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Vietnamese Pronouns: Difficulty Saying You Part 1 - First and Second-Personal Singular Pronouns

09.24.10 | admin | In Vietnamese, grammar

It’s easy to say “I love you” in Vietnamese. It’s either “anh yêu em” if you’re the man or “em yêu anh” if you’re the woman.

But correctly saying “you” in Vietnamese can take some serious effort to master.

As far as I’m aware, this is the most comprehensive explanation of pronouns in Vietnamese on the Internet.

Generally speaking, Vietnamese uses kinship terms instead of what we think of pronouns in English. There is no 1-to-1 translation of the words “I” or “you” or “he”. Instead, they use words that would literally translate to “servant” or “friend” or “older brother”.

tôi: I, me (first-person singular)
bạn: you (literally “friend”)

This is the most basic translation of “I” and “you” which is impersonal and assumes that neither person is older than the other. ”Tôi” literally means servant. In everyday speech it is uncommon but sometimes older people will use “tôi”, but use another word besides “bạn” for you. It is more commonly used in writing and you’ll see it used a lot for subtitles on foreign films.

Children will not refer to themselves as “tôi”. Instead, classmates, children the same age use:

tui, mình: I, me
bạn: you

On TV you’ll often see tớ for me and cậu for you. It is also common for students to use given names in place of pronouns.

“Peter (you), pass Paul (me) a pen.”
“Where was Peter (you) today?”
“Peter (I) was home sick.”

Children may also refer to each other informally as “ông” and “bà”, literally grandfather and grandmother. But for schoolmates who are not in the same grade, simple one-to-one translation of I/you falls apart.

em: I, me (for younger child), you (said to younger child)
chị: I, me (for older girl), you (said to older girl)
anh: I, me (for older boy), you (said to older boy)

So in the case of one student talking to an older girl, “em” will mean either me or you depending on who’s talking! ”Em” literally means younger sibling, “chị” means older sister, and “anh” means older brother. In a family, siblings will use these words to refer to each other in the place of pronouns.

E.g. “Em chào chị.”: (younger) (greets)
(older), or “hello/goodbye”.

[Actually, in the south of Vietnam, particularly the Mekong Delta, brothers and sisters are referred to not by name but in the order in which they were born, but skipping “1″. So younger siblings would refer to the first-born child, a son, as “anh hai” or “older brother two” and a second-born daughter as “chị ba”, “older sister three”.]

But these three words aren’t strictly reserved for blood relations. Anyone of the same generation can use “em/chị/anh” to refer to each other if it is clear that one is older than the other. Often this is the first question asked when meeting someone for the first time. However, even after it’s been confirmed that one is older than the other it is not always appropriate to use “em”. Friends can use given names to refer to each other, like classmates above, or “mày/tao” especially for close friends. However, “mày” and “tao” are also reserved for showing contempt as will be explained later.

It’s not always clear who is older and it can be highly presuming to refer to someone as “em”. In the modern age, with telephones and Internet, Vietnamese speakers even lack visual cues to see who’s older. So adults of the same generation will generally refer to themselves as “em” and the other as “anh/chị” (Mr./Ms.). Not doing so risks offending the other party.

[In a romantic relationship, the woman is always “em” and the man always “anh” even if the woman is older than the man. Literally, a husband and wife are brother and sister in Vietnamese.]

[For cousins, it depends on the age of their parents. So you could be 10 years older than your cousin who is your father’s older sister’s son, but you would still be “em” to him, “anh”.]

con: child, son, daughter
cháu: nephew, niece, grandchild
chú: father’s younger brother
cô: father’s younger sister
bác: father’s older brother or sister
ông: grandfather
bà: grandmother

In a family, relatives will use the above words (and more: cậu, dì, thím, mợ, o, etc.) to refer to each other and by extension people of different generations will use them even for non-family members. Thus, when speaking to somebody who could be your father’s brother or sister age or older:

con: I, me
chú: you (a man younger than your father)
cô: you (a woman younger than your father)
bác: you (man or woman older than your father, but not your grandparents)
ông: you (could be your father’s father)
bà: you (could be your father’s mother)

[In the south, a chú, cô, or bác would be called by their order, e.g. “chú tư” for your father’s younger brother who was born 3rd.]

[Also, “ông” and “bà” would be followed with “nội” or “ngoại” depending on whether they were paternal or paternal grandparents, respectively.]

In the south, “con” is used in these situations because it’s also used for nieces and nephews by their aunts, uncles, and grandparents. In the north, “cháu” is used instead.

Special situations:

tao: I, me
mày (mầy): you

[Sometimes ta/mi]

Close friends will use “mày/tao” but so will adversaries as it shows no respect. It’s possible for any older person to use “mày/tao” but very offensive for a younger person to say this with an elder. It can even be disrespectful to talk with your friends like this around elders. You would also use this construct with a pet.

thầy: male teacher
cô: female teacher

The student would be referred to as “em”.

Royalty involves another set of words. Someone you’d call “sir” would translate to “thưa ngài”.

That about sums it up for first and second-person singular personal pronouns in Vietnamese. Next I’ll talk about third-person pronouns and first-person multiple pronouns.

[Online: since you often neither know how old or what gender the audience is, people often use “em” for themselves and “bác” for the other, as “bác” can refer to man or woman.”

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