Lina with Bác Hiển

Lina with Bác Hiển

            In my last post, I neglected to add one more complexity that Vietnamese deal with as a matter of course.

If Bao calls his cousins “em” (younger brother) and they address him as “anh” (older brother), then when Bao talks to them he refers to himself as “anh”. Or, in talking to his uncle who addresses him as “cháu” he will use “cháu” to say “I”.

So it is not only the “you” that changes according to relationship but the “I”! This becomes second nature to a native speaker but not to the foreigner learning the language.

Vietnamese offers us the word “tôi” as a neutral form of “I’, and I fell back on that regularly 24 years ago. It didn’t solve the problem of which “you” to use, but it cut the number of choices I had to make in half. I used “anh” and “chị” (older brother / sister) to talk to many of the people around me if I wasn’t sure of their age and wanted to be on the safe side of good manners.

Now I am so obviously older than the young people whom I meet in stores, restaurants and taxis that I feel very comfortable calling them “em” and referring to myself as “anh”.   One exception, however, I reserve for policemen, immigration officials and others in a position of some power. Even if they are clearly younger than I, I am likely to address them as “anh” or “chị”. It feels polite and appropriate to do so, as I might use “Sir”, “Ma’am”, “Ms.” or “Officer” in a similar situation at home.

So in American English, we are not without markers to indicate status and respect. In some regions, such as the Southeast, respectful terms of address are very common. We just don’t have to figure out which words to use for “you” and “I”!

David with Bác Hoai

David with Bác Hoai

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