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In the Fullness of Time

by Frank Trinh

Click here for bilingual version

I. Introduction

Recently I had a chance to read the article "Innovation or Degeneration" by Mai Xuan Phung (MXP) published in Viet Luan (The Vietnamese Herald) No. 1454 (Sat. 19th Feb, 2000), which mentioned the difficulties encountered in Vietnamese forms of address from the viewpoint of young Vietnamese emigres.

The author of the article, a young person who is presently a computer expert with Telstra, made his rather disgruntled remarks about the ways Vietnamese address each other, which he regarded as being uncivilized and unscientific. I sincerely share the sentiments of my young friend, in that he has boldly spoken out about what he believes to be correct, and also his innovative thinking about what he also believes is a backward step that is impeding the evolution of the Vietnamese people. However, the issue at hand is whether he is correct or not, and if there is no such thing as innovation when it comes to dealing with Vietnamese terms of address, as suggested by himself, then would that mean there would be degeneration within Vietnamese society?

II. Glitches within the Vietnamese language

Referring to Vietnamese as being uncivilized, MXP wrote that when participating in the Radiothon on 28th November 1999, which campaigned for the flood relief victims in Central Vietnam, he was extremely confused in knowing what to call himself, when other people called in to him, and they addressed themselves as 'Toi' (neutral 'me'), whilst others used 'Con' (child), 'Chau' (nephew/niece) or 'Em' (younger sibling). Having undergone the traumatic experience of being unable to deal with the appropriate forms of address in Vietnamese himself, MXP posed the hypothetical question. How can a receptionist in a large company, who does not know how to correctly use the forms of address used in Australia's Vietnamese community, cope? He expressed concern that this would lead to confusion every time he/she opened his/her mouth. What was likely to happen? He then came to this conclusion: "Actually it is not the receptionist's fault; but the glitches lie within the Vietnamese language itself."

1. Being uncivilized

If being uncivilized is understood as being 'primitive', that is, something is not fully developed, then no language is considered to be 'primitive'; reason being that a language can be crude and simple in one particular domain, but complicated and detailed in another, or vice versa.

The Vietnamese language is simpler than English when it comes to describing items which are not real. The concept meaning 'gia' meaning ' not real' has a wide range of equivalents in English, depending on the word with which it is associated. For example, if 'gia' co-occurs with 'notes/coins', it will become (>) 'counterfeit', with 'jewellery' > 'imitation', with 'pharmaceutical products' > 'fake', with marriage > 'bogus/sham/fake', with 'papers/signature' > 'forged/fake', with 'limbs' > 'artificial/prosthetic', with 'eye' > 'glass', with 'teeth' > 'false', with 'name' > 'assumed/false', with 'gold nugget' > 'replica', with 'painting' >~ 'reproduction'.

However, the Vietnamese is more complicated than English when it comes to describing the colour 'black'. With the concept 'black' meaning 'den' in Vietnamese, there are seven other words which can be used as synonyms of 'den', depending on the word with which it is associated. For example, if 'den' collocates with 'hair, eyes' it will become (>) 'huyen' (jet-black), with 'cat/chopsticks' > 'mun' (ebony-black), with 'dog' > 'muc' (ink-black), with 'horse/cock' > 'o' (crow-black; raven-black), with 'cow' > 'hong' (soot-black), with 'dress/pants/ turban/ lips/ ring around the eyes' > 'tham' (deep, blue-black).

In my opinion, Vietnamese is not uncivilized nor primitive in regards its forms of address. This is because Vietnamese has a sophisticated network of distinguishing very clearly the relationships within the family and amongst other people. The forms of addressing relatives and strangers are based on many factors. For example, with regards to relatives, we define the pecking order. As for strangers, we make distinctions about age, gender, social and marriage status … In no way can we equate this sophisticated typology with lack of civilization.

There are no such things as glitches in the Vietnamese language. If there were, it would be because of lack of commonsense on the part of the user who uses the forms of address peculiar to that language. And 'commonsense' is defined by the Collins Cobuild English Dictionary (1995) as: "The natural ability to make good judgements and behave sensibly." An example of lack of 'good judgement and sensible behaviour', in the above-mentioned case, would be that the person answering the phone found himself confused as to what term he should have used to call himself. My suggestion is he should have used 'Toi' (neutral 'I/me') and mentioned his age first, and then asked permission to address each other as 'Anh/ Em', 'Anh/Toi', 'Toi/Chi', Chau/Co, or 'Chu/Chau' …whatever the case may have been. He may inquire about the age of the caller, particularly in case he has some indication that the caller is younger than he is, before carrying on with the call. The question of asking someone's age in Western society is to be avoided, that is true, but let's not forget we are still Vietnamese people who have not completely forgotten our Vietnamese culture, and as well as that, we are conversing in Vietnamese. If he does not want to ask someone's age, our young friend would have had another way out, which would be to have called himself 'Minh' (a more humble term than 'Toi') or his own name, or else not bother to use the first-person singular at all. Bear in mind that, omission of the first-person singular in Vietnamese conversation is, in most cases, quite acceptable. After all, why bother about the Vietnamese equivalents of 'I/me' whilst the main concern at the 'Radiothon' is to look after the dollars and cents?

So much for the flexibility and delicacy of the Vietnamese language. And those who want to study Vietnamese should try their best to learn the quintessential element of the language. Subjects such as Information Technology and any other subjects, such as English or ESL, are problematic to Vietnamese people, but we are still able to master them. So why can't we also master our mother tongue? The fact that we are confused in addressing others in Vietnamese could be attributed to non-mastery of the language to its fullest extent. If we deliberated upon this, the issue of terms of address, as mentioned by the author of the article "Innovation or Degeneration", would not be deemed to be as difficult as stated. In fact, it would be a non-issue.

Let's take a typical example. When our young friend said that many times, he had encountered someone whom he did not know, and being confused as to what to call him, whether to address him as 'Bac' (father's older brother) or 'Chu' (father's younger brother), even though he was about the same age as his brother's. It came as a surprise, as to why our young friend did not call him 'Anh' (older brother), and address himself as 'Toi' (neutral 'I/me'), 'Em' (younger sibling), or else call the person "Chu" (father's younger brother), and address himself as 'Chau' (nephew). That would have been perfectly correct, because they were strangers, and possibly could have been a great deal older than he would have been.

2. Being unscientific

Referring to Vietnamese as being unscientific, MXP cited a situation where a youngster, only 10 years old, was forced by his grandparents to call a baby 'Anh' (older brother) or 'Chi' (older sister) and to address himself as 'Em' (younger sibling) because the baby was the child of his father's older brother. He said that he was also witness to a situation where a man, whose father is the older brother of another man's father, was married to the younger sister of the latter's wife. To put it simply, they are cousins. If we take into account kinship affinity, the two blood sisters would naturally be closer than the husbands of sisters would be, who are sons of brothers. However, people reason that: 'when you are a married woman, you follow your husband's family lineage', so the son of the cousin, whose father is the older brother, still retains the higher pecking order.

In my opinion, if being unscientific is understood as being 'illogical', then no language can be considered completely scientific or totally logical. Within a particular language, one can find it logical in one respect, but illogical in another. Between two languages there are also instances of being logical or illogical.

English speakers deem their language to be logical when they refer to animals or items of more than one in number by just adding "- s " or "- es " to the word to indicate plurality, whilst Vietnamese speakers would deem their language to be just as logical, because when No 2 or No 3 is used in front of said words for animals or items, the meaning would be crystal-clear, so why bother adding anything to the word? English has its absurdities, such as when people say, 'I couldn't care less', they mean 'I don't care', even though the true and literal meaning from a foreign language learner's point of view should be 'I really do care'. Another example is the English saying 'You can't have your cake and eat it too', meaning 'you can't have everything'. A Vietnamese person cannot understand why you would have a cake and not be able to enjoy eating it as well.

Vietnamese have the same type of absurdities when they say, 'I have to take him/her to examine the doctor', which in fact means 'I have to take him/her to the doctor's for the doctor to do the examination'. Another Vietnamese saying, 'If you love the dog, it will lick your face', meaning 'Familiarity breeds contempt', would be difficult for English people to understand. Vietnamese hate being licked by dogs because dogs are used to clean up feces and other matter on the farms, whilst Westerners look on dogs licking faces as a sign of love.

We can hardly expect the Vietnamese language to be scientific or logical, no more than we can expect any other language to be so. The scenario, concerning a grandparent who forced a 10-year-old youngster to call a baby 'Anh' (older brother) or 'Chi' (older sister) and to address himself as 'Em' (younger sibling) because the baby was the child of his father's older brother, is perhaps inevitable. And the scenario, concerning the two sisters married to the cousins who maintained the higher pecking order rather than the child of his own son, even though his wife is the older sister of the older cousin's wife, is commonplace. If we so wish, this second instance can be explained away as according to the traditional Vietnamese concept, when a woman marries, she owes allegiance to her husband's family, as mentioned by the author of the article. Language and culture are known to be two inseparable factors.

However, let's pause for a moment and we would see that the first instance, as above-mentioned, could only happen in Vietnam. If it happens in Australia, it would be very rare, because grandparents in Australia would not be so forceful or uncaring towards their offspring. After all, why bother to call yourself 'Em' (younger sibling), if addressing a baby, when that baby can neither talk nor understand? Children are considered to be on equal terms with each other in Australia, and address each other by their given names. More often than not, these are Western names. So why waste our time teaching them the proper forms of address in Vietnamese? If they address each other as 'You' and 'Me', there's nothing wrong with that. Conversely, mention must be made where there are instances of male and female cousins (your father's older brother's children) who are younger in age. In this case, they would feel quite relaxed in calling themselves 'Em' (younger sibling) and calling you 'Anh' (older brother) or 'Chi' (older sister), even though you are the son or daughter of their father's younger brother.

III. Simplification for survival's sake

According to MXP, language (culture understood in its narrowest sense), if it is to be passed on to future generations, should easily meet practical needs. He suggests that personal pronouns be simplified and kinship terms; namely 'Chu/ Bac' (uncle), 'Co/Di' (aunt), 'Cau/Mo' (uncle/aunt), be eliminated as honorific titles when addressing people who are not related to you.

1. Simplification of personal pronouns

The author MXP suggests that personal pronouns, particularly first-person singular, be simplified. In everyday conversation, he is of the view that we need only to use 'Toi' as a means of addressing yourself, and call others by their names (if their names are known) or you call them 'Ban' (friend) for second-person singular and terms 'Anh' and 'Em' can be used for husband and wife only. 'You' and 'Me' can be used in place of 'May' and 'Tao' to maintain politeness towards interlocutors, because the terms 'May' and 'Tao' are considered to be crude language and unpleasant to the ear, particularly when used by young Vietnamese lovers.

By nature, language is dynamic, not static. Vietnamese children in Australia, when conversing with each other in Vietnamese, if addressing themselves as 'You' and 'Me', it is considered perfectly natural. There's no point in correcting them. In fact, some of my friends and I sometimes call ourselves 'Moi' (me) and 'Toi' (you) in French when talking or writing to each other in Vietnamese. This form of address was fairly popular amongst middle-aged men in Vietnam who were subject to French influence. I personally think calling yourself 'Toi' (I/me) and addressing the person to whom you are speaking as 'Ban' (you/friend) conveys a somewhat condescending tone. For convenience's sake, most Vietnamese translators living outside of Vietnam are found automatically rendering 'You' as 'Ban' in community information publications, which I think inappropriate in most cases. I take another example to show the dynamic nature of language. When I was a child in Northern Vietnam, close friends called each other 'Dang ay' (you) and 'To' (I/me). When we came South, I made myself familiar with 'Gia/Bo'(you) and 'Toi' (I/me). At present, in Vietnam these forms of address are less popular. Close friends, regardless of whether they come from Northern or Southern regions, call themselves 'May' and 'Tao', and it is not considered rude or uncouth. It would only be looked upon as so, if people were having an argument. Therefore, it all depends upon the situation as well as the context, as to whether the terms can be used to express cordiality or animosity, in much the same way Australians use the word 'bastard'. You will often hear older Australian males greet each other with 'How are you, you old bastard?', which is meant to be a cordial greeting.

Vietnamese is a more interesting and delicate language than English or Chinese, in that, when the forms of address change in a boy/girl relationship, we can understand the degree of intimacy that has developed from one point to another, without using additional terms such as 'sweetheart', 'darling' or 'honey'. For example, at first meeting, the boy calls himself 'Toi' and calls the girl 'Chi' or 'Toi/Co'. When closer 'Toi/Lan', 'Toi/Nga' or 'Toi/Van' (depending on whatever the girl's name may be), is used, closer still 'Anh/Lan', 'Anh/Nga' or 'Anh/Van', and finally, when the relationship is its closest, 'Anh/Em'. Husband and wife, when young, call each other 'Anh/ Em', 'Anh/Minh' or 'Em/Minh' as a matter of course, but when they are middle-aged with grown-up children, they rather like to address each other differently; namely 'Ong/Ba', 'Ong no/Ba no', 'Thay no/Bu no', 'Tia no/Ma no'…, or using terms indicating their parental role of the oldest son or daughter, such as "Thay thang Ti/Ma thangTeo" (Ti's Dad/Teo's Mum). The day I began to understand adult people's talk, I heard my parents addressing themselves as 'Cau' (Uncle/mother's younger brother) and 'Mo' (Aunt/mother's younger brother's wife) in the same way as their children would call them.

If there is any change in language, it is all dependent on the language user. We can hardly force the language in the direction that we wish it to go. The French Academy has issued a directive to the French people to purify their language but it has achieved nothing. People still can observe that English words are used intermittently with French, such as 'le weekend', 'les girls'… Likewise, English has become intermingled with French such as 'bon appetit', 'coup d'etat'… No one has voiced objection to this whatsoever.

2. Elimination of some honorifics

MXP suggests that kinship terms; namely 'Chu/ Bac' (uncle), 'Co/Di' (aunt), 'Cau/Mo' (uncle/aunt), be eliminated as honorific titles when addressing people who are not related to you. He stated that in Vietnamese society there are people who are sycophants who exaggerate to such an extent that they address everyone as 'Bac' (uncle), 'Chu' (uncle), 'Thay' (teacher) or 'Su phu' (master). He also mentioned that by using these flattering terms it was a case of overstatement, because you do not use them in addressing creative people such as singers, poets or artists, either to their face or behind their backs. You should call them by their names only, without the prefix 'Bac' (uncle), 'Ba' (Mrs) or 'Co' (Miss). In doing so, you show your respect and equality, and undoubtedly this form of address would be acceptable to them.

In Vietnamese culture, proper use of forms of address to call people 'Chu', 'Bac' 'Thay', and 'Su phu' is a sign of respect for them, and it is also a form of showing your own self-respect in an indirect way. Therefore, it is untenable to say that the above forms of address indicate sycophancy, or are used indiscriminately. Not only do we call other people 'Chu', 'Bac', Thay', because they are the same age as your own uncle or that they deserve respect from being your teacher, but also we address them in the same manner that your children would address them. As a teacher myself, I often address my students either as 'Anh' or 'Chi', indicating some form of respect for them, when they address me as 'Thay'. In Southern Vietnam, when someone calls another person 'Thay', as in 'Thay Hai' or 'Thay Tu', what they are really saying is synonymous with the term 'Ong' (meaning 'Mister' in Northern Vietnam). When we greet someone as 'Su phu' (master) we do not necessarily mean to 'butter them up', but more often than not, we are half-joking in much the same way as Australian people may introduce a former employer as 'This is my old boss'.

What would you think if, on a particularly beautiful day, you paid a visit to your friend and his children addressed themselves using their own names, and then called yourself by your own name without using the honorific title? This question goes without answering. It should be added that, there are instances in which Australian parents teach their children to address people, who are not related in any way, as 'Uncle' or 'Aunt' as a sign of respect. In fact, English-speaking cultures, which can trace back to 18th century England, commonly use the honorifics 'Aunt' and 'Uncle' when addressing the neighbours or friends of their parents. It is really a ploy to separate the generations and to allow the children a way of avoiding the more formal 'Mister' and 'Missus'.

As for artists, writers and poets, we often speak about them in their absence, and refer to them using their names only, but I am not fully confident that if in their presence, we would call them by their names only. A typical example is sometime ago in the interview with the composer Xuan Tien (Spring Fairy) on SBS Radio with Ms Ngoc Han, I found myself, at one stage, calling this octogenarian musician 'Ong' (Mr/Sir) and at another calling him 'Bac' (uncle), whilst calling myself 'Toi' (I/me) or 'Chung toi' (we/us). As for Ms Ngoc Han, at one stage she called him 'Nhac si' (meaning composer/musician) then 'Bac', and addressed herself as 'Ngoc Han' (her broadcasting name). Out of the studio situation, Xuan Tien and I came to an agreement to treat each other as brothers, so sometimes I called him 'Bac' (in the sense that my children would call him) or 'Anh' (older brother) and addressed myself as 'Em' (younger sibling). For this reason, I do not believe that a young journalist of Viet Luan (The Vietnamese Herald), when interviewing the composer Cung Tien, should address him merely as 'Cung Tien', without the honorific title 'Bac' or 'Chu'. I have doubt that, confronted with this 60-odd-year-old composer, this young journalist, by showing his equality in continuing to use this form of address, would have pleased the talented man.

It should be added that there are people in our Vietnamese society who take advantage of the fact that they are older, therefore, they should deserve respect from other people. On their first personal encounter, they address themselves as 'Bac' or 'Chu' (uncle) to the person to whom they are speaking, regardless of whether the latter feels comfortable or not. By doing so, they leave their interlocutor with almost no choice but to resort to calling himself/herself 'Chau' (nephew/niece). As a ploy to assert power over the people being spoken to, some older people refer to their association with people in the higher pecking order. I happened to hear a man, when referring to a better-educated, better-known identity in Sydney's Vietnamese community than he himself is, addressing himself as: "I was in the same class with the stepfather of his former wife." This inappropriate form of 'one upmanship' reveals such a distant relationship which we Vietnamese often jokingly refer to as 'kinship which even cannon balls cannot reach when they are fired.'

IV. Conclusion

One must admit that the forms of Vietnamese address are complicated because they originate from a traditional sense of family and community. The fact that kinship terms and honorific titles are used interchangeably with personal pronouns has resulted in difficulty when they are used in their social context. However, if serious attention is given to learning the language to enable the person to use the correct form at the right time and in the right place, then its use would be an asset and a form of behaviour that is considered refined on the part of the interlocutor. It's here where success in life lies.

Like every other language, Vietnamese is neither uncivilized, nor unscientific. We do not need to renovate the language so far as our forms of address are concerned, because language is characterised by its dynamic quality. If its users do not feel comfortable doing so, then naturally, they will change it. No one can impose anything upon others to stop this from happening, particularly in relation to those Vietnamese living overseas.

Vietnamese society cannot become degenerate, because it has retained the hierarchical social order, which has prevailed for thousands of years, through its forms of address, and which are inherent in its long-lasting culture. The only problem is that, in order for this form of etiquette to continue to exist in countries outside of Vietnam, parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, rather than blaming their young ones for making mistakes, should simply encourage and gently guide them to learn how to use it as much as possible.


Frank Trinh

Sydney, 31st March, 2000


Glossary of forms of address used in the article

(Kinship terms, Personal pronouns, Honorific titles

are used interchangeably in Vietnamese)

Toi/Minh neutral 'I/me'

Chung toi neutral 'we/us'

Anh older brother

Chi older sister

Em younger sibling

Ong grandfather ~ Mr/Sir

Ba grandmother ~ Mrs/Madam

Chau grandchild; nephew/niece

Con child (son/daughter)

Thay teacher

Su phu master/mentor

Bac [NV] father's older brother (uncle) or mother's older sister (aunt)

Chu father's younger brother/uncle

Co [NV] father's younger sister/aunt ~ Miss

Co [SV] father's younger or older sister/aunt ~ Miss

Di [NV] mother's younger sister/aunt

Di [SV] mother's younger or older sister/aunt

Cau [NV] mother's younger brother/uncle

Cau [SV] mother's younger or older brother/uncle

Mo mother's younger or older brother's wife/aunt

Dang ay & To [NV] you & I/me

Gia/Bo & Toi [SV] you & I/me

May & Tao you & I/me

Ong no/Ba no His (her) Dad/His (her) Mum

Thay no/Bu no (same as above)

Tia no/Ma no (same as above)

Thay thang Ti Ti's Dad

Ma thangTeo Teo's Mum



NV: Northern Vietnamese

SV: Southern Vietnamese


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