Before the absolute hegemony of English, sailors, as the only frequent travellers, were primitive, grunting polyglots. Columbus, for example, was said to speak "a thousand languages badly." With Genoan as his mother tongue, he wrote in a Portuguese-inflected Spanish, sprinkled with Italian and Latin. Like other sea dogs, he was also conversant in lingua franca, at the time a combination of all the Romance languages, mixed with Arabic, Greek and Turkish. Using few pronouns, fewer prepositions and a pared down syntax, no past tense, barely a future, lingua franca was a negotiated, constantly evolving medium that allowed disparate peoples to communicate without screaming and gesticulating, to haggle, make love, or at least take turns on the dame de voyage after sharing a hunk of moldy cheese. Lingua franca's role was diminished when one culture asserted dominion over another. Unlike sailors, soldiers of an occupying army are rarely disposed to negotiate with the locals, in any language. They learn few foreign words, if any, but the quaint, sullen natives must understand, at the very least, "Stop!" and "Don't move!"
Nearly three milion U.S. soldiers served in Vietnam, but they stole no Vietnamese words. Why should they? "Tet" is included in many American dictionaries, but you never hear it in conversations. In 1988, Yusef Komunyakaa, a Vietnam War vet, published a poetry book, Dien Cai Dau. Literally, "Crazy the Head," it's an exclamation of exasperation, I'm driven insane, điên cái đầu! What's the Arabic equivalent, I wonder?
Stop! Don't move! Ti mi hazer venir pazzo! You're driving me nuts! Hanging out with the U.S.A., Vietnamese have absorbed a few English words. In 1998, I found myself in Can Tho, the chief city in the Mekong Delta. Sitting in a cafe near the large, goofy Ho Chi Minh statue, I saw a gaggle of swishy young men marching down the street. The way they swivelled their hips would make Little Richard proud. “Ladiman!” the man at the next table exclaimed.
I had never heard that word. “What’s a ladiman?”
“Gay. They’re gay. They’re ladiman!”
The common Vietnamese term for a male homosexual is either bê đê, from the French pédé, or bóng, a word meaning both “shadow” and “shiny.” There is also the slang hi-fi, stereo sexuality, I suppose, and a play on the term hai phái, dual genders. It took me a moment to figure out that ladiman is a corruption of the English expression “ladies’ man.” Reincarnated as a Vietnamese slang, its meaning has been inverted, from a heterosexual stud to a half-and-half, a lady/man.
Many English words adopted into Vietnamese are merely technical: radio, TV, video, computer, fax... Others, military: xe tăng [tank], bom [bomb], na pan [napalm], mìn [mine]...
Constantly on the lips of the young set is mô đen [modern], meaning “stylish” or “hip,” as in, “My sister is so mô đen, she only listens to róc [rock], rap and jazz. She only wears imported jean[s].”
One peculiar transplant is lô gích [logic]. The logic for incorporating a foreign word is to introduce a new object or idea. Why do Vietnamese import “logic,” when they already have lý luận? For cachet purposes, I suppose, the same reason why Italian restaurants in the U.S. are dubbed “ristorante.”
Unlike French, which has given Vietnamese ragu [ragout], bơ [beure], phô ma [fromage], sà lách [salade], phở [pot-au-feu], sô cô la [chocolat], bánh gatô [gateaux], bánh flan [flan], paté, paté chaud, and yaourt, almost no American food names have made it into Vietnamese. The handful of street stalls in Saigon advertising "hot dog" peddle a forlorn-looking Vienna sausage, served without mustard or ketchup.
Cocktail, often spelled cooktail, is a non-alcoholic mixed fruit drink. A cao bồi [cowboy] is a hoodlum. Mít tinh [meeting] means a street demonstration. Mátxa [massage] has illicit connotations which the traditional đấm bóp (literally: “punch and squeeze”) does not. Bê bi is just a baby, but má mi [mommy] is a madame in a whore house.
When someone is kicking back with a bia to enjoy a phim sếch, he’s nursing a cold one while rinsing his eyes with a sex video, which leads us to o li zin, from the English “origin.” Not a noun in Vietnamese but an adjective, this word means, curiously enough, “virginal.”
“Are you o li zin?”
“Yes, I am still a virgin.”
“Are you a ladiman?”
“No, I am a ladies’ man.”
Even “American” has been reshaped in the Vietnamese lexicon. In 1995, as I was walking on a Saigon street--literally, since there was no room on the sidewalk--a cyclo driver, pedaling alongside, hassled me relentlessly to ride in his cab. Despite my repeated refusals, he nagged on.
"Where are you from?" The guy asked.
It's my least favorite question. I didn't answer him.
"Where are you from?" He repeated.
Again I ignored him.
"You are a Nacirema," he decided, and pedaled away.
Nacirema is American spelled backward. He was right. I am a backward American.