Sep 29 2012
Vietnamese is a notoriously difficult language to master, and in particular to pronounce. Here are some tips of a few of the sounds to help you get at least somewhere close.
Almost a year ago I wrote about learning Vietnamese in Hanoi and shared a few key phrases: hello, thank you and the like. But one of the first things I wanted to learn was simply how to pronounce the name of my road so that I could make it home in a taxi after a night out or find my way back when lost in an alleyway somewhere. And just so I didn’t sound completely stupid.
The Vietnamese alphabet has 29 letters — this includes the three As (A Ă Â), two Es (E Ê), three Os (O Ô Ơ) and two Us (U Ư). And the D and Đ. Pronunciation of the different vowels is far too difficult to communicate in writing briefly so let’s focus on the tricky consonants.
Firstly though I will put my hands up and say that of course I am by no means an expert on this, however, I have run this past my Vietnamese teacher to check I’m not telling you complete rubbish. “It sounds informative and funny,” she said. “I look forward to reading it.” So at least I’ll have one reader. (Note: not all the tones have come out correctly in this post).
Let’s start at the very beginning: C. Pronunciation of the letter C is something of a cross between a /k/ and a /g/, coming from the back of your throat. This is important when it comes to pronouncing a word like cá (fish) because with less than perfect pronunciation it can sound like gà (chicken). See — easy confusion. Make sure you (at least try to) put the tone in to differentiate — up for cá and down for gà.
D and Đ are the bane of my life — I’m always getting it wrong. Đ is like the /d/ in English, or near enough, but D is a /z/ sound. Watch out for Đẹp (beautiful) and Dép ( slipper): don’t go trying to chat up that pretty Vietnamese girl and call her slippers (em dép) instead of praising her beauty (em đẹp).
R is another one that’s pronounced completely differently to expectation: it’s also a /z/ sound, the same as for D. One r word you might hear from stall holders is re (cheap) — especially in the context of rất re (very cheap). But then, most stallholders know the English for that anyway. The similarity between R and D also makes it hard to distinguish between dừng ở đây stop here and rừng ở đây (forest is here), but I hope the taxi or bus driver will get the gist.
Finally, on the consonants, X is an /s/, and more commonly used at the start of everyday words in Vietnamese than in English, where it’s usually reserved for scientific or medical terms. Xa is a useful word to know — motorbike taxi drivers will often cry “xa quá!” (too far!) when you try to bargain down the price. Xe is also very common as it’s used to indicate a form of transport, for example: xe máy (motorbike), xe đap (bicycle), xe ô tô (car), and so on.
When it comes to combinations of consonants, a few are particularly worth knowing: tr is pronounced /ch/, so trà (tea) is /cha/; th is /t/, rather than the /th/ that we’d pronounce in English; kh — as in không (no) — is pronounced as you might expect but with a very gutteral sound, almost like when you cough to clear your throat; and ng, at the start of a word, is one of the trickiest sounds to make — it’s like the ng at the end of a word like dancing.
A last one which comes in useful in Old Quarter — as a number of streets start with Gi — is that gi is pronounced /z/. Yes, they like the /z/ sound here. Remember this for Hang Giày (shoe street) and Hang Giấy (paper street).
Of course, there are plenty more pronunciation considerations to worry about — this just covers the tip of the iceberg. But if it helps you say “Tôi là con rể cụ” (I’m your son-in-law) rather than “Tôi là con dê cụ” (I’m an old goat — that is, a dirty old man) then it’s a start.
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