Wednesday, October 20, 2010

“Phuong” was hard enough, how the heck is a foreigner supposed to pronounce “Fwong”?

In Vietnamese, there is a colloquial (and rather slangy and offensive) saying, “ngu rồi còn tỏ ra nguy hiểm”, which literally means someone who is stupid but pretending to be dangerous. It refers to somebody who talks about a matter that he absolutely does not understand in a way that is supposed to show off his knowledge on the subject but in reality just shows how ignorant he is. I have rarely seen anything that deserves that above title more than this article (it’s in Vietnamese).

This was originally published on Dan Tri, a web portal positioned towards increasing education in the population. Ironically, this is a portal that frequently publishes articles with grammatical errors, so I wasn’t too surprised that it actually published something so incredibly…stupid. But that’s another story. This above article just gets on my nerves because it shows how the author doesn’t understand both the Vietnamese language and Latin-based languages.
                                                                                                         
The general point of the article was calling for a revision and revolution of the whole Vietnamese alphabet and spelling system because the current system is “too complicated for nothing”.

The author claims that the current Vietnamese alphabet with letters that do not exist in the English alphabet (for example, đ, ư) makes it harder for Vietnam to integrate with the world. Yeah, say that to the Chinese and the Russian.

He also claims that the Vietnamese language is “wasting” letters F, J, W, and Z by using “PH”, “GI”, “Ư” and “D” respectively to represent sounds created by the former letters. He also claims that we are messing up “D”, which is normally pronounced “Z” in (standard) Vietnamese (“French/English D” is actually written as “Đ” in Vietnamese) while as a mathematical notation, “D” is still pronounced the “French way”.  Ok, so I will give him that it can be baffling to understand why the rest of the world pronounce D one way and we Vietnamese pronounce it in a completely different way and invent another letter to represent the sound the rest of the world uses for D.  However, just because it doesn't necessarily conform to the rest of the world, does it mean we have to change it? Where’s the cultural distinction in language then? Why don’t we just turn around and speak and write English if we want to pronounce it their way? (For the record, the French pronounces “I” as “ee” which is the letter “E” in English, so who’s wrong? Hehe.)

He also claims the lack of F, J, W, Z in Vietnamese can make it confusing for students learning maths and natural sciences which do use these letters. So? How is that different from learning to write squiggly Greek sigma, omega, mu, nu, which are, in fact, even harder to write properly than F, J, W, Z (theta, not so much)? Should the rest of the world incorporate these Greek letters into their alphabets now to cater to the maths language?

What gets on my nerves most is his suggestion that we replace Ư with W. Why? Because in Vietnamese there is one case where we use W to represent the Vietnamese letter Ư in an abbreviation. One. Oh and because on the Vietkey typing system, you hit the letter W on your keyboard when you want to type Ư.

Erm…dude? W is a consonant. Ư is a vowel. Just think on that for a minute.

If according to his “conversion”, then Phương, a very very common name in Vietnamese, would now be written Fwong. This is hilariously ironic.

Phuong is a very difficult Vietnamese name for many foreigners to pronounce. I have rarely, if ever, heard a foreigner pronounce it right on the first go. They usually pronounce it…wait for it… Fwong. Which is WRONG! That’s not how you pronounce it! I can’t write down phonetically how that name is pronounced, but the English pronunciation of Fwong is absolutely and 100% wrong. And here, this guy is suggesting that we change the spelling of that name to Fwong. Surely, let’s do that and then start to wonder why no one ever pronounces our name right.

I won’t go into how impossible it would be to place Vietnamese accent marks on a W.

The author of the article also has a vendetta against the letter combinations “GH”, which in Vietnamese is pronounced the same way as “G” and “NGH” which is pronounced the same way as “NG”. The use of these “silent H” combinations depends on some very simple grammar rules that you learn in about…grade 2, if not younger (I learnt it and I only went to Vietnamese school until grade 3). The author proposes we eliminate the “GH” and “NGH” combinations. I may consider the idea properly if he actually had a decent reason for this proposal. Instead, his reason is “so we don’t have to confuse for no reason over whether to write “ngành ngề” or “nghành nghề” or “nghành ngề” or “ngành nghề” .

FYI, it’s “ngành nghề” (career).

Basically, his reason is that it requires him to think and so it’s not worth it. Yeah. Just announce to the world that you can’t grasp basic, primary school grammar, why don’t you.

His conclusion is we don’t need to make our language “complicated in a stupid way”. The way this guy writes this, he apparently thinks other languages is written so simply and exactly as it sounds. He fails to realise that Vietnamese is one of the least complicated languages in terms of spelling and grammar. Once you grasp the rules of spelling, you can pretty much spell almost anything. By the time you are in grade 3, you should be able to spell perfectly, even if you have no idea what you’re spelling means. There are no such thing as “spelling bees” in Vietnamese because the sound you produce when you speak is exactly what you put down on the page. Spelling, in Vietnamese, in a concept for very young primary school students. In fact, Vietnamese, with all its “redudant” letters, is a language where if you know how to pronounce a word, you will 99% of the time spell it correctly (or at least you will spell it as you speak it, so if you mispronounce, you will also misspell). Unlike English. Colour, anyone?

The thing is, Vietnamese teenagers today need no help from this guy in corrupting our language.  The Vietnamese brand of textspeak already contorts the written language so that it almost becomes a code, already doing what this guy suggests and eliminating the “GH” and “NGH” and replacing letters with “F” etc. The result is that eventually they will carry those textspeak habits over to their academic writing, and heaven forbid, one day, my friends will be called “Fuong” instead of “Phuong”. Kind of like how “thru” is making its way to be a legit word in the English language.