Just wanna share with you something fun about Vietnamese, in particular the way Vietnamese text can be semantically ambiguous.
Vietnamese is a tone language, which employs diacritics to signify different tones as well as certain consonants and vowels. In order to understand how Vietnamese works phonologically and orthographically, think of the Pinyin system in Mandarin Chinese. They are quite analogous to each other. Diacritics constitute various a contrastive features in this language (i.e. phonemes & graphemes). In email or cell phone texting where a Vietnamese keyboard is unavailable, we have to spell words in a toneless manner and the burden of decoding is on the part of the message interpreter since toneless means lexical ambiguity. For example, the toneless “quan” can be interpreted as “quan” (官/official, government), “quán” (馆/store, shop), “quản” (管/administer), “quân” (army), “quần” (pants/trousers), “quận” (区/district), and the list goes on. I came across this humorous instance of non-tonal Vietnamese text which is semantically ambiguous due to lexical ambiguity.
In this post I am going to talk about …
Be warned, the following text includes adult content, you must be 18 years old and above to view it! 😛
(1) The toneless version:
“Anh oi! Ba ma em khong co nha, em dang coi quan, den ngay di anh, muon lam roi. Tien the mua bao moi nhe, o nha toan la bao cu… ma thoi khong can mua bao dau, em vua mat kinh roi, khong nhin duoc nua anh oi, den ngay di… muon lam roi
(2) What the writer originally meant:
“Anh ơi! Ba má em không có nhà, em đang coi quán, đến ngay đi anh, muộn lắm rồi. Tiện thể mua báo mới nhé, ở nhà toàn báo cũ… Mà thôi không cần mua báo đâu, em vừa mất kính rồi, không nhìn được nữa anh ơi, đến ngay đi… muộn lắm rồi”
–> A rough translation by me:
“Hey honey, my parents are not home, I’m looking after the shop, come now honey, it’s already very late. Oh by the way could you get the new newspaper, all the newspapers at home are so old…But that’s fine though, no need to get the newspapers, I’ve just lost my glasses, so I can’t see/read anyway, come now…it’s already very late”
(3) The interpretation that creates the humorous effect:
Anh ơi! Ba má em không có nhà, em đang cởi quần, đến ngay đi anh, muốn lắm rồi. Tiện thể mua bao mới nhé, ở nhà toàn bao cũ… Mà thôi không cần mua bao đâu, em vừa mắt kinh rồi, không nhịn được nữa anh ơi, đến ngay đi… muốn lắm rồi”
–> A rough translation by me:
“Hey honey, my parents are not home, I’m taking off my pants, come now honey, I want it so badly. Oh by the way could you get the new rubber, all the rubber at home are so old…but that’s fine though, no need to get them, I’ve just got my period, can’t help it anymore, come now…I want it so bad already.”
In order to interpret the toneless message, it is likely that the reader usually (if not always) has to invoke an interpretive frame (e.g. assume a subject matter to serve as background knowledge for the whole message), contextual knowledge (e.g. the situation in which the message is interpreted, or world knowledge) and linguistic knowledge (e.g. collocation, colligation, semantic prosody, etc.) to reconstruct a coherent message. Although a toneless word can belong to different word classes depending on which diacritic(s) is being applied by the interpreter, more often than not the surrounding text narrows it down to only one possible word class for each word, since interpreters usually (if not always) have to read in collocation rather than isolated words to make sense of any sentence. For example:
+ ‘coi quan’ gives 2 possibilities which has one pattern [V + N]: coi quán (look after the shop) OR cởi quần (V + N; take off the pants). Although ‘coi quần’ (V + N; look after/look at the pants), this is not a collocation in Vietnamese, and thus ruling out such a semantically ill-informed combination.
+ ‘muon lam roi’ gives 2 possibilities in 2 possible patterns: [V + Adv + pragmatic particle] (muộn lắm rồi – already very late) OR [Adj + Adv + pragmatic particle] (muốn lắm rồi – want so badly)
The comical effect that we get from (3), I believe, is underlain by the frame being invoked. In (3), a frame of ‘sexual encounter’ has to be first invoked by the message interpreter in order for him to slot possible diacritics into the message to form lexical items in the same semantic field (e.g. taking off pants, help, rubber, period, want) that cohere with one another. The same concept applies in (2), though I’m not so sure which frame is being invoked since (2) seems incoherent to me, unless the girl and the guy in the story already talked about getting some new newspapers sometime before. The phrase ‘looking after the shop’ is rather unrelated to ‘getting new newspapers’, ‘glasses’ and ‘read’, although ‘newspapers’, ‘glasses’ and ‘read’ are probably in the same semantic field.
I believe that (3) is the preferred reading since it is more coherent than (2). Yet, an interpretation of (2) is possible if the reader is inexperienced with the subject matter in (3).