This entry was sparked by a sentence in an excellent New Yorker piece by Thomas A. Bass called “The Spy Who Loved Us” (unfortunately not online, but you can get a summary here). It’s about Pham Xuan An, who served simultaneously as a Time correspondent in Saigon and a high-ranking North Vietnamese spy, and the sentence in question is this: “Dominating the far end of the room is an altar covered with flowers, bowls of fruit, and four hand-tinted photographs of Mai Chi Tho’s parents and his two famous brothers: Dinh Duc Thien, the two-star general who helped build the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and Le Duc Tho, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who snookered Henry Kissinger at the Paris Peace Accords.”
Before I continue, I have to explain how Vietnamese names work. Fortunately, this site has done it for me, so all I have to do is quote:

Vietnamese names put the family name first followed by the middle and given names. Take Pham Van Duc, for example, Pham is the family name or what we call the last name. Van is the individual’s middle name, and Duc is the given or first name.
Vietnam has about 300 family or clan names. The most common are Le, Pham, Tran, Ngo, Vu, Do, Dao, Duong, Dang, Dinh, Hoang and Nguyen—the Vietnamese equivalent of Smith. About 50 percent of Vietnamese have the family name Nguyen.
The given name, which appears last, is the name used to address someone, preceded by the appropriate title. Nguyen Van Lu, for example, would be called Mr. Lu.

The only notable exception to the last rule is Ho Chi Minh, known as President (or Uncle) Ho. (On the other hand, Duong Van Minh, the last president of South Vietnam, was General Minh, or “Big Minh.”) Of course, Ho was not his original family name (it was Nguyen), which brings up the other important issue, that of noms de guerre. No self-respecting revolutionary (aside from Mao) uses his or her birth name, so the family relationships among Communists are often not apparent on the surface. The sentence I quoted from the New Yorker article is a sterling example; it turns out (after much digging) that their family name is not Mai, Dinh, or Le, but rather Phan: Le Duc Tho was originally Phan Dinh Khai, Dinh Duc Thien was Phan Dinh Dinh (found here), and Mai Chi Tho was apparently Phan Dinh Dong (only here, in the not very clear entry “Mai Chi Tho Phan Ðinh Ðông, Hôi ky, tomes 1 et 2, nhà xuât-ban Tre 2001″—but it’s gotta be him, right?). I wonder whether the legendary New Yorker fact-checkers went to all that trouble? Nah, they probably have a book that lists all Vietnamese public figures with birth names and pseudonyms. I’m jealous.
(Oh, one other thing: Vietnamese has two d’s, one plain and one with a bar through it; the latter is like an English d, but the former is pronounced y in the south and z in the north, so that Ngo Dinh Diem, really Ngô Đình Diệm, is /ŋo din yiəm/ in the south and /ŋo din ziəm/ in the north. It’s a truly annoying bit of alphabet creation; thanks a lot, 17th-century missionaries!)


  1. That’s a feature, not a bug! Or so says:
    In spite of its shortcomings, the system that the missionaries created was remarkably suited to the Vietnamese language. Of particular usefulness is its ability to bridge dialects. The writing system tries to show not only distinctions in sound that are found in the standard Hanoi dialect but also those in other dialects. Two different letters may be pronounced identically in Hanoi but differently in other dialects.

  2. Michael Farris says

    For me, the biggest problem with Đ is that it’s far more common than simple D.
    In General, Max Pinton is right, Vietnamese spelling is more like German or Polish orthography, a compromise dialect worked out over generations meant to encompass as many local differences as possible. Not perfect, but preferable to the alternative (according to all the Vietnamese I know).
    It is a bit heavy on diacritics and could jettison some (such as the high tone marker in syllables that end in -p, -t, -ch, -c) with no ill effect. But for me the bigger problem is that the unit of writing is primarily the syllable rather than the word (thanks a lot, Chinese influence!)

  3. “No self-respecting revolutionary (aside from Mao) uses his or her birth name”

  4. Sorry, Fidel! It’s just that, you know, you’re stuck there on that little island and it’s easy to forget you… (Actually, I know that’s not the real Fidel, because he would have left a comment that took six hours to read.)
    As for the writing system, yes, of course it’s a good idea to have symbols that can bridge dialects — that’s not what I’m complaining about. What I’m complaining about is the fact that for two different phonemes they used two characters that are bound to be printed the same in any text that doesn’t emanate from Vietnam, so that it’s impossible without special expertise to know that the two d’s in Ngo Dinh Diem are pronounced very differently — and, as Michael Ferris says, it makes no sense that the “plain” d is used for the less-common z/y phoneme.

  5. (Goddammit, I had to rewrite that comment to avoid the word “spec1alist” because my spam-blocker noticed it contained the banned word “c1alis.” [Replace 1 by i, obviously.] Hoist by my own petard!)

  6. Michael Farris says

    “What I’m complaining about is the fact that for two different phonemes they used two characters that are bound to be printed the same in any text that doesn’t emanate from Vietnam”
    Why is the lone consontant example worse than the several vowel examples of the same phenomenon? Not counting tones, the following vowel phonemes (distinguished in all dialects I’m aware of) have the same problem
    a also â, ă
    o also ô, ơ
    e also ê
    u also ư

  7. Sure, the d just happened to be what was on my mind.

  8. I have a peculiar relationship with Vietnamese. When I meet people who speak an interesting language, I always try to sit down with them and learn a bit about it. Because I’ve studied some phonetics, I can usually get cheap praise from my informants: “Hey! You said that very well! Most Americans can’t make those sounds!” Stroke stroke purr.
    But not Vietnamese. “No. Listen again. Now try. No, that’s still not right. Listen.” I have never managed to pronounce a Vietnamese sentence correctly. In fact, I have never managed to pronounce the name Nguyen correctly. And this wasn’t the opinion of one picky informant: these discouraging judgements came from a series of Vietnamese-speakers encountered at intervals over three decades. Vietnamese, she is hard.
    As for that barred D: it isn’t anything close to “like an English d”; our host has clearly never run his version past a native speaker. As near as I can tell, it is ingressive. Or glottalized. Or perhaps pronounced with a coarticulation that is only possible if you have a Vietnamese uvula.
    (Now your blog will be #1 on Google for “Vietnamese uvula.” Never say I never did anything for you.)

  9. Michael Farris says

    Yes, Viet phonology is truly fiendish (hardest by far of any I’ve tackled). I can sympathize with the no sentence pronounced correctly syndrome (I actually do get occasional mild praise but it’s clear that I’m still far from acceptable).
    The Đ is prevoiced (Thompson analized it as /?t/ (preglottalized /t/ with concomitant voicing, the B is similar (Thompson has it as /?p/ (but not G, strangely enough).

  10. our host has clearly never run his version past a native speaker.
    Absolutely correct, and I don’t actually have a version — all I meant was that, unlike the unbarred “d,” it bore a remote resemblance to what you’d think it might signify — dental stop and all that. I’m grateful for the more detailed information.

  11. Bathrobe says

    To pronounce Vietnamese đ (barred d), I just use the Japanese flapped r (as in ラ ‘ra’). It seems to work.

  12. Tran Thanh Mai says

    Wow, you guys seem to be having difficulty….of how to pronounce D, or the bar with the D and other letters with accents on top.
    Good luck though.
    Ba can be father or dad…Ba can also mean Mrs…or something like that. 😀
    Have fun!

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