Sunday, December 18, 2016

Country as Kin: Personal Pronouns in Vietnamese Society

"tweet tweet bitches, bow down!"
In American English, we use a set of pronouns to talk about people and animals, generally regardless of age, position, experience, whatever.

Vietnamese is... a little different.

One seriously unusual highlight of this country is that, even over the course of a 1,000+ years of occupation and struggle (the Chinese, the French, the Americans and Australians), Vietnamese are STILL quite recognizably Vietnamese. Their food is not Chinese food, their language is not French (although, thanks to Alexander de Rhodes, Vietnamese written language uses the Roman alphabet and is vastly improved from the original Sino-influenced script). And, while some in the South might act more cosmopolitan than their Northern brethren, the country remains solidly Vietnamese in many, many aspects.

One possible factor in this cultural longevity and tenacity could be the important functions provided by personal pronouns in the Vietnamese language. In them, we find the basic foundations of Vietnamese society.

Read on for my meditation on that most unlikely of subjects, the humble Personal Pronoun...


The Family Tree View of Personal Pronouns. Compare this layout with the one below.

In my observation, the main sub-function of pronouns in VN is to take the familial addresses (Em, Anh, Mẹ, Ba/Cha, Chú, Chị, Cô, Ông, Bà, etc) and extend them to the entire Vietnamese people. This has the instant effect of including anyone you talk to in a sort of extended family, connected by shared cultural memories, patterns, and inner family life, and traditions, as well as reaffirming your position within society and the family.

The twin of this idea is that, because you're addressing "family," you are inherently imparting a sense of respect, and even general agape love, to the listener. These pronouns were initially derived for domestic use and their meanings retain their family connotations today... and families must respect each other to function. Family traditions are STRONG in Vietnam. In a house full of extended family, there must be a social hierarchy, and the elders are at the top.

Breaking the Rules to Preserve the Functions

The "Age Distance" is the most important element of calling someone the correct pronoun.
The use of pronouns in everyday life is incredibly complex, and depends on a host of factors, including serious talk or playfulness, respect or disrespect, body language, positions at work and in society, public venue or private, alone or group, and so on.

For example:
  • Boyfriends call their older girlfriends "Em," even though this is the designation for anyone younger than you, because it imparts a sense of protection (and is smacks a bit of misogyny to me... a common throwback to more traditional Viet gender roles, even in a rapidly changing society). 
  • I might call my female boss at a new job "Chị," even if she's younger than me, if I want to show that I honor her experience and her knowledge, or to acknowledge that she still has the beauty of youth but the wisdom of someone older than her years.
  • My friends might call me "bạn" (friend) or "Anh" (male older than you) or "Em" (anyone younger than you), depending on our location (are we in a party or work setting) or the company included (are we with older people, or alone, or with peers). They may even drop it completely.
  • If my conversation partner is a young student, they may call me "Thầy" (respected male teacher) or, for the very young, "Chú" (uncle age, which, honestly, I'm not quiiiiite old enough to be called yet).

One Family, One Party, One Nation

Pronouns also reinforce social hierarchy in a way that is specific to Vietnam. 

Vietnam is a Socialist Republic, with a single Communist Party in permanent control. The North is generally considered more conservative, as it holds the seat of government, and the strict hierarchy of the party filters down into home-life and beyond through party members interacting in society.  The South takes after the hotter environment: relaxed and less strict in general. The use of proper pronouns in everyday life binds people closer together, but also helps convince people that they're happy where they are in the order of things, and ultimately supports the viability of a one-party system.

The strict party hierarchy mirrors the household hierarchy. Leveraging these family traditions in the form of pronouns, which are used literally all the time, every day, in every interaction, confirms that people already in power maintain status and respect, and those with less status are at their mercy. The ideal system expects you to defer to the older among us and for the elders to make the best decisions for the family, just like in a household. When an elder with status refuses to return that care and respect (i.e. in order to satisfy or enrich themselves), things can swiftly become unbalanced.

The Safety Valve

Obviously, there's nothing in place to enforce the idea that Family (in this case, all Vietnamese people), MUST respect and care for all members of the Family (all other Vietnamese people). "Saving face" is the closest thing that Vietnamese culture has to a safety valve for unbalanced situations. However, it must be active and constant. All speakers must participate in this conversational ballet with the common goal of making everyone look good when they part ways.

These interactions tend to end with mutual satisfaction and a continuation of the previous status quo, if not an uptick in respect for all parties. However, it's possible for one party to "go rogue" and not participate in the dance - whatever their reasons - and things can quickly get into very uncomfortable public territory, where the rules don't apply.

When saving face fails, then come the public disagreements/fights. I've seen four public fights between Vietnamese, and it's because they're so rare that they are memorable (and why I don't have any pictures!). Even complex disagreements are usually resolved by the pressures of social status, and it rarely gets physical or shouty in public. When it spills out into blatant disagreement and a refusal to follow the social rules, there is little to stop it - it's just got to run its course. It's genuinely a spectacle to see Vietnamese argue - people pull their bikes over and watch, I swear!

Ben, the Mimic

Mimicking an air raid?
Learning personal pronouns has required me to redouble my observation and interactions in Vietnamese life.  I still make (embarrassing) mistakes all the time, especially when I'm stressed, focusing on work, or tired. I still think in English, and sometimes I can be caught off guard when someone uses an unexpected pronoun to address me - losing the meaning behind the word is a pretty big obstacle to communication!

The effort is worth the opportunity, though: by being able to navigate this web of emotional status, and social standing, I understand much more about the social networks that invisibly bind all Vietnamese people together. I understand more about what is acceptable (and not!) by poking, prodding, asking questions, observing body language and habits, and mimicking whenever I can.

Please trust me when I say, interpersonal relationships are not always my strong suit! Maybe someday I'll even get it all right. 😁  In the meantime, relish your simple English pronouns!
Tạm biệt, các bạn!

I hope you enjoyed this reflection on pronouns as much as I enjoyed writing and thinking about it! May your busy holiday season is beautiful, warm, and bright. I miss you all.

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Hi! Thanks for speaking up! :) - Ben