As promised, the Ministry of Health has heeded calls for an investigation into a possible contamination of our fair city. The armchair immunologist hypothesis currently circulating—something about a mutated Mad Cow strain—is pernicious but understandable. Repetitive muttering directed at no one and punctuated by bursts of frenzied swearing is not generally known for indicating a sound mind. Claims of “I was practicing” or “I was reading store signs out loud” could just be the hallucinatory visions of the ill. The Ministry has taken action. Extensive research has been conducted on a specimen lured in by the tried and true “promise” of a student visa. The subject’s dismay upon learning of the bait and switch might have crushed the last scuttling remains of his sanity. We think the interests of science and public safety demanded it.
Fear not. We are pleased to announce, with absolute certainty, that there is no new virulent disease manifesting Tourette-like symptoms borne by visitors to our shore. The disconcerting behaviour is endemic to a select few of that population, but testing confirms an absence of pathogens. It appears psychosomatic in origin, a violent reaction to the trauma wrought by our beautiful language on outsider consciousness. Empathy is a virtue that requires a leg-up now and then. The native speaker’s facility is something we all take for granted. In an effort to ease entirely justifiable nerves, our experts have attempted to construct the condition’s progression from the viewpoint of its principal victim—the foreign student of Vietnamese.
Most who start down this mental deliquescence have been primed for the difficulties of dấu, preemptively fortifying themselves ahead of the battles against their native intonation patterns. And what battles they are. The strain on the afflicted’s face as they try to force a glottal stop or huyền onto the end of an interrogative sentence is something to behold. There is some pseudo-respite. Many are relieved to learn that a butchered tone is more likely to result in incomprehension rather than horribly inappropriate malapropisms. Except for bưởi. When it comes to pomelo only professionals should venture beyond “cái này”.
Despite its infamy, pitch isn’t always the issue. Dấu also dictate vocal “quality”—whether a word should be breathy, or “stressed”, or shortened, or creaked for example—and include a strange kind of feedback loop with other letters, particularly vowels, that subtly alter the latter’s pronunciation as well as the tonal contour itself. And it’s all contextual. If one dấu is fucked up, the mistake can throw out the reference for the rest of the sentence, dunking the utterance into the equivalent of a very thick accent. Complexity like this attenuates the resilience of the learner’s brain, overloading its defences and making it vulnerable to the depredations of hỏi.
Hỏi. Hỏi is where the cracks really begin to appear. Sắc and nặng and ngã make a kind of sense to foreign ears, at least when slowed right down. They’re distinctive. Huyền would be alright too…if it wasn’t for hỏi. In fast speech hỏi doesn’t even properly exist. It glides into some nebulous space between the two other falling tones. Falling. The dipping tone loses its rebound. None of that “phở, like you’re asking a question” shortcut crap, at least not in the North.
The way Vietnamese punishes uncertainty only exacerbates learner’s difficulties. Either a foreigner goes forth with confidence and maybe screws up, or chooses trepidation and almost definitely screws up, inflicting conversations like these upon unwary civilians:
“How do you say tea in Vietnamese? As in a cup of green tea?”
“No. Trà. Trà. TRÀ.”
“N—yes. Very good!”
Sometimes it is necessary to just smile and nod.
What foreigners don’t expect—the revelation that provides that last push into the abyss of crazy remarked on by concerned residents—are differences in vowels and consonants. Most romanisation systems are equally deceptive. “Oh thank god,” thinks the arrogant fool. “At least I can recognise the letters of the alphabet. This should make things much easier.” Visual similarity is not enough for these people. They apparently expect each symbol to represent exactly the same sound as they are used to, forgetting, you know, the ENTIRELY DIFFERENT LANGUAGE thing.
Quốc Ngữ can be a serious shock. D, r, and gi become z. Ch isn’t quite the ch in cheese nor the j in job but hovers noncommittally. Th is the aspirated t that t isn’t. T is also decidedly not đ (the d of dog), contrary to what travel phrasebooks might think. C, k, and q are somewhere in the vicinity of the g in golf and the c in cat, while g itself earns a weird gulp—the half-hocked loogie kh expels with more force. Ng is sometimes ng and sometimes m, just like c occasionally feels p suits it better, and nh whimsically decides to mimic ng.
Consonants in isolation are actually the easy part. Vowels bring the pain. E and ê; o and ô; a, â, and ă; and the coup de grace of ơ and ư. Known as dấu móc, that squirt of an awkwardly clingy apostrophe is a world of hurt for the unsuspecting student. In fact, eyewitnesses believe ư was the main culprit in the latest sightings of the dazed, wandering murmurers . One estimated she overheard “Ư, U, Ư, U, ươi, uoi, ươi, uoi” repeated at least fifty times in the fashion of a bizarre ritualistic chant.
The nameless suffering foreigner is not the first to succumb to the ravages of DTs (Delirium Triphthongs) and associated disorders, nor will he be the last. We urge compassion. Even mega corporations are not immune. Poor deluded Google thinks an academic analysis of Vietnamese tones will sell—as an ebook—for $280 [EDIT:They've come to their senses and changed it to unavailable. Thankfully, Amazon is offering a print version for the reasonable price of $351].
See what we mean?
Sad. So sad.
Pity the lingually debilitated. Do not be alarmed. They represent minimal threats to public order and personal safety. Our designers are working on a learner’s bell prototype as we speak. In the meantime, exercise some patience. They’ll get it right eventually. Well, that, or collapse in a blubbering heap as you stare blankly after their umpteenth attempt at “mọt điã hạt hướng dương”. Either way, rest easy. No one could expect anything more.
All current and future uninspiring levels of productivity are hereby blamed on the vagaries of this terrible condition.