Two-fifths of the people in Vietnam have the surname Nguyen. Why?

« previous post | next post »

In "Why 40% of Vietnamese People Have the Same Last Name", Atlas Obscura (3/28/17), republished in Pocket, Dan Nosowitz tells us:

In the U.S., an immigrant country, last names are hugely important. They can indicate where you’re from, right down to the village; the profession of a relative deep in your past; how long it’s been since your ancestors emigrated; your religion; your social status.

Nguyen doesn’t indicate much more than that you are Vietnamese. Someone with the last name Nguyen is going to have basically no luck tracing their heritage back beyond a generation or two, will not be able to use search engines to find out much of anything about themselves.

This difference illustrates something very weird about last names: they’re a surprisingly recent creation in most of the world, and there remain many places where they just aren’t very important. Vietnam is one of those.

The existence of last names in Vietnam dates to 111 BC, the beginning of a lengthy thousand-year occupation of the country by the Han Dynasty in China. (There were a few short-lived attempts at independence before the Vietnamese kicked the Chinese out in 939 AD.) Before this time, nobody really knows how the Vietnamese handled names, due to lack of written records. In fact even the name “Vietnam” comes from the Chinese; “viet” is the Vietnamese version of the word the Chinese used to describe the people southeast of Yunnan Province.

That last sentence is not quite right:

The name Việt Nam (Vietnamese pronunciation: [viə̀t naːm]) is a variation of Nam Việt (Chinese: 南越; pinyin: Nányuè; literally "Southern Việt"), a name that can be traced back to the Triệu dynasty of the 2nd century BC. The word Việt originated as a shortened form of Bách Việt (Chinese: 百越; pinyin: Bǎiyuè), the name of a group of people then living in southern China and Vietnam.[12] The form "Vietnam" (越南) is first recorded in the 16th-century oracular poem Sấm Trạng Trình. The name has also been found on 12 steles carved in the 16th and 17th centuries, including one at Bao Lam Pagoda in Hải Phòng that dates to 1558. In 1802, Nguyễn Phúc Ánh (who later became Emperor Gia Long) established the Nguyễn dynasty. In the second year of his rule, he asked the Jiaqing Emperor of the Qing dynasty to confer on him the title 'King of Nam Viet/Nanyue' (南越 in Chinese) after seizing power in Annam. The Emperor refused since the name was related to Zhao Tuo's Nanyue, which included the regions of Guangxi and Guangdong in southern China. The Qing Emperor, therefore, decided to call the area "Viet Nam" instead. Between 1804 and 1813, the name Vietnam was used officially by Emperor Gia Long. It was revived in the early 20th century in Phan Bội Châu's History of the Loss of Vietnam, and later by the Vietnamese Nationalist Party (VNQDĐ). The country was usually called Annam until 1945, when both the imperial government in Huế and the Việt Minh government in Hanoi adopted Việt Nam.


So where, how, and when did the Vietnamese first get their surnames at all?

The Chinese have had family names for thousands of years, sometimes indicating occupation, social status, or membership of a minority group. Well before the time of China’s occupation of Vietnam, the Chinese had a sophisticated system of family names for a pretty basic reason: taxes. “Under the Chinese colonial rulership, the Chinese typically will designate a family name to keep tax records,” says Stephen O’Harrow, the chairman of Indo-Pacific Languages and head of the Vietnamese department the University of Hawai`i at Mānoa. “They used a limited number of family names for the people under their jurisdiction.”

Basically, the Chinese (and later the Romans and Normans) conquered all these places with all these people, and they needed some way to keep track of them so they could be taxed. But most of these places didn’t have family names, which made them a real pain to monitor. How can you be sure that you’re taxing the right Dũng, when there are a dozen of them in the same village and they’re referred to as “Uncle Dũng” and “Brother Dũng”?

So the Chinese just started handing out last names to people. They assigned these surnames pretty much randomly, but the original pool of last names largely came from Chinese last names, or Vietnamese derivations of them. Nguyen, for example, came from the Chinese Ruan. “My guess is, senior Chinese administrators used their own personal names to designate people under their own aegis,” says O’Harrow. This kind of thing happened a lot; the tendency of the imperialist to just bestow his name on the people he conquered can be seen everywhere from the Philippines (which has tons of Spanish last names) to the U.S. (where black Americans often have the names of the owners of slave ancestors) to the Indian state of Goa (Portuguese).

Oh right, let’s take a minute to discuss the pronunciation of Nguyen. If you search, you’ll find dozens of extremely confident declarations about the correct way to say the name. These are not wrong, necessarily, but a central problem is that, well, there isn’t really one correct way to say Nguyen. Vietnam has a few different dialects, with the biggest division between them being geographical, namely north-south. Southern Vietnamese tend to clip some of their sounds, so Nguyen would be pronounced something like “Win” or “Wen.” Northern Vietnamese would keep it, giving a pronunciation more like “N’Win” or “Nuh’Win,” all done as best you can in one syllable.

This has all been further complicated by the Vietnamese diaspora. In the interest of easier assimilation, Western given names are pretty popular—you may know a Katie Nguyen or a Charles Nguyen—but Nguyen, with a spelling that would immediately confuse Westerners, remains difficult. That “Ng” beginning is not a sound that Westerners are use to as an opener to a word. So there is a tendency to kind of let pronunciation slide, creating a whole new range of acceptable ways to say Nguyen. (After all, if someone named Katie Nguyen says it’s fine for you to pronounce it “NEW-yen,” who are we to argue?) But the key is that pronunciation of Nguyen varies pretty widely.

Two-pronged challenge to Language Log readers:

    1. How many different ways have you heard people (Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese speakers alike) pronounce "Nguyen / Nguyễn / Nguyên / 阮 [Chữ Hán]"?
    2. How many different ways have you yourself pronounced the Vietnamese surname "Nguyen / Nguyễn / Nguyên / 阮 [Chữ Hán]"?

I suspect that, for a name like "Nguyen", most people will not even have a "standard" idiolectal pronunciation, but will render it in numerous idiodialectal ways.

Nguyễn is derived from a Chinese surname. Nguyễn is the Vietnamese transliteration of the Chinese surname (), which is often transliterated as Ruan in Mandarin, Yuen in Cantonese, Gnieuh /ɲɥø˩˧/ in Wu Chinese, or Nguang in Hokchew.

Many events in Vietnamese history have contributed to the name’s prominence. In 1232, after usurping the Lý Dynasty, Trần Thủ Độ forced the descendants of the Lý to change their surname to Nguyễn. When Hồ Quý Ly overturned the Trần Dynasty, he killed many of their descendants so when the Hồ Dynasty collapsed in 1407, many of his descendants changed their surname to Nguyễn in fear of retribution.[citation needed] In 1592, on the collapse of the Mạc Dynasty, their descendants changed their surname to Nguyễn. When the Nguyễn Dynasty (the descendants of the Nguyễn Lords) took power in 1802, some of the descendants of the Trịnh Lords fearing retribution changed their surname to Nguyễn, while others fled north into China. The Nguyễn Dynasty awarded many people the surname Nguyễn during their rule, and many criminals also changed their surname to Nguyễn to avoid prosecution. As with other common surnames, people having this surname are not necessarily related.

In Vietnamese custom as with other East Asian cultures, the surname precedes the given names. Like many surnames in Vietnam and other Chinese-influenced cultures, the name Nguyễn is shared with those in the Chinese culture written with the same Chinese character. The Chinese character for Nguyễn is .


The variant pronunciation of surnames is a fascinating, widespread phenomenon.

The distinguished Penn Sinologist, Derk Bodde, would introduce himself as "Derek Bod", which never ceased to amaze and amuse me; in Chinese I've seen it written as bódé 博德 and bǔdé 卜德.  I've heard other people pronounce his surname as "Body", "Bode", and so forth.  So many different pronunciations for such a short, seemingly transparent surname!

I know people in the same family who pronounce their surname differently, e.g., "Naquin" and "Boucher" à la française ou à l'anglaise.

I've heard people pronounce my surname at least a dozen different ways, and guess what?  I have never, not even once, "corrected" them.  However, if they ask me how I pronounce my surname, I will tell them, and in terms of its historical origins, I myself am "wrong".

Returning to Atlas Obscura:

Back to taxes and bureaucrats. None of that explains why Nguyen is such a popular family name in Vietnam. After all, there were tons of those mid-level bureaucrats handing out family names. Why did this one become so popular?

Indeed, why so?  Most of us have encountered other Vietnamese surnames:

Tran 11%

Le 10%

Pham 7%

Huynh / Hoang 5%

Phan 5%

Vu / Vo 4%

Dang 2%

Bui 2%

Do 1%

Ho 1%

Ngo 1%

Duong 1%

Ly 1%

Other 9%

Nosowitz continues:

Though last names in Vietnam are, thanks to that early period under Chinese control, much older than they are in most parts of the world, the Vietnamese never seemed to much care about them. They just never became a fundamental way that Vietnamese people referred to each other or thought about themselves.

“Vietnamese has no pronouns, like he or she or you or they,” says O’Harrow. Instead, the usual way to refer to somebody else is with something O’Harrow calls a “fictive kinship term.” Essentially, you refer to someone by their given name, and add some kind of family-based modifier which indicates the relationship between the speaker and listener. If you’re talking to our good friend Dũng, and he’s about the same age as you, you might call him Anh Dũng, meaning “Brother Dung.” To indicate age or gender differences or respect, you might substitute something like “aunt,” “grandmother,” or “child” in for “Anh.”

Now we come to the crunch:

…[E]ver since [the Chinese came], Vietnamese people have tended to take on the last name of whoever was in power at the time. It was seen as a way to show loyalty, a notion which required the relatively frequent changing of names with the succession of rulers. After all, you wouldn’t want to be sporting the last name of the previous emperor.

“This tradition of showing loyalty to a leader by taking the family name is probably the origin of why there are so many Nguyens in Vietnam,” says O’Harrow. Guess what the last ruling family in Vietnam was? Yep, the Nguyễn Dynasty, which ruled from 1802 to 1945. It’s likely that there were plenty of people with the last name Nguyen before then, as there were never all that many last names in Vietnam to begin with, but that percentage surely shot up during the dynasty’s reign.

Something similar happened with "Park" and "Kim" in Korea.  It's noteworthy that the names Nguyen, Park, and Kim all come from objects, respectively "plucked string instrument", "gourd", and "gold".  This stands in stark contrast to the most popular surnames in IE languages — Smith, Miller, Johnson, Jónsdóttir — which tend to be occupational and relational.  I believe that this tells us something profound about the way our societies are organized.

One-fifth of the people in South Korea have the surname Kim.

A bit less than one-tenth of the people in China are surnamed Wang ("king").

Less than one-hundredth of Americans have the surname Smith, the most popular surname in the United States.

Compare all of these with Vietnam, where four out of every ten persons has the surname Nguyen.

One thing I've noticed as I travel around the countryside in China is that many place names are of this sort:  "hamlet /  village / crossroads / etc. [of people from the] family [having the surname] Zhang / Liu / Shi / etc.", e.g., Zhāngjiākǒu 張家口.  Surnames are of importance for many reasons.  One is for bureaucrats to keep track of people.  Another is for people to keep track of themselves.



[h.t. John Rohsenow]


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    January 18, 2020 @ 1:41 pm

    My wife is a native Vietnamese speaker, and at least one branch of her immediate family has the family name Nguyẽn; her own family name is Âu Dương and her mother's family name Lý. However, I first encountered the name Nguyẽn (possibly with different diacritics) before I met her, as the name of a Vietnamese shop in Rotherhithe (South-East London). Initially I thought it virtually impossible to pronounce, but once I had met her and her family, the problem just disappeared. Whether she would agree that I pronounce it "correctly" (for some arbitrary definition of "correctly") is moot, but in terms of what I hear when her family use the name, I think I get close. Basically I treat the initial "n" as a sort of glide which leads into /ˈgwi ən/ but which is barely pronounced (but to omit it altogether would feel completely wrong). None of "Win", "Wen", "N'Win" or "Nuh'Win" seem to me anything like anything I have ever heard in Vietnam. I'm not even convinced that it is truly monosyllabic; to my ear there are two syllables, with no pause separating them (but then perhaps I don't really know what constitutes a syllable).

  2. Andreas Johansson said,

    January 18, 2020 @ 2:45 pm

    What would the Chinese original have sounded like in Western Han times?

    I'm not sure I've ever actually heard anyone saying Nguyen out aloud. In my mind it sounds like [ŋu'jɛn], which is apparently far off the mark.

  3. David Morris said,

    January 18, 2020 @ 3:24 pm

    I recently read about a Ms Nguyen whose three (successive) marriages were to Mr Nguyen, Mr Nguyen and Mr Nguyen. A Nguyen-Nguyen situation, obviously.


    January 18, 2020 @ 4:33 pm

    I found this discussion very interesting and (not surprisingly) inconclusive, as I suspect it will be for some time to come. But I just noted Philip Taylor's mention of his wife's family name as "Âu Dương." This is, in fact, the very ancient and honorable (noble?) Chinese family name 歐陽, usually spelled (in Mandarin/Ping-in) as Ōuyáng. It is one of a handful of double-barreled Chinese surnames, the most famous of which is probably 司馬, as in Sima Qian, the Grand Historian. What I find interesting about it is that the famous Song scholar, Ouyang Xiu 歐陽修, said about his own family name that it had an origin in the name of a prince of the state of Yue 越) in the Spring and Autumn period. And that from the name of this ancient state eventually came the name of VIet Nam. What goes around, comes around, eh?

  5. Victor Mair said,

    January 18, 2020 @ 5:08 pm

    @Andreas Johansson:

    Middle Sinitic (c. 600 AD): /ŋʉɐnX/

    Old Sinitic (c. 600 BC) (Zhengzhang): /*ŋonʔ/

    So Western Han would be roughly midway between those two.

  6. cliff arroyo said,

    January 18, 2020 @ 5:45 pm

    More like ['ŋwi(j)ɛn] (as close as I can make it…. and in the south the final consonant might be [ŋ] (not sure) /an/ is [aŋ] in the south but not sure about iê (phonemically /i(j)a/)

  7. Neil Dolinger said,

    January 18, 2020 @ 7:32 pm

    The very few times I have asked a Vietnamese person named Nguyẽn to help me pronounce their name, I heard something similar to what Cliff Arroyo presented, though to my ears it sounded closer to ['ŋwɪ ɂɛn], with the glottal stop very lightly articulated.

  8. Andrew Usher said,

    January 18, 2020 @ 8:07 pm

    And, apparenly, none of the pronunciations of Nguyen really match the spelling, which suggests /ŋujɛn/. Anyway it seems always to be 'win' in America, by everyone, as appalling as that might be to contemplate. I prefer to protest by at least uttering the initial velar nasal, nearly silent as it might be.

    k_over_hbarc at

  9. Martha said,

    January 18, 2020 @ 8:53 pm

    I've had students (I teach English to adults) with the name Nguyen pronounce it something like ngwin. At my second job, I recently had an American customer (at least, a customer with an American accent) tell me her last name was "win." I was about to start spelling it "Huynh" until she spelled it out (Nguyen).

  10. Daniel said,

    January 18, 2020 @ 9:00 pm

    Of course what makes Nguyen most tricky to pronounce is the use of "y" as a vowel and "u" as a glide. If it were spelled Ngwien, there would be less confusion.

  11. Q said,

    January 18, 2020 @ 9:36 pm

    A good friend of mine of Vietnamese heritage pronounces her name NEW-yen, but she was raised in an extremely American WASP community and views her pronunciation as "incorrect." Another friend had a teacher in her high school in NYC named Mr Nguyen who told them to pronounce it like Nugent. She says that he seemed to be a native Vietnamese speaker.

  12. Krogerfoot said,

    January 18, 2020 @ 9:59 pm

    On an American true-crime show in the nineties I remember the host pronouncing a Mr. Nguyen's name as "Nu-jen" throughout the entire episode.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    January 18, 2020 @ 11:11 pm

    From Gene Hill:

    I found this Language Log particularly interesting. The effect of bureaucrats had its effects in naming my father's mother. She was a Choctaw but had not always been. She was purchased as a babe in arms, her mother being bought as a wife slave about 1869 from some plains tribe. In 1894 the Bureau of Indian Affairs, in their bureaucratic wisdom, decided that the five civilized tribes needed to have Proper Last Names in order to ease the bureau's record keeping of these non citizens who owned their own land and were not held on Reservations. My Grandmother chose the name Lowrance, because he was a respected trader out of New Orleans and she was assured by her Mother that he was her father.

    Before this event Choctaws had used their Clan names to ID their groups. But this was confusing to the Bureau because it followed a matriarchal lineage. And man and wife belonged to different clans.
    First names were earned acts or experience and often changed or had additions made.

    And among most tribes all older men were addressed as Uncle and all younger men as nephew. I might note that among the white folks the title of Uncle was one of respect. My mother's father-in-law was known far and wide as Uncle Frank.

    Perhaps in future we will all be implanted with chips and our entire life's record will be available at a swipe so that some bureaucrat can know what to do with us.

  14. Mark S. said,

    January 19, 2020 @ 1:17 am

    By way of comparison, 11 percent of people in Taiwan have the most common family name here: Chen (Hoklo: Tân). But Chen is in fifth place in China, where the most common family name is Wang (7 percent).

  15. cliff arroyo said,

    January 19, 2020 @ 2:30 am

    "to my ears it sounded closer to ['ŋwɪ ɂɛn], with the glottal stop very lightly articulated."

    The glottal stop is part of the tone.

  16. Andreas Johansson said,

    January 19, 2020 @ 2:42 am

    @Victor Mair:


  17. Fluxor said,

    January 19, 2020 @ 4:01 am

    "Vietnamese has no pronouns, like he or she or you or they,"

    Surely, this can't be true?!

  18. Philip Taylor said,

    January 19, 2020 @ 4:41 am

    I would not say that Vietnamese has no pronouns, but to the best of my belief, pronouns are rarely used in normal speech. One generally refers to oneself by name, and to others by courtesy titles such as anh, chị, em, ông, cô and bác which indicate the relationship between the person about whom or to whom one is speaking and oneself.

  19. cliff arroyo said,

    January 19, 2020 @ 5:00 am

    ""Vietnamese has no pronouns – Surely, this can't be true?!"

    Yes and no. It does have words that only refer to speech act participants (toi, ta, tao, may, mi) but apart from toi they're not used that much. Apart from toi (and maybe the plurals chung toi , chung ta) they tend toward being perceived as rude. My teacher strongly advised against ever using may (though another teacher said young people use it).

    Often conversations are carried out entirely as if in the third person with 'pronouns' referring to specific people rather than participants in a conversation.

    Some words are ambiguous and there's a lot of switching that goes on as well in ways that I don't think have been sufficiently studied.

  20. Peter Grubtal said,

    January 19, 2020 @ 5:54 am

    …pronouns rarely used…

    That sounds like Japanese. Someone (japanese) once wrote a book (in Japanese), and after it had been in distribution some while asked whether anyone had noticed anything strange about it. Nobody had – then he told them :
    there's not a single pronoun used in the book.

  21. Julian said,

    January 19, 2020 @ 5:51 pm

    At my son's graduation there was a professional name caller. This lady was very conscientious in pronouncing all the non-anglo names 'authentically' – that is, the way they would be said in the student's country of origin or ancestry. A curiosity of this is that for say the Greek names, the way she said the name was rather different from how the students themselves, who are the second generation Australian born, would say it.

  22. Scott P. said,

    January 19, 2020 @ 8:48 pm

    Anyway it seems always to be 'win' in America, by everyone, as appalling as that might be to contemplate.

    Why appalling? Growing up in a very white community with some Vietnamese immigrants, "New-yen" seemed to be the most common. However, the rise of professional poker on TV led to the prominence of poker player Scotty Nguyen, and his name is invariably pronounced "win". I presume that is a big part of the reason for the shift.

  23. chris said,

    January 19, 2020 @ 11:13 pm

    I knew a Huynh in school and was never really sure whether it was actually the same name as Nguyen with different schools of thought on how to write it in Latin letters, or a different name but I as a non-Viet speaker just couldn't hear the difference.

    This article seems to consider them separate, so do they sound different to someone more familiar with them?

    ISTR on a few occasions she made puns involving the English word "win", but of course that wouldn't require it being *truly* indistinguishable from her name, just similar enough to be funny.

  24. John Swindle said,

    January 20, 2020 @ 3:12 am

    @chris: Yes. Another non-Viet speaker here. (Xin lỗi Giáo Sư!) Vietnamese uses a version of the Latin alphabet, so Vietnamese names that come West are little changed in spelling. Huỳnh and Nguyễn are different names, corresponding to different Chinese family names, and sound different from one another in Vietnamese. You can hear this by copying them into Google Translate or another multilingual text-to-speech machine. Notice that the tones are different too.

  25. Joyce Melton said,

    January 20, 2020 @ 3:33 am

    I speak Vetnamese, though I am not fluent. When people ask me how to say Nguyen, I tell them, "say Gwen' with a bit of a midwestern drawl and a tiny hum at the beginning. Or just say Gwen, it's close enough for a Westerner.

    I knew a family who used the last name MacNguyen, which is actually easier for Americans to say. I asked them why they used such a combination and they said that since Nguyen was so common in Vietnam, they had used Nguyen Mac as their family name so when they came to America, they just turned it around.

    They had a sense of humor, too. When picking first names they chose things like Douglas, Andrew, Patrick, Bruce, Colleen, Deirdre and Moira.

  26. cliff arroyo said,

    January 20, 2020 @ 5:25 am

    One quick note on Vietnamese orthography that might help some.
    Y represents a sonority peak [i] and not a glide.

  27. Leo said,

    January 20, 2020 @ 9:35 am

    In my mind I used to pronounce it ['njuən] until I looked up the true pronunciation not long ago.

    I don't recall ever saying or hearing Nguyen said out loud; it's not very common in the UK.

  28. Leo said,

    January 20, 2020 @ 9:45 am

    By ['njuən] I basically mean Ewen with an n at the start.

  29. Martha said,

    January 20, 2020 @ 11:01 am

    Julian – At my college graduation, they gave everyone a card on which they had to write how to pronounce their name. Not their name, but how to pronounce it, so that Brittany Nguyen would write "brit-nee win" or something, for example.

  30. Andrew Usher said,

    January 20, 2020 @ 10:19 pm

    There might be regional variation within the US here, because while I've never heard anything but 'win' (including from possessors of the name), others disagree. Is there any consensus as to what the 'best' anglicisation would be?

    I called it 'appalling' because it seems to reflect nothing but laziness, not even an attempt at following the spelling.

  31. David Holm said,

    January 21, 2020 @ 1:45 am

    The process by which the Vietnamese came to have their Chinese-style surnames is likely to have been similar to the appearance of Chinese-style surnames among other non-sinitic peoples in the far south. Among the people now known as the Zhuang, this seems to have started as early in the Han dynasty. Whether this ever involved local officials assigning surnames to local people is a moot point. The pattern of surname distribution suggests however that chiefly clans acquired surnames first, which were then adopted by common people within their domains. The result of this was that there were large tracts of territory populated by Huangs, or Qins, or Nongs, and so on. But this meant that Huangs had to marry Huangs, since there was no-one else around. With the intensification of Chinese rule in recent centuries, rotating officials from elsewhere in the Chinese empire looked on this situation as evidence of widespread and endemic incest, since Chinese marriage rules prohibited marriage between people with the same surname. Of course, to the local people surnames had nothing to do with incest avoidance.
    I have discussed the dynamics of this situation in some detail in Killing a Buffalo for the Ancestors pp. 199-203, section on ‘Siblings and Surnames’. The preceding section pp. 192-199 on ‘Incest’ is also relevant.
    I suggest that Vietnamese surnames, like those of Tai-speakers in the south of China (Zhuang, Bouyei, Maonam, Mulam, Kam, Sui etc.) may well have developed from political loyalties to chiefly clans within pre-modern domains. This is cross-culturally a reasonably common pattern: a not dissimilar pattern is found in the Highlands of Scotland.
    One of the things that happened after the Chinese armies occupied the Red River valley was attempts to establish Chinese-style marriage and other customs among the native population. The Hou Han shu details one case in which 2000 people were forcibly married at the behest of the local magistrate, Ren Yan (on which see Jennifer Holmgren, Chinese colonisation of Northern Vietnam, pp. 5-6).

  32. maidhc said,

    January 21, 2020 @ 9:05 pm

    One of the problems with the system Martha described (where every student writes their name phonetically on a card) is that every single student will use their own idiosyncratic phonetic system, all different from each other. Given that the reader has at most two seconds to absorb the information on the card and say the name, it is much easier to ignore what the student wrote and go from the standard spelling of their name.

  33. Andrew Usher said,

    January 21, 2020 @ 10:34 pm

    Yes. Unless the reader can practise in advance there's no good solution. Even if everyone knew IPA.

  34. Philip Taylor said,

    January 22, 2020 @ 5:25 am

    I have reported this before, but it may be worth mentioning again here — when I taught a multi-national class in Paris some two decades or so ago, I asked everyone to tell me their name. One member of the class did not do so, so I went over to her and quietly repeated my request, to which she very politely responded "one minute, please : I need to write it down for you". She then transcribed her Hungarian name into IPA, after which I was able both to hear it and to pronounce it correctly; the latter would have been virtually possible given only the standard Hungarian orthography.

  35. Leo said,

    January 22, 2020 @ 11:53 am

    The power of spelling to interfere with pronunciation of foreign languages is remarkable. I've heard language teachers in the UK lament the difficulty of coaxing pupils into changing how they read aloud from text.

    It's not that [ʒa'bit] is any harder for an English-speaker to say than [dʒei ha'bit] – it's just that j'habite has a j and an h, and surely if they are in the spelling they must be spoken.

  36. Medieval Guy said,

    January 22, 2020 @ 5:22 pm

    I manage an apartment building with a large African Muslim population, and it's amazing how many different spellings of Mohamed I've accumulated over the years (no doubt in part due to the language of their country of origin and/or the country through which they passed on their way to the US). E.g., Maxamad threw me until I heard it pronounced (the same as the other Mohamed variations).

  37. V said,

    January 22, 2020 @ 8:38 pm

    I know a Bulgarian-Vietnamese "Pham" and another who likes to be known as just the be known as "The Lady" (the Bulgarian equivalent of).

  38. John V said,

    January 23, 2020 @ 11:23 pm

    The musician Thao Nguyen pronounces her name "win" — at least, that's how it sounds to me. You can hear her at (about 0:58 in).

  39. Philip Taylor said,

    January 24, 2020 @ 5:27 am

    I too hear /wɪn/ when she introduces herself, but I also hear two other things. 1) She is speaking in a marked American accent, not a Vietnamese accent; 2) She is speaking English, not Vietnamese. When my wife gives her name in English, she gives it as /liː kæn oʊ dɒŋ/; when she gives it in Vietnamese (at the Embassy, for example), it is closer to /aʊ jeəŋ leɪ kʰæn/. There is no doubt to my mind that many people from the Far East "tone down" their names for what they believe is the benefit of we ignorant westerners; my wife, for example, chooses to be known just as "Le" (/liː/) in a business environment , simply because she is convinced that most westerners will be unable to pronounce "Khanh". Indeed, when we first met, she insisted that Vietnamese was not a tonal language, even though I was certain from her conversation with a fellow Vietnamese on that occasion that it clearly was …

RSS feed for comments on this post