Prolific code-switching in Vietnamese

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Michael Rank writes:

I'm intrigued by a sign in the window of a Vietnamese restaurant in Shoreditch, ultra-hipster area of east London which also has lots of inexpensive, unpretentious (mainly) Vietnamese restaurants. I don't know any Vietnamese, I assume Can Tuyen (please forgive lack of diacritics) means "wanted" or "job available" or similar and that there are perfectly good words for waiter/waitress in Vietnamese, so why are these two words in English? It's a bit like another (Chinese) London restaurant sign that I mentioned in this post:

"No word for 'serve' in Chinese? " (3/1/15)

Cần Tuyển Waiter Và Waitress

"Need recruit/select [tuyển = MSM xuǎn 选] waiter and waitress" (Waiter and waitress needed).

At first I was thinking of titling this post "Gratuitous / ostentatious / flagrant / etc. code-switching in Vietnamese".  But then I recalled these posts on this phenomenon in Chinese and thought better of it:

And many other posts on code-switching in Chinese and other languages.

The following comments from colleagues in Vietnamese Studies also served to dissuade me from thinking that somehow there was an excess of English in Vietnamese:


Why not put the English in?  The orthography seamlessly permits it.

I'm reading a Vietnamese novel now where the (male) author used the English words "hair design" "shopping" "shampoo" and "credit card" all on one page.

I have no evidence that this is a trend, so please don't go out on a limb here.


I just think it's the global "chic-ness" of English. If you have a restaurant and you think you are hip, then you need a "waiter" or "waitress."

It's similar to when people say something like " Zhè shì yī ge fēicháng hǎo de idea 這是一個非常好的 idea" ("This is a very good idea") and you think to yourself, "Isn't there a perfectly good word for 'idea' in Chinese"??


Or you could just move to Manila, where unalloyed diglossia is the norm. There they practice true "bilingualism" or even "tri-" & "multi-" in the same sentence.

It seems to me that we are witnessing the gradual conquest of Babel (see here and here [search for "Babel"]).

[Thanks to Liam Kelley, Steve O'Harrow, and Bill Hannas]


  1. Victor Mair said,

    April 15, 2016 @ 5:53 am

    A colleague wrote in to suggest: "Please change the translation to 'waiters and waitresses'. Like Chinese, Vietnamese doesn't need to specify the plural."

  2. andyb said,

    April 15, 2016 @ 12:26 pm

    Does the fact that the English word "waiter" can be used to mean "waiters" in Vietnamese imply that this is something a bit stronger than code switching, that the word is at least partly borrowed into the Vietnamese lexicon (as with foreign words used with -s plurals in English)? Or is that normal for code switching?

  3. Bill Taylor said,

    April 15, 2016 @ 1:13 pm

    In addition to the "chic-ness" factor, the writer of the sign might be (consciously or unconsciously) reflecting the bilingualism of the restaurant staff and clientele, or encouraging bilingual people to apply.

  4. tangent said,

    April 15, 2016 @ 10:59 pm

    Like Bill Taylor, I read this as language proficiency signaling.

  5. Chas Belov said,

    April 16, 2016 @ 4:11 am

    @andyb I once overheard the Cantlish "closed-jó" (closed + completed action marker) to refer to a business that wasn't open at the time but didn't take that as meaning "close" was a borrowing for "saan." I took it as pure code switching. What I though was interesting was that they put both the "-ed" marker and the "-jó" marker on "close."

  6. Sean M said,

    April 16, 2016 @ 11:14 am

    A senior colleague reminded me that speakers of German are proud of Germanizing their Greek and Latin terms, so Classical Latin Realia becomes Hochdeutsch Realien, and Attic Herodotos becomes Hochdeutsch Herodot. I feel like showing off both one's command of the prestige dialect of German, and one's humanistische Bildung are important.

  7. Weltanschauung said,

    April 16, 2016 @ 12:08 pm

    I am intrigued by the comment about Manila, where they practice true bilingualism. What we see in the rest of the world is that each sentence can normally be assigned to a single matrix language, however many foreign words and phrases may be embedded in the matrix. The sign in this restaurant window is a Vietnamese sentence containing English words; the sentence in colleague's comment #2 is Chinese with English "idea" embedded. My favorite is a handwritten sign I anybody has seen an exception, please share it!

  8. Weltanschauung said,

    April 16, 2016 @ 12:18 pm

    Inadvertently submitted before I had managed to type my favorite example, a handwritten sign I saw on a bulletin board in Malawi:
    Meeting ya Herbalist Association of Malawi ili ku Learning Resource Center ku library.
    This is a Chichewa sentence with a bit of English embedded. As I was trying to say above, if anybody has seen an exceptional sentence that cannot be assigned to a single matrix language, please share it!

  9. andyb said,

    April 16, 2016 @ 3:04 pm

    @Weltanschauung: There's a place near me whose sign says "Panaderia Mexican and Coffee Shop". It's dead-simple, but I'm not sure how to analyze it.

    At first glance, it's just one Spanish word in an English phrase. Except the adjective "Mexican" comes after the noun "Panaderia", as it would in Spanish. Maybe it's still an English phrase, with "Panaderia" treated as a noun that's lexically marked to allow post-modifiers (so "Panaderia Mexican" is like "Attorney General")? Or, alternatively, is it a Spanish NP with an English adjective in it, inside an English conjunction?

    It seems like the fact that sequentially the entire phrase becomes English after "Panaderia", even though that has no relevance at the tree level, must be part of the reason for using "Mexican" instead of "Mexicano" (and for using "and" instead of "y"). But I'm not sure how to fit that intuition into anything you could actually state as a rule, or test.

  10. Weltansschauuung said,

    April 16, 2016 @ 3:53 pm

    Yo give usted muchas gracias.

  11. Sean M said,

    April 17, 2016 @ 2:37 am

    Weltanschauung: I would ask someone working on the late middle ages. When the people writing an inventory or letter speak three or four languages, hear several others with extensive loan words for military and material culture, and are trying to write in Latin about something which Cicero never heard of and which nobody talks about in a technical way in Latin, the mix of vocabulary, syntax, and morphology can be bewildering … Moffat's edition of the "Modus Armandi Milites" in Arms & Armour is a Latin matrix, but it might be a place to start.

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