Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Why I Can't Say "I Love You"

Learning the language here is daunting.  I can't even say something as simple as, "I love you."  Here's why it's a challenge....

So the word for "love" in Vietnamese is "yêu".  That doesn't change.  But the "I" and the "you" change all the time in a constant flow of relationship exchange and community spirit of familial understanding. (confused yet??)

To try to say "I love you", I might say "em yêu anh" (I love you) if I was talking to Greg but if I was talking to my grandmother I would be a cháu not an em and she would be a bà not an anh. So "I love you" would be "Cháu yêu bà".  Of course I might want to say that to my grandchildren, at which I'd be the bà and they would be the cháu. So this time "I love You" would look like: Bà yêu cháu.   So at any given point in time for any kind of conversation,  I might be a chị or a cô or a bà or a cháu, (sister, older aunt, grandparent, or grandchild) and I might be speaking to an em, or a cháu or a con or an ông (sister, grandchild, child or a grandfather)! And since everyone here feels related to each other, everyone uses family terms, even if there is no relation.  It's the polite thing to do!

I haven't memorized this chart yet.....a list of all the possible pronouns....
TermReciprocalLiteral meaningNon-kinship usageNote
chaconfathera priestMany other terms are used, depending on the dialect: babốtíathầy
mẹconmothermẹ is the Northern form,  is used in the South. Many other terms are used, depending on the dialect: ubầmmạ
anhemolder brotheran older man of the same generation; the man in a romantic relationship; a man (formal use)Can be used to address any male regardless of status. e.g. By military personnel to those of lower ranks.
chịemolder sisteran older woman of the same generation; a woman (formal use)
emanh or chịyounger siblinga younger person of the same generation; a child; the woman in a romantic relationship
concha, mẹ, bà, etc.biological child or grandchilda young child; a person at least one generation younger
cháuông, bà, bác, chú, etc.grandchild; niece; nephew; cousin of junior generationsa young child; a person at least one generation younger
ôngcháu or congrandfathera middle-aged manpaternal and maternal grandfathers are differentiated as ông nội (paternal grandfather) and ông ngoại (maternal grandfather), respectively
cháu or congrandmothera middle-aged (married) womanpaternal and maternal grandmothers are differentiated as bà nội (paternal grandmother) and bà ngoại (maternal grandmother), respectively
cháufather's sistera female teacher, an older woman as old as one's father, a young (usually unmarried) woman (formal)in some dialects, literal meaning is restricted to father's younger sister
chúcháufather's younger brotheran older man as old as one's father, a slightly younger man (formal)in some dialects, literal meaning is restricted to father's younger brother
thímcháuchú's wife
báccháua parent's older sibling; his/her spousea person older than one's parentsin some dialects, can also refer to father's elder brother or sister as well as mother's elder brother or sister
cháumother's sister, stepmothera woman as old as one's mother,in some dialects, literal meaning is restricted to mother's younger sister
cậucháumother's brothera man as old as one's mother, a close friend (Northern variety)in some dialects, literal meaning is restricted to mother's younger brother
mợcháucậu's wifein some dialects, used by the husband to refer to his wife, children to refer to mother, or parents-in-law to refer to a daughter-in-law
dượngcháuthe husband of  or , stepfather
cụ/cốcháugreat-grandparenta very old person
họclantheythird person plural for a group of people
So before I launch into saying anything, I have to evaluate who it is I am, in relation to the person to whom I am attempting to share my feelings, and then evaluate who THEY are in relation to my position in the family or age or relationship tree.  By the time I have it figured out, the moment has passed and I end up all tongued-tied and mind-blank from a dizzying array of options.

It's just downright exhausting!

Fortunately, a smile and a "Xin Chào" (hello) seem to work for nearly everyone - and we end up with lots of happy faces in spite of our communicative limitations!


  1. Vietnamese is a crazy language and I know it truly is lolzzz. I'm so sorry for it :D

  2. You radiate love, no words needed.

  3. We love your posts and being able to learn about Vietnam and the gospel in Vietnam through you. Thank you for such delightful and informative posts!!

  4. Wish I had that chart in Atlanta 25 years ago. And just when you figure it out, you will have to come home.

  5. You are having an amazing adventure and serving the Lord and his children at the same time. Senior missions and senior missionaries are the best!