The relationship between language and culture is an integral part of a country’s traditions, identity and the unity of the people. To truly and deeply understand a community, one must be able to speak and appreciate its language.
There is a saying that goes “Even the strong storms aren't as scary as the Vietnamese language” (phong ba bão táp không bằng ngữ pháp Việt Nam). Its six tones and sounds that are tricky for a foreign tongue, make it exceptionally difficult for Westerners. What's more, an amalgam of influences — from Buddhist and Confucian beliefs to a modest and collective cultural disposition — means there are a lot of implicit meanings in what is said. Within this culture, many circumstances and experiences require a unique language for Vietnamese people to fully express their feelings. Thus, some words can’t be directly translated from Vietnamese to English.
Here are the seven words that represent the distinctiveness of Vietnamese culture and language.
Literally, thương, similar to love (yêu), indicates affection to someone, yet these two words are exceptionally different in terms of interpretations. Mixed between love and care, thương is a word that the Vietnamese often use to show a selfless, sacrificial kind of love or a subtle and humble affection towards others, rather than an intense and passionate emotion as “yêu”. While yêu is often reserved for couples in their first stage of romantic relationship, we use thương for our family and friends when there is an occasion to verbally express such feelings — which is usually rare because Vietnamese don’t often express affection verbally. Couples, particularly married ones, also use this word as they get to know more of each other. When we thương someone (romantically or not), we also are willing to take on the responsibilities that our relationship demands.
As mentioned, the majority of Vietnamese society functions based on the concepts of Buddhist and Confucian teaching. Duyên is one of the concepts based on the Buddhist teaching of predestined happenings. The word is often used to describe the romantic pairing of individuals. Many roughly compare the word to fate, and it may be true to some extent that everyone we meet is presented by forces beyond our control. However, duyên is slightly different from fate as the Vietnamese often relate the concept to past lives. Whether it’s có duyên với nhau (which means they are predestined for each other) or lỡ duyên (they are not meant for each other), many believe that duyên is tied up with your past lives.
Đa đoan is an adjective that is used to describe someone that has a lot of troubles and complicated stories. This person is always tangled in troubles, both in their personal and social lives. In addition, a đa đoan person is someone who is often faced with problems in their love life. What is unique about this word is that it doesn't just describe someone who is creating troubles for themselves. Instead, they just find themselves in these sorrowful situations.
Đắng lòng was a phenomenon born on the internet, so there are different ways to interpret it. Literally it has the same meaning as cay đắng, which describes something as a bitter pill to swallow. However, ever since it became trending and commonly used by Vietnamese youth, it has become a fun slang to express a mood or feeling about a certain story or event that we relate to a sense of boredom. Sometimes the event is not bitter at all, or even when it is, only to an acceptable extent.
Đượm is both a verb and an adjective. In a form of adjective, Đượm is equivalent to something being combustible/easily set on fire and burns for a long time.“Củi cháy rất đượm” means “this firewood catches fire very easily.” However, if used as a verb, Đượm means something pervades, soaks or lies very deep inside an entity. It is usually used to explain the solidarity of the Vietnamese community and one’s love for the homeland and country. It is already difficult to explain in Vietnamese due to the depth and breadth of this word, let alone translate into English. For instance “Cậu bé ấy có một đôi mắt đượm buồn” can be understood as “there is sadness hidden in his eyes,” but to say “bài hát này thấm đượm tình yêu quê hương đất nước” as “there is love for homeland in this song” doesn’t fully bring that whole indescribable feeling of penetrating patriotism when used in Vietnamese.
Lãng du is a very commonly-used Sino-Vietnamese word that can be heard in many songs that tell a story of a protagonist who wanders around with no purpose. You may ask why it is hard to translate, because in English there are synonyms like roam about and wander. But wander could imply that a person is walking around slowly in a relaxed way, while the nuances of lãng du contain a feeling of sorrow and loneliness. This usually occurs after a person has been through too many ups and downs in life, and has decided to carry on with no materialistic purpose.
Thần thái has become a popular, staple phrase for many young adults. Distantly related to the term vibe in Western countries, thần thái describes the attitude or the atmosphere someone brings into the situation. “Quan trọng là thần thái” (What matters is your attitude) was once a hot phrase among Vietnamese youth, and it was an inspiration to many cultural products including a pop song with the same name. However, while it’s quite similar to vibe, it doesn’t necessarily have the same substance — thần thái focuses on your confidence, charisma, and how you manage yourself without relying on your physical appearance.