January 7th, 2011

Chris at Waterfall in Dalat

Forever Dượng

It’s a bad pun to begin with, given that the vowels are not quite right, but it’s confounded by the fact that even as a tenuous pun, it only works in the southern dialect – in the south, the d character is pronounced like a y, whereas in the north, it’s pronounced like a z. If you want your actual English d sound, you need a đ. But now that’s out of the way…

There are several distinct pieces of information I need to know when addressing a Vietnamese aunt or uncle. Most importantly, are they from the father’s or mother’s side of the family? Next, what number are they in the birth order of the family? And does that make them older or younger than my in-laws (only matters in certain cases). Finally, are they a blood-relative, or only married to one?

What it means is that there at least 4 different terms to address the uncles, and 4 more to address the aunts. This then goes together with their birth number (or occasionally the personal name, though in my experience that’s less common than the number). For the uncles, we have cậu for the mother’s brothers, bác for the father’s older brothers, chú for the father’s younger brothers, and dượng for the husbands of the sisters of either parents. And for the aunts, we have for the mother’s sisters, for the father’s sisters, mợ for the mother’s sisters’ husbands, and thím for the father’s sisters’ husbands. With such big, extended families still being the norm for that generation, this can be quite challenging to keep track of sometimes. Fortunately, I don’t have to deal with bác myself, my father-in-law being the oldest male on his side, though I do still hear it among other family relationships, so it’s useful to know.

That also makes me a dượng to all my nephews, and they’ve been taught to call me dượng ba (Uncle 3) already (me being the husband of the second-born of that family*). Only one of them actually calls me that, however. The other somehow got mixed up somewhere along the line, and consistently refers to me as Chris ba (Chris 3). At one point, they tried to get him to change it to the right one, but I told them not to bother, enjoying this strange cultural mix that has emerged. We’ll see if he keeps it up when he’s older…

Cousins, fortunately, are easier, as we can just use the standard anh or chị followed by personal name if they’re older (though the numbering system is still possible, based on their positions within their own families, not compared to my wife’s, thankfully), and just personal names if they’re younger.

As someone still struggling to learn the language, getting things wrong does not result in offense – it just results in being laughed at and then corrected – but addressing them the correct way results in huge appreciation… and, if sitting with all the uncles, usually tends to result in a một, hai, ba, dô (the last of which is not usually spelt like that, but here represents the actual local pronunciation, as described in the first paragraph.), and most likely a trăm phần trăm too. Both of which I’ll bring up again when I get to the drinking entries!

* And by the way, I did find more information regarding the reason for this numbering system, which will form a whole new post at a later date…

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Originally published at Saigon Sunsets. You can comment here or there.