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Something fun about Vietnamese

Hi guys,

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.”

*** Analysis:

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).




‘kopi’ & ‘teh’

I am a fan of coffee at Toast@Work (a coffee shop in Singapore). The other day when I was ordering coffee at Toast@Work at YIH, I was intrigued by their menu in which words such as ‘kopi’, ‘teh’ were used instead of ‘coffee’ and ‘tea’, and how certain suffixes were added to these 2 stems (i.e. kopi & teh) to signal different combinations of ingredients.

In Singapore, apart from such global coffee chains as Starbucks and the Coffee Bean which have long-established names for different types of coffee (e.g. Dark Mocha, Latte, etc.) that are widely recognizable and rather unequivocal in terms of what ingredients these labels entail, there seems to be a local naming convention for coffee and tea which employs affixation to signal different varieties rather than coming up with a new label altogether for each variety.

Here are some of the examples I have observed at different coffee shops in Singapore that use the local naming convention (though I only have space for one picture here):

1. Kopi: hot coffee with condensed milk and sugar
2. Kopi-Kosong: hot coffee with condensed milk without sugar
3. Kopi-Peng / Ice Kopi / Iced Coffee: Kopi + Ice

3. Kopi-O: hot coffee with sugar
4. Kopi-O-Kosong: hot coffee without sugar

5. Kopi-Si: hot coffee with evaporated milk and sugar
6. Teh-Si: hot tea with evaporated milk and sugar
7. Teh: hot tea with condensed milk and sugar
8. Teh-O: hot tea with sugar
9. Teh-Peng / Ice Teh / Iced Tea: Teh + Ice

I asked the coffee makers at various shops what the terms meant, and most (if not all) of their responses concurred with one another in terms of what ingredients are involved in each kopi/teh name aforementioned. Thus, the 9 examples above reveal that suffixes such as ‘kosong’, ‘peng’, ‘si’, and ‘O’ are bound morphemes that have distinct meanings. Below is my attempt to define these suffixes based on data from (1) to (9):

1. ‘kosong’ = without sugar
2. ‘peng’ = with ice
3. ‘O’ = without milk
4. ‘si’ = with evaporated milk

Interestingly, the presence of ‘condensed milk’ and ‘sugar’ is already entailed in ‘kopi’ or ‘teh’ though there is no affix found on these stems to signify the presence of these 2 ingredients.

According to‘kopi’ is borrowed from Malay, and ‘teh’ from Hokkien, and the English equivalents of these 2 terms are ‘coffee’ and ‘tea’ respectively. However, the referents of ‘kopi’ and ‘teh’ are different from those of ‘coffee’ and ‘tea’, in that ‘coffee’ and ‘tea’ usually mean black coffee and (dark) tea, while ‘kopi’ and ‘teh’ already entail the presence of ‘condensed milk’ and ‘sugar’. What is even more intriguing is that when the English equivalents (i.e. ‘coffee’ and ‘tea’) of ‘kopi’ and ‘teh’ are used, these English equivalents are being re-lexicalized in such a way that their referents are what ‘kopi’ and ‘teh’ denote (coffee/tea which includes ‘condensed milk’ and ‘sugar’) rather than black coffee and (dark) tea. This may be a source of confusion to foreigners who use the labels ‘coffee’ and ‘tea’ in their canonical sense (i.e. black coffee and (dark) tea). I myself was confused during my first few months in Singapore.

For your information, ‘si’ is probably a variation of ‘C’ (as in kopi-C), and the ‘C’ is the initial letter of the English word Carnation, a proprietary name for a brand of evaporated milk first sold by American grocer E.A. Stuart in the late 19th or early 20th century and now manufactured by the Nestlé company. (source:; and ‘O’, my guess, may come from ‘only’?

For a more systematic nomenclature of ‘kopi’, please visit this site:

Hope you found this post interesting! 🙂

“Erection” in Progress!

Hi guys,

I saw this warning sign at a construction site a few days ago. The first thing that came to my mind was how hilarious it sounded to me. I suspected the amusing effect had something to do with the Chinese-to-English translation, and not being a native speaker of either languages, I looked up the Chinese as well as English words.

“施工中, 不准使用!” literally means “Construction in progress, use not allowed!”.

“erection” is defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (MWD) as:

1. a : the state marked by firm turgid form and erect position of a previously flaccid bodily part containing cavernous tissue when that tissue becomes dilated with blood

b : an occurrence of such a state in the penis or clitoris

2. the act or process of erecting something : construction

Apart from MWD which lists the meaning related to a physiological reaction prior to that related to construction, the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (LDOCE), the Macmillan Dictionary (MacD), and the Oxford Advanced Learners’ Dictionary (OALD) also list the word’s meanings in the same order with the exception of the Cambridge Dictionaries Online (CDO) which only lists one meaning of “erection” which is related to construction. It is interesting that the CDO excludes the other meaning altogether. Is it possible that the CDO tends to give definitions only to formal words since “erection” is a formal word used to denote ‘the construction of some large structure’.

I believe my own priming of this word is in line with the degree of prominence (i.e. the more prototypical interpretation) given to the word in most dictionaries. This explains the humorous effect since a word often primed to be associated with sexual excitement was used in the setting of a construction site. Also, part of the amusing effect can stem from the fact that the phrase “construction in progress” is primed to be used in such a context rather than “erection in progress”. Perhaps the translator of the sign was unaware of the domain-specificity of “erection” (i.e. used in either biology or construction), or (s)he just had a different priming of “erection” from mine. (S)he could have used the more common synonym “construction” instead of “erection” to avoid any mismatch between viewer’s own priming and writer’s priming, since the former has a more restricted meaning (i.e. denoting the building of a large structure).

I have 2 questions though. First question, would any of you have a different reaction from mine when seeing this warning sign, given that it was placed in the right setting (i.e. construction site) which is likely to prime the second interpretation as defined by MWD rather than the first? Strangely, I had the first interpretation even when I was supposed to be primed by the context to go for the second.

Second question (and just for fun), imagine how one would construe the “erection” if the sign was pasted on the door of someone’s dorm room instead. Would one be more likely to understand the word in terms of a bodily function then since the setting probably primes the first interpretation (as defined by MWD)?