Languages have limits. Like the linguist Guy Deutscher once wrote, “people find names for things they feel the need to talk about.” So, there’s no distinction in Vietnamese between a lemon and a lime—they’re both “chanh”—because only limes are native to the Southeast Asian country. And their distinctly different citrusy sting is considered the same here, even though lemons are usually much sourer than limes.
Languages are always on the move too. They compress and condense—think about “LOL,” first the phrase “laugh out loud,” then an acronym, now something people actually say —but we’ll avoid the debate over whether it’s pronounced “lawl” or “el-oh-el” here.
Languages also borrow and expand, Take all those French words that appear in Vietnamese, like the word for a station, “gare” in French, that is “ga” in Vietnamese. Or the word for movie: “film” in French, “phim” in Vietnamese.
Change in language is not the exception but the rule, and the best reply to a pedant is to tell them that the way they communicate is dynamic: meanings flip, spellings evolve. Here’s an obvious example—the English word “cool.” That four-letter word went from meaning cold to something composed. From the Old English noun “cōl” that was related to Dutch word “koel,” sometime in the 1930s, etymologists believe, the jazz artist Lester Young started the word off on its modern journey towards hipsterdom.
According to Cocotte everybody borrows
Some languages borrow so freely they’ve even dedicated alphabets to the phenomenon. Like Japanese. It has an entire 46-character alphabet (or more accurately a syllabary)—katakana—devoted to spelling out loanwords, called “gairaigo”. And even katakana itself has changed. The stylized characters are simplifications of the more complex Chinese kanji, and there even used to be 48. But in its modern incarnation, in katakana “television,” for example, is written “テレビ;” “nightclub,” “ナイトクラブ.”
But back to Vietnam, where one conversation staple (like the weather in England) is food. If you’re in Hanoi, or Ho Chi Minh City, or anywhere near or in between, you’ve probably asked or been asked if you’ve eaten at least once today already. It can feel disconcertingly intrusive at first, but everyone who isn’t local soon gets used to it.
With foods like chunky cha lua, and crunchy banh mi there’s an even more pressing need in Vietnam to describe the “dam da” (flavorful) sensations of taste and texture that are a major concern of residents of this easternmost country on the Indochina peninsula—like a soothingly “thanh” (smooth) soup of a bowl of pho ga, for example.
But which words—and so foods—did the French finesse into the local language during those years of French Indochina, when their language was the governing mode of communication for Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, between the mid-19th century and 1954?
Some loanwords in our lives
Some of the loanwords will seem (or at least, sound) obvious, like “salad” which has become “xa lach,” or “pain de mie” which seems very similar to “banh mi,” but it’s harder to join the dots between the pronunciation of others. Take “butter” for example, which in French is “beurre” derived from the Latin word “butyrum” and maybe before that the Greek word “bouturon.” Whatever the source, the blocks of salty spreadable churn became “bo” in Vietnamese. And, sticking with dairy products, there’s also “cheese,” which in French is “fromage,” and in Vietnamese became the vaguely similar sounding “pho mat.”
There are more obvious borrowings, like “ca phe,” from the French word for “coffee”—which, of course, is “cafe.” There’s also “ga to,” “ca rem,” and “bia,” which came from the French words “gateau,” “creme,” and “biere.”
But where did the name “pho” come from?
There’s one point at which the controversy begins. Even though pho has gone from being a northern regional specialty to an everyday any-time-of-day staple throughout the country (and that’s not including the four million plus Vietnamese diaspora, and millions of other foodies worldwide who have taken the dish to their hearts)…no one’s sure how it got its name.
Just like language itself, understanding the origins of food can be a complicated task—but it’s probably safe to say Vietnam’s national dish isn’t a purely indigenous product at all (although some might claim it belongs to Nam Dinh province).
Pho, in fact, may owe as much to the French and Chinese as it does to its local hosts. The broth is like a French consomme; the noodles typically southern Chinese. With that kind of mixed parentage, there’s a case that the word “pho” might come from the Chinese word “fan” meaning “rice.” But a more popular theory is that the name “pho” sounds like the French word for “feu” which means “fire,” a usage perhaps inspired the hearty French beef stew “pot-eau-feu”—a simple, soulful French dish that’s a lot like the countryside cuisine served at the Ho Chi Minh City restaurant Cocotte (136/11 Le Thanh Ton).
Anyway, it’s probably worth reminding ourselves that the French influence on Vietnam only began when the country overtook the Portuguese as the primary colonial force in the late 1700s when they helped unify the country under the Nguyen dynasty. If that hadn’t happened, we might be calling “cheese” a variation of “queijo” and “beer” something that sounds like “cerveja.”
And pho? That would probably sound something like the stew “cozida a Portuguesa” which coincidentally, just like pho in Vietnam, has local variations throughout Portugal.