To effectively converse in Vietnamese, you must maintain a keen awareness of the people around you and use the pronouns appropriate for each person. One slip of the tongue could result in any number of misunderstandings.
A toothy grin from the lady selling bún chả (delicious Hanoian grilled pork dish) whom you refer to as cô (age of your aunt) instead of chị (age of your older sister) might quickly turn to a disappointed scowl.
Growing pains in learning Vietnamese are largely due to this involved system of pronouns. However, Vietnamese pronouns are grounded mostly in age and gender, two simple pieces of information that you can use to master the pronouns with practice.
You will find that it is well worth the effort. Many Vietnamese people will quickly warm up to you upon being addressed by the right pronoun.
Pronouns: A glimpse into Vietnamese Culture
Using correct Vietnamese pronouns will not only help you in daily interactions, it will give you insight into the culture. Certain underpinnings of Vietnamese culture manifest in communication. Pronouns are one of the most accessible examples of this for foreigners to pick up on.
Everyone is Family
In Vietnamese, many of the pronouns used in casual conversation with friends, colleagues, and strangers are identical to those used to speak with family members. For example, the pronoun used to refer to one’s older brother is anh. The same word is used to refer to a male (stranger, friend, colleague) of about the same age as the older brother of the person speaking.
Many of the pronouns work in this way, including: em (younger sibling), chị (older sister), cô (younger paternal aunt), and ông (grandfather), to name just a few.
A Question of Culture
A common inquiry made by Vietnamese people at early stages of relationships – by early, I mean within the first 30 seconds of meeting a new person – is, “How old are you?” In the USA, this question is rather taboo. It’s also not a necessary piece of information for establishing the foundation of a relationship.
In Vietnam, it is oh so crucial. Knowing the age of the person you speak with sets the stage for the rest of the conversations you will ever have.
Thus, by understanding the reason for the question, “How old are you?”, you will deepen your connection to the Vietnamese culture, and probably make some bạn (friends), in the process.
Basic Vietnamese Pronouns
Vietnamese pronouns, as explained by many Vietnamese people, are supposed to be determined by comparing the age of the person you are speaking with to the age of your family members, as mentioned above in the ‘Everyone is Family’ section.
However, there are always outliers. Some people may have very old parents, no siblings, or no aunts and uncles by which to make judgments. To give you another tool, I’ve included the column with age difference, so you can try to choose the proper pronoun based on difference in age, rather than by relative age to family members.
Vietnamese Pronouns Chart
Before diving into the charts below, take note of some important factors when determining the correct pronoun to use:
- Your gender and the gender of the person you are speaking with
- Your age relative to the person you are speaking with
- In the column ‘Their Pronoun’, the pronoun you see indicates both the word you use to refer to the other person, and the word they use for themselves
- In the column ‘Your Pronoun’, the pronoun you see indicates both the word you use for yourself, and the word that the other person calls you
Find the category that suits your situation, and you will see the appropriate pronouns.
|RELATIVE TO YOUR FAMILY MEMBERS||AGE DIFFERENCE FROM YOU||THEIR PRONOUN (MALE/FEMALE)||YOUR PRONOUN
|Grandchild||60+ yrs younger||cháu||ông/bà|
|Younger than child/Older than grandchild||50-60 yrs younger||cháu||bác|
|Son/Daughter||20-50 yrs younger||cháu||chú/cô|
|Younger Sibling||1-20 yrs younger||em||anh/chị|
|Same Age as You||No difference||bạn||tôi|
|Older Sibling||1-20 yrs older||anh/chị||em|
|Mother/Father||20-50 yrs older||chú/cô||cháu|
|Older than Mother/Father Younger than Grandparent||50-60 yrs older||bác||cháu|
|Grandparent||60+ yrs older||ông/bà||cháu|
Breaking the Rules
Certain situations lend themselves to pronoun use rule bending. For example, I often find myself in situations where I am talking to an older woman – 34-40 – whom I end up referring to as em, and whom calls me anh.
Call it flirting, call it machismo, call it what you will. It happens sometimes. Similarly, at times when Vân and I go out to eat together, servers who are younger than me, but older than her (she is 22 and I am 27), will use chị when speaking with her.
The rules I’ve covered so far might lead you to believe that using pronouns this way is incorrect. However, there are times when a degree of formality comes into play. The server who is older than Vân but younger than me decides to change the pronoun he/she uses based on the formality of the situation. In the case of the restaurant, the server places himself/herself below both of the paying customers.
The Value of ‘Tôi’ and ‘Bạn’
Tôi (toy) and bạn (ba) will be your best friend as you progress learning Vietnamese pronouns. Tôi is a special pronoun that means ‘I’. It is special because it can be used in conversation with any person, regardless of age or gender.
Tôi is most useful in situations in which you don’t know the age of the person you are speaking with yet. Use this pronoun in place of your age and gender appropriate pronoun, and things will be just fine.
Bạn comes in handy in the same situation, but to refer to the person to whom you are speaking. Bạn is the Vietnamese word for ‘friend’, and should be reserved for people who you know are near your age, but with whom you’re not sure if you should use ‘em’, ‘anh’, or ‘chị’. Bạn should be used neither when speaking with someone much younger nor older than you.
Pronunciation of Pronouns
Tôi (Toy) Cháu (Chow) Em (Emm) Bạn (Baa – Very short sound) Chị (Chee – very short sound) Anh (Aang) Cô (Coe) Bác (Bahk) Chú (Chew) Bà (Bah) Ông (Ohhm)
For a much more in depth look at Vietnamese pronunciation, head to Happy Hanoi where you can find a well-crafted series of videos dedicated to teaching pronunciation, as well as a good Youtube video on Vietnamese pronouns.
For one-on-one, online Vietnamese lessons, I recommend Italki. There, you can find many experienced Vietnamese teachers for between $6 and $10 per hour lesson.
Vietnamese Pronouns in Sentences
Once you have a feel for the proper pronouns to use with different people, you can add them to basic phrases, such as, ‘hello’, ‘thank you’, and ‘what’s your name?’
Check out my previous post, Basic Vietnamese: 10 Words and Phrases, to freshen up on the basics and see a phonetic guide to the pronunciation of basic words and phrases.
Below are some examples of sentences you can add pronouns to for more effect.
P1 stands for the pronoun you use for yourself.
P2 stands for the pronoun you use for the person you are speaking with.
- Hello: Xin chào (P2), or, more naturally, Chào (P2) Example: Chào chị (speaking to a female 1-20 years older than you)
- Thank you: Cảm ơn (P2), or, even better, (P1) cảm ơn (P2) Example: Anh/chị cảm ơn em (male/female speaking to a younger male or female)
- What’s your name?: (P2) tên là gì? Example: Cháu tên là gì? (Speaking to a male or female much younger than you)
- My name is. . . (P1) tên là (name) Example: Anh tên là Aaron (Male speaking to a younger male or female)
How Old Are You?
“How old are you?”, a simple question, and one of the most important pieces of Vietnamese you need to understand in order to fluently work with the pronouns. You can guess how old the person you are speaking to is, and hope that you don’t over or undershoot the mark by too much, but this isn’t a sustainable plan. Moreover, when the question is posed to you, if you aren’t prepared, you might not be able to share in mutual Vietnamese pronoun harmony.
To say, “How old are you?” in Vietnamese, say; Bao nhiêu tuổi? (Bow Nee-oo Too-Oy)
An appropriate answer is: (P1) ‘age’ tuổi Example: Cô sáu mươi ba tuổi (I am 63 years old)
One caveat to learning the question ‘how old are you?’, is that you might not know how to use the numbers in Vietnamese yet. That’s ok. You can learn them later on. For now, using hand signals to indicate your age will suffice.
The ‘Friends or Foes’ Pronouns
Certain relationships allow for very special pronouns to be used. Two very close friends, both male and female, may use the words tao (me) and mày (you). In addition to this situation, two people who share a particular distaste for each other may also use these pronouns.
Yes, two best friends can use tao and mày, as may two enemies. Among friends, it’s endearing, a bit like calling your friend ‘fool’, or ‘knucklehead’. Between foes, the words have the same meanings, but without the endearment factor.
Advanced Family Pronouns
Used only within families, these pronouns go beyond what you will need to know as a backpacker. However, they will be useful if you begin to delve into the world of dating, attending friends weddings, or celebrating holidays with Vietnamese folks. These pronouns started as a huge mystery to me, but became an indispensable tool when interacting with my girlfriend’s family.
The following Vietnamese pronouns, unlike the basic Vietnamese pronouns, should not be used to refer to people you casually meet while traveling. Their utility will be in understanding the family tree (cây phả hệ) of friends and significant others. Here is a list of the advanced family pronouns:
Father: Bố or Cha
Grandfather on father’s side/mother’s side: ông nội / ngoại
Grandmother on father’s side/mother’s side: bà nội / bà ngoại
Younger Uncle on father’s side/mother’s side: chú / cậu
Younger Aunt on father’s side/mother’s side: cô / dì
Elder Aunt on father’s and mother’s side: bác gái
Elder Uncle on father’s and mother’s side: bác trai
Cousins: anh, chị, em họ
Siblings from same biological parents: anh, chị, em ruột
Half siblings from the same father, different mother: anh, chị, em cùng cha khác mẹ
Half siblings from the same mother, different father: anh, chị, em cùng mẹ khác cha
Brother in law (husband of sister): Anh rể (older than you), em rể (younger than you)
Sister in law (wife of brother): chị dâu (older than you) em dâu (younger than you)
Brother/sister in law (brother/sister of husband): anh, chị, em chồng
Brother/sister in law (brother/sister of wife): anh, chị, em vợ
Numbers? Yes, Numbers
Learning the numbers in any language is incredibly useful! It amazes me how much of language is made up of numbers. With the little Lao that I have learned – mostly greetings and numbers – I am able to understand bits of conversation not only in Lao, but in Thai as well, a language very similar to Lao. Vietnamese numbers are quite straight forward, and in my opinion, make more sense than English numbers. In a future article, I will cover the numbers in Vietnamese.
Jumpstart your Vietnamese
While reading these articles might help you understand the basics of Vietnamese, speaking the language with a native speaker is definitely the best way to learn the language quickly and effectively.
If you live in a place without access to a Vietnamese community, check out iTalki for an awesome one-on-one lesson with a native speaker. Community tutors and professional teachers offer lessons to people of all skill levels.
There is nothing like a one-on-one class to dial in your language skills! For $6 – $10 per hour, you can have your own, private Vietnamese teacher, all from the comfort of your home.
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