While traveling, it is always useful to know a few words in the local language such as numbers, please and thank you. Upon arrival in Vietnam some fellow travelers helped us out and told us that “thank you” was pronounced like “come on”. We used it generously, only to have the recipient laugh and repeat us. It took three weeks, but we now know what we were actually saying…
Vietnamese is difficult to understand because its a “tonal” language. Scientifically, this means the same word, using a different tone. Practically it means that the same word has several meanings. Though the written language has accent marks, the different tones are virtually indistinguishable to the untrained listener. Our Halong Bay tour guide explained how “dua” pronounced with a rising tone means pineapple, because it’s high in the tree, with a falling tone means coconut, and with a flat tone means melon.
English, in comparison, is great for the lazy listener. We don’t have to listen for specific tones, just the words. Living luxurious lives rich in vocabulary, we butcher the pronunciation. This was pointed out by our tour guide in Da Lat who noted that English is very hard for them to learn because there are no pronunciation guidelines. English speakers from different places pronounce the same word differently. Utilizing words instead of tones allows us to communicate effectively even when pronunciation varies by nationality or levels of inebriation.
Around Vietnam I have come across my name in many places, from temples to fire extinguishers to yogurt. After asking around, I have found that “Chua,” depending on pronunciation, can mean:
- God, creator, governor, master
- To contain, hold, or keep
- To cure, treat, correct or repair
- To alter
- To leave
- To give up
- To be pregnant
- Harsh, sharp
One word, slight variations in pronunciation, very different meanings. After we got used to saying “come on” as thank you, LOCAVORista put it into use with street vendors. She found that saying “khong (khong means “no” in Vietnamese), come on” was much more effective than “no, thank you.” It was bug repellent for street vendors. Instead of continuing their sales pitches, they scattered. We were amazed by the effectiveness.
Weeks after this revelation in communication we learned we had been mispronouncing “thank you.” Pronounced slightly differently, as we had been saying, meant “shut up.” When buying things we would hand them our money and tell them to shut up with a smile. Embarrassingly, we learned why LOCAVORista was so effective in getting rid of street vendors.