Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Vietnamese Language

I am in love with the Vietnamese language, fascinated by the twists and turns of it, a sing-song, yet oddly sticky language that can leave you frequently in sticky situations.

Indeed, in an early draft of the book I expounded at length on the differences of the regional dialects of Vietnam. I daresay it was quite wise of my publisher to have cut it out.
I once worked with a woman more familiar with the more adamant tones of Cantonese, and whenever she heard me speaking Vietnamese she would remark on its beauty. "It's so gluggy," she would say. "It seems to stick in your mouth."

Of course, I happened to fall in love someone who spoke Vietnamese, and in the early days of our courtship I would swoon when he spoke with his elderly neighbour whenever she brought us food, or to his sister on the telephone. I loved its sweet softness, its sing-song affirmations and sliding denials.
It is a reasonably easy language to learn to read and write, but devilishly difficult to speak and comprehend. The differences in sounds are so subtle, so refined, that even after 11 years of trying I still make stupid, obvious mistakes. In Vietnamese I am a dunce, a childish, smiling giant who knows to say "yes" whenever anything is not clear.
I often wonder about Alexander de Rhodes, the Jesuit priest who transliterated spoken Vietnamese into a romanised writing system in the seventeenth century, inventing its abundant diacritical marks and tone guides. How many years did he wait and listen to this language he thought resembled "the singing of birds," making sketches of sounds and approximating ways of capturing those crazy noises? And who taught him, I wonder?

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