figure out how these syllables combine to form words that have meaning. It can be hard to know what to look up in the dictionary.

Often when intensively reading something, you will find three or four new words all in a row. But should you be looking up four words in the dictionary? Or two pairs of syllables, or some other combination of words?

What should you be looking up out of tác phẩm hồi ký...
Should you be looking up tác phẩm hồi ký? Tác phẩm and hồi ký? Tác and phẩm hồi and ký…?

Enter google translate.

You may be thinking ‘but Google Translate doesn’t do a great job with Vietnamese’. The translations can be unnatural to say the least.

However google translate has a built-in feature where you can hover over words to see alternative translations. But it’s not the alternative translations we’re interested in, it’s the hover feature itself.

By hovering over each of those unknown ‘words’, you can see if there are any multiple-syllable words.

Hover over the translation to figure out where the words are
Hover over the translation to figure out where the words are.

Now you know how to break down those new words (in this example tác phẩm hồi ký is in fact tác phẩm and hồi ký) so you’re able to easily look them up in the dictionary.

Over to you: Had you given any thought to syllables in Vietnamese before? How do you tackle new words when you come across a few in a row?

Image credit: Billy Frank Alexander Design

* Not everyone agrees on this.

Language & Culture

ơi is an endearing word in Vietnamese

ơi is one of my favourite Vietnamese words.

Why do Vietnamese people say ơi?

Let’s look at the most common uses of the Vietnamese word ơi.

1. Em ơi

(Or anh ơi or chị ơi.)

A common phrase and essential to anyone spending time in Vietnam, yelling ‘anh ơi’ or ’em ơi’ at a waiter to get his attention sounds rude to an English speaker’s ear because the word ‘oi’ in English has negative connotations.

Not so, for ơi. It’s used all the time for getting someone’s attention but also can be used when talking to someone – such as to address your teacher.

You should address him as "anh ơi" unless you're sure he's younger than you. If that's the case you can use "em ơi".
Getting a waiter’s attention. By the way if you’re not sure about your relative ages, it’s politer to address him as “anh ơi” rather than “em ơi”.

I miss this simple but clear way to get someone’s attention. In English the best we have is ‘excuse me’.

2. Trời ơi

If you spend any time in the south of Vietnam, you’ll hear a universal exclamation trời ơi.

Literally speaking, ơi is used when addressing the heavens. This meanis something like OMG or “heavens!”.

This southern phrase is a mild phrase, widely used by young and old alike.

In the north you might hear ối giời ơi.

3. To show affection

So far we’ve seen ơi used to get attention.

It may surprise you that ơi is used as a term of affection. Between parents and children. Between friends. Between lovers.

Calling your special someone ’em ơi’ or ‘anh ơi’ is actually very sweet and endearing! Like saying ‘dear’.

Related post: The Quick Guide to Vietnamese names, titles and what to call someone

Over to you: Did you know all of these meanings of ơi?

Language & Culture

Chúc mừng Giáng Sinh (Merry Christmas)

How do you say “Christmas” in Vietnamese?

The word ‘Christmas’ in Vietnamese is either Giáng Sinh or in some contexts the French influenced Nô en or Noel.

Is Christmas celebrated in Vietnam?

To put it simply no, not in the Western sense. There is a Catholic minority and a small number of Christians who do value the day.

However, Christmas decorations go up. The cities bring out the Christmas sparkle and downtown is packed on Christmas Eve. There feels like no real purpose or meaning to the festivities, and almost no-one has the day off work.

For Westerners, Christmas in Vietnam is a strange affair.

Snowmen in sweltering Saigon?! Christmas sure is weird in Vietnam.
Snowmen in sweltering Saigon?! Christmas sure is weird in Vietnam.

What do Vietnamese celebrate?

The biggest holiday of the year is Tết – lunar new year. This tends to fall in either January or February, depending on the lunar cycle. It’s common to see Tết decorations starting to appear around Christmas time.

What’s “Merry Christmas” in Vietnamese?

Although it’s not a Vietnamese holiday you may still be wondering how to say “Merry Christmas” in Vietnamese. There are a few natural ways to say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Christmas”:

Chúc mng Giáng Sinh

Giáng Sinh vui vẻ

Giáng Sinh an lành

Whether you’re in Vietnam or not this Christmas – chúc các bạn Giáng Sinh vui vẻ! (I wish you all a Merry Christmas!)

Language & Culture

How to address your Vietnamese teacher (and yourself)

traitaoToday is Teacher’s Day in Vietnam. A day in which students show appreciation for their teachers with flowers or presents. A big thank you to all the teachers out there!

Vietnamese has many personal pronouns and how you address somebody depends on various factors such as your age and relationship with that person. Many people have covered these in depth.

You learn that certain words go together like anh-em, ông-con…

You may also learn about the words to address a teacher: cô for a woman and thầy for a man.

But how do you refer to yourself?

If you were a schoolchild, you would call yourself ‘con’. But as an adult, this isn’t appropriate.

If your teacher is quite a bit older than you then refer to yourself as ’em’. This is what university students use and what I use in my classes.

If your teacher is not so much older than you, your teacher may address you as ‘anh’ or ‘chị’. You could perhaps use ‘tôi’ but in the south it’s most common to use the more informal ‘tui’.

If your teacher is a similar age to or younger than you, you should still address your teacher as cô or thầy out of respect. Your teacher may address you as ‘bạn’. (This was the situation I was in when I briefly took a Korean class.) Ideally you should avoid addressing yourself with a pronoun. For example, instead of saying “anh/chị không hiểu” you’d say “không hiểu cô ơi”. This is a bit tricky, but it’s good to get used to as it can be useful in other situations.

If you’re still not really sure what to use, ask your teacher – that’s what they’re there for!

Happy Teacher’s Day!

Photo credit: lhys

Language & Culture

Why choosing between Northern and Southern Vietnamese is important

While I’ve already put together a guide about whether you should choose to learn Northern or Southern Vietnamese, I didn’t explain why it’s important.

Firstly there are pronunciation differences. But as long as you have a fairly standard Southern or Northern accent, you can probably get by with speaking that in most places. Your ears will probably always prefer one accent over the other, but with a little effort you should be able to get used to listening to either standard accent.

However where huge problems can, and most often, arise are the different words used for a lot of practical or tangible items. From street (đường/phố) to bowl (tô/bát) to a thousand (ngàn/nghìn), use the wrong word in the wrong region and you might not be understood!

How you order this depends on where you are...
How you order this depends on where you are…

Food words are probably what differs most from region to region. If you want two pineapples in Saigon you’d ask for hai trái thơm but in Hanoi it’d be hai quả dứa. In Saigon chén is the small bowl you eat rice from, whereas in Hanoi chén is a small glass to drink rice wine!

If you’re going to be in Vietnam, you definitely need to know the right words for the region you’re in. One time I was with a native speaker who spent several minutes trying to order an extra portion of plain rice while in Huế. Because in Saigon we’d say cơm trắng (white rice) whereas in Huế they say cơm không. Interestingly that’s how you order a plain baguette (as opposed to a sandwich) in Saigon: bánh mì không.

If you want to dig deeper into these differences, there’s an Android app (or a reference list here).

Over to you: Which form of Vietnamese did you choose to learn? Have you found it makes a difference?

Photo credit: lioneltitu