Minh’s Notes

Human-readable chicken scratch

Minh Nguyễn
May 2nd, 2006


Going somewhere?

I’m currently taking an introductory course in phonetics at Stanford, just out of interest. Our textbook, A Course in Phonetics by the late Peter Ladefoged, includes on the accompanying CD a catalog of sample sounds in different languages. I was quite surprised at the sounds that Ladefoged had recorded to represent the Vietnamese language, because he apparently chose a southern speaker with a thick accent.

I’ve often heard from my parents and others that Northern Vietnam has traditionally been regarded as the educated end of the country, just as those from the Eastern Seaboard are generally regarded as more sophisticated than Midwesterners. So it was amusing to hear the distinctive Southern dialect as if it were the dialect of Vietnamese – after all, this is a phonetics book.

Differences between dialects of Vietnamese are much more pronounced than differences between varieties of English, to the extent that speakers of some central dialects are often unintelligible to speakers of other dialects. Differences I noted in Ladefoged’s examples included (in IPA):

Because of these differences, anh (the masculine informal “you”) in the southern dialect is rendered identical to the northern ăn (to eat). So if a person told me “anh Minh” without context, I might not be sure if they’re just calling for me or telling me to eat myself! Well, fortunately, the latter scenario is unlikely enough that I wouldn’t end up hurting myself. :^P

Beyond the phonological differences, there are also wholly different vocabularies – for example, a word as basic as “yes” can be said vâng in the North but dạ in the South.

But the funniest thing about Ladefoged’s Vietnamese samples is that one of the words, tu is noted as meaning “to drink”. It actually means to enter a seminary. So I could just imagine a naïve phonetician, having studied Ladefoged’s materials, travelling to Saigon and telling a Vietnamese friend, “Hãy đi tu!” He’d think he’s telling his friend “Let’s go for a drink!”, but his friend might think he wants to become a priest. Oh well, there’s always church wine.


  1. In high school, the Spanish teachers would always warn about the perils of using the Babel Fish service to quickly translate to and from English and Spanish. It gets better (read: more entertaining) with non-cognate languages.


  1. That seems like a pretty cool class!