Sep 29 2012

Pronouncing Vietnamese — a starting guide

Published by at 2:17 am under Vietnamese language

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.

Want to tell the bus driver where to get off?

Want to tell the bus driver where to get off?

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).

Grilled chicken, not fish.

Grilled chicken, not fish.

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  (fish) because with less than perfect pronunciation it can sound like  (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.

A /d/ and a /z/ in action.

A /d/ and a /z/ in action.

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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4 responses so far

4 Responses to “Pronouncing Vietnamese — a starting guide”

  1. @tomosaigonon 29 Sep 2012 at 8:57 am

    Totally different consonant pronunciation once you get out of the Hanoi area. ;-)

  2. Sarah Turneron 29 Sep 2012 at 9:05 am

    Yes of course. Sorry, I should have specified that this was northern Vietnam, in particular Hanoi.

  3. phuongon 30 Sep 2012 at 2:00 am

    I agree that every region, city or village in Vietnam has a different Vietnamese accent. However, I think what Sarah wrote here is about the standardized Vietnamese pronunciation on television, radio and other kind of media that everyone understands.

  4. Davidon 30 Sep 2012 at 2:15 pm

    On my trip to Vietnam, I spent most of my time in the outer rural areas, expecting a degree of difficulty in communication. I took a two-way dictionary, and spent time trying to memorise the accents and tonal marks.
    In Thai Nguyen, I went out for dinner, expecting to be able to translate the menu. No luck. The poor woman had no idea what I wanted. She made a phone call, had a few words, and handed me the phone. Her daughter spoke perfect English, and went through the menu with me. I handed the phone back, and I was served up a magnificent meal. When finished, the lady brought several dishes over to me, and went over the pronunciation of them. Spent over an hour getting it all correct.
    Similar things happened all through my trip, it seemed that as I was trying to make the effort, they were eager to teach me. I, in turn, helped in the pronunciation of their limited English.
    I was truly impressed with how I was treated, and look forward to when I can return to a beautiful country.

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