Your hemi-semi-weekly Vietnamese proverb


“Cái nết đánh chết cái dẹp.”: “Good behaviour trumps [lit. “beat to death”; I’m assuming it means “utterly triumphs over” rather than “bludgeon to death”] beauty”. Again, could be wrong; this was me with a dictionary and the vocab I learnt so far (actually, literally, I think it means something like “the good behaviour thing beats to death the beautiful thing”, but obviously it’s a little awkward that way).

Meaning pretty much self-evident.

Also, I managed to say the equivalent of “I speak a little Vietnamese, here are the words I know” over twitter and not get laughed at! (it did pose a funny set of problems, because the pronoun “I” depends on the perceived age of your interlocutor, and the pronoun “you” depends on their age and gender. Now guess what you do when you have neither? Flounder, quite obviously… [1]) It’s amusing how the internet generates new sorts of language problems that you never really think about…

Words learnt: 150 (plus stuff I don’t consciously learn, such as food and funky pronouns. See “mình”, the pronoun used between husband and wife, which also has the meaning of “body”). It has occurred to me that part of the problem with this %%% language is that it’s the first language I learnt that is so distant from French: English and Spanish both have a striking number of similarities with French, especially for newspaper speak. For instance, I can understand a sentence like “The Prime Minister of Great Britain declared that the crisis in the eurozone…” even if I didn’t know all the words, because so many of them are similar to French. Now, in Vietnamese, “prime minister” is “thủ thống”, “declare” is “tuyên bố”–and let’s not even get into “eurozone”… You do have surprise words: “súp” is “soup”, “phó mát” is “cheese” (aka “fromage”), “nhà ga” is “station” (aka “gare”. “nhà” is just “house, building”); but far fewer you’d have in Spanish (where I can fake understanding of a lot of words, because hey, Romance languages!). I have to reach for the dictionary every two words on a good day (and even more than that, because the grammar is so different from French and the whole act of translating really requires firing neurons in the right mindset. Kind of reminds me of Ancient Greek, actually. In worse…

[1]Not totally true. There is a neutral and uncomfy pronoun “I”, “tôi”, which I can use for those cases. And, if the speaker is around my age bracket, “bạn” (friend), has the advantage of being genderless (but it’ll piss off someone much older than me really fast). Bit awkward, but hey.


  1. Fascinating… so the pronouns changing depending on the age, is this as simple as youth, adult, old age or are there more divisions?
    The biggest language problems I remember having were in Latin, the word order being so obtuse. But this seems more difficult. Good thing I like súp…

  2. Alas, it’s a little more difficult than that. To a large extent, pronouns are based on family relationships (“madam” is “grandmother”, “sir” is “grandfather, and then you have various pronouns depending on your generation vs your interlocutor’s generation and where you fit in that order–including various aunts and uncles, whose names depend on where they are in the family hierachy compared to your own parents), but you have subtleties (and there’s a specific pronoun you use between husband and wife, or to say “us”, in the sense of “my family”)
    And you can use different pronouns to address the same person, depending on the effect of distance you want to achieve.

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