Terms of Endearment

The Impact of the Lack of “You” and “I” in the Vietnamese Language

Anh, Chi, Em, Co, Chu, Cau, Di, Ong, Ba, Bac. Anyone familiar with the Vietnamese language knows that there are few polite ways of referring to a second person or oneself by simply using the words “you” and “I”, aside from the using title of said person’s relation to oneself. As an American-born Vietnamese, I often wonder why my people have not adopted those vaguely direct words, equivalent to languages around the world, when doing so would be less mind-boggling on all of us speakers.

We have had our chances to adapt, but somehow resisted that change after over a thousand years of Chinese occupation, followed by the French and Americans. Within this haphazard gumball-machine-like diversity of our terms of address, why did we not abandon all of these words for a simpler equivalent of “you” and “I”? The answer is simple: our system works a thousand times better.

Before I continue any further, allow me to digress a bit to provide a bit of background for readers less familiar with the Vietnamese culture: as typical of Asian cultures, we greatly value filial piety, and the elderly are looked upon with great respect and honor. A son is expected to take care of his father once he has grown until said father dies, and that son expects to be taken care of by his son, until he dies. All are respected, but each generation earns more respect as they grow older and gain more knowledge.

To quote Van Le, the former vice dean of the University of Saigon, “In our language, it is very difficult for children to be rude or impolite”. The same goes for adults of all ages. How can we, when we are constantly reminded of our rank compared to the person we face? Everyone greets one another, even in everyday conversation, by their rank. Take a typical phrase for meeting an older woman, as in example. In such case, one would say “Chao Co, Co co khoe khong?” Co, in this case, means Auntie, assuming a close relationship with that person, regardless of geniality.

In English, one would merely say, “Hello, how are you?” In this case, you can mean anything-you, as in a younger kid; you, as in an equal-ranking friend; or you, an elder. Said in the wrong tone or with the wrong expression and a simple statement like the above can be interpreted in ways unintended: the Vietnamese specificity is a thousand times safer.

The custom of referring to oneself by one’s rank or in third person is similar to the alternative to “you” in the sense that these terms establish clear boundaries and rank. Take for example, words a father might use to chastise his child: “Ba khong muon con lam do,” which translates to “I, your father, do not want you, my child, to do that.

” In this way we know who is ordering whom-the father is definitely in charge. Reversibly, an irate, English-speaking father will say, “I do not want you to do that,” and the vagueness creates no boundaries whosoever. Who, exactly, is the father? I? You? The sense of respect for the father is lost with such an equal playing field.

From a perspective of one caught in the middle, is using “you” and “I” any different? Extremely, in the way that these two words level the playing field. I have heard again and again that American-born children are more sassy then Vietnamese children, and this answer shows why. When talking to my parents in English, these terms break down the formal barriers, and I can express more intimate thoughts without having to be interrupted with the reminder that they are my parents.

The same goes with my teachers: the use of “ you” and “I” seems to make the teachers give us students more respect, and we give them less. Still, I always find myself a bit more sassy when using “you” and “I” with my elders. This sense of equality promotes the freedom of choice. We children are not compelled to listen to our elders, and are free to make our own decision.

Contrarily, the power of these terms to establish these boundaries is why there is such strong filial piety in the Vietnamese. After all, every time one talks with one’s family, one is reminded of the relationship, whether that relationship is with cousins, aunts, uncles, siblings, parents, or grandparents. Once the thought of leaving to make his own way in this world enters someone’s head, they are immediately reminded of the duty to their parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and younger siblings, simply by the way he addresses them.

They are his family— he should not, and will not leave them. With that thought in mind, one can be sure of being cared for once we can no longer care for ourselves, as long as we do our duty when we can. That is why there are nearly no nursing homes and social security plans for the old in Vietnam-they will be cared for without question.

Although I had earlier stated that we Vietnamese chose not to use “you” and “I”, saying that we are unable to use those words would be truer. The Vietnamese social structure relies on the strength of different rank and reverence, and will likely crumble with the equality of reverence that “you” and “I” brings. We are an interdependent people, caring for the old and cared for by the young.

If one were to assert the right to make our own decisions, the entire structure will crumble-the old must rely on social security and nursing homes, while the young do as they please. Sounds familiar? While we can go on living with that change in social structure like the Vietnamese Americans have been able to, I doubt any person will be as audacious enough to actually use those terms.

Similarly, the use of rank and titles to address others in the English language will face the same difficulties as the hypothesized introduction of “you” and “I” into the Vietnamese language. We Americans are too firm on individuality and equality to prostrate our egos in the face of superiors. In addition, I doubt any of us are willing to deal with the hassle of so many titles.

So, are these two cultures meant to mix? While some aspects of our culture are easily adaptable and changed, others like our language remain firmly individual. Like the two separate hemispheres each culture originated in, we can only meet at some points-the rest are on opposite ends of the world. Though change is always welcome, there is no gaining new ideas without losing the old, and in the interest of preserving our culture, maybe East and West are meant stay in their own hemispheres.