Dude… uh why’s your name spelled differently than it sounds??

That’s what an Indian guy asked me at work today (Friday).  He meant no harm; it was curiosity.  In fact, it’s not the first time this question has been asked.  Some you know how to pronounce it because I’ve told you.  Others know it because they know some other Vietnamese person with Nguyen in their name (“oh yeah, your name looks like the same name as this guy from work…”).

The short explanation is that my name is pronounced exactly as it should be pronounced – in Vietnamese.  The twist is that the Vietnamese language uses different phonetics than English (so does French, Spanish, German, etc.).  You shouldn’t apply English phonetics to it; that’s where you go wrong.  The same applies elsewhere – the word “yo” in English would be pronounced “jo” by a Spanish speaker, and the French pronunciation of “bus” would sound like how we say the word “boost.” 

I wonder how many of you know the long explanation.  Even you fellow Viets.  I’ll write it here.  It has to do the White Man from Europe and his colonial ways……

Let me start with a little history lesson. Vietnam’s history dates back to the first millenium BCE (yes, a bit before the 1960’s).  The history is rather hazy during this period.  What we do know is that over time, various groups of southern Chinese people settled the Red River delta area (where present-day Hanoi is located).  They became known as Viet people.  In 258 BCE, they established a new kingdom called Au Lac.  The Chinese were the big kids on the block, and they weren’t so keen on Viet people establishing their own nation.  Who would, ya know?  Why not take it over for yourself?  Pho shizzo!  In 207 BCE, a Chinese general conquered Au Lac, proclaiming the kingdom his own.  He renamed it as Nam Viet, which essentially means “the Viets in the South.”  The Chinese Han Dynasty rulers still didn’t like this idea of an independent nation though.  They invaded, and Nam Viet became a province of China in 111 BCE.  It remained a Chinese province for a thousand years.  That’s probably how my people learned Kung Fu.

The majority of Vietnam’s years were spent as a under the rule of a major power.  First it was the Chinese.  Then the French, from 1887-1954.  Then it was fighting the threat of the Communists or Americans, depending on how you spin it.  Vietnam is a nation of oppressed people who have fought for their independence for over two thousand years.

Ok, what does all this history have to do with language?  Sorry, I had to give you some (long-winded) context. Despite the rule of foreign powers, the Viet people, culture, and language have remained distinct the whole time.  The Vietnamese spoken language was present in Au Lac, during the Chinese years, and of course today.  I’m sure things have evolved, and the language has inherited words from other languages (especially Chinese).  Linguists call it a Mon-Khmer language, a monosyllabic language that is similar to what is spoken in present-day Laos or Cambodia.

Although spoken Vietnamese has been intact, what’s interesting is the written Vietnamese language.  From what I can tell (with my mucho extensive research haha), it doesn’t look like there was ever a original written Vietnamese language.  Maybe it had to do with Au Lac only lasting 50 years.  When the Chinese took over, they pretty much mandated the use of Chinese characters for everything (and “Han-Viet” was spoken for official purposes).  A modified version of Chinese script called Chu nom was created.  I’m guessing that this is the script used on this stone stele photo to the right.  Thus the first written form of the Vietnamese language was actually Chinese!  Chu nom was used from the Chinese times all the way til the early 20th century. 

Let’s fast-forward a little and introduce the White Man.  The Vietnamese finally kicked out the Chinese 938 CE.  Following this, Vietnam enjoyed about a thousand years of autonomous rule by several dynasties of rulers.  In the 17th Century CE, as you probably know, the major European powers decided to compete for power by colonizing the rest of the world.  One of their major weapons was missionaries, spreading the word of God and the influence of the Catholic Church.  This happened in Vietnam too.  A couple Portuguese missionaries came up with a spelling system that uses Roman characters (abcdefg) to represent what they heard in spoken Vietnamese.  Makes sense, right?  Gotta figure out a way to understand the words used by the primitive, godless, native folk.  So… if you had to blame particular White Men, blame these two dudes.  Who in their right mind, Portuguese or not, would come up with “Nguyen” as a spelling??  Who would use multiple accent marks on top of a single letter?? These guys did.  But it wasn’t just their fault.  They probably just scribbled down a few notes for their own benefit.  But wait, there’s more!  Later on, some French dude named Alexandre de Rhodes expanded upon this system.  We should blame him as much as the Portuguese.  Rhodes created a Vietnamese dictionary, then he transcribed a Bible using this script.  The armies of missionaries used this Romanized system and Vietnamese Bible to convert people to Christianity. Today 10+% of Vietnamese are Catholic, including my family. The photo on the left is the Notre Dame Cathedral in Saigon.

For a couple hundred years, the Romanized script was used in a limited fashion – mostly for religious purposes. The French came in the 19th Century.  At first, I’m sure it was friendly. Check out our fabulous clothing and outrageous accents!  Let’s trade, let’s learn about each other, let’s meet your lovely women!  And pass the opium please.  The Vietnamese language picked up some cool French words too.  Coffee is “cafe” in French and “ca phe” in Vietnamese.  A cup is “tasse” in French and “tat” in Vietnamese.  A shirt is “chemise” in French and “so mi” in Vietnamese.  Neat eh?  We picked up some artistic and architectural influences too.  The photo to the left is City Hall in Saigon.  Looks slightly French, no?  Btw, you should check out the French movie Indochine, if you want a glimpse of this period.

After a while, it became rather clear that the French wanted more than just to trade.  Maybe it was the gunships opening fire (under the direct orders of – guess who – Napoleon Bonaparte).  It took them about 30 years, but the French finally won in 1887.  The whole region of present-day Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia became known as French Indochina.  Everything became French-ified.  The photo on the right is Da Lat, a lovely hillside resort town that was built by the French.  The Romanized script, now known as Quoc Ngu, came to life during this period.  In 1910, Quoc Ngu became the official written language of the country.  Bye bye Chinese characters!  This script certainly helped the French establish more control and assimilate better.  My dad, who grew up during the late French period, went to a French-speaking school and learned history about “us” – the French, and “them” – colonies like Vietnam.  Vietnam has used the Quoc Ngu script ever since. 

In spite of the unfortunate means by which the French took power, many people today – including my parents – view the switch to Roman characters as being positive.  Vietnam had always had low literacy rates.  The French colonization efforts and use of Romanized script dramatically improved education and literacy in Vietnam.  I would certainly be more illiterate in Vietnamese today if I had to learn Chinese characters. 

Now you know how Vietnamese is spoken in this funny sing-song sort of language but is spelled using Roman characters and employs a different phonetic system.  I.e., why my name doesn’t sound like it’s spelled, although it really does sound like it’s spelled if you understood Quoc Ngu.  I just with those Portuguese missionary dudes made it even simpler.  It also feels a bit sad knowing that your language never had its own original written form, since its two written forms came from foreign occupiers.

You probably have other questions, like “why is your first name like other people’s last names?”  And “why is everyone named Nguyen?”  And “why is it such a sing-song sort of language?”  I’ll get to those some other time.  For now, I must go to bed.

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