Thursday, July 22, 2004

Word for today: Ừ

One of the things I like about the Vietnamese language is the letter "ư". How do you describe the sound of this strange little creature? Ok, it looks like a standard "u", although the little hook gives it an alien appearance.

Well, the standard dumbed-down approach (ala Lonely Planet) approach would be to describe as "sounding like the letters" [insert letters here] in the word [insert word here]". My personal opinion (as that's after a year learning Vietnamese) is that this tactic sucks. Most languages do not sound like English, nor should anyone pretend they are. Trying to pretend to the earnest learner that they do: well, that's misleading advertising. Come clean at the start, and admit that each language has it's own inventory of weird and wonderful sounds. In fact, it makes it more fun.

So how can one describe it? One tactic I used is to find the equivalent in the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet). The "ư" sound is the back unrounded vowel /ɯ/. And what does that tell you? The sound is like the the back rounded /u/ sound, but (here's the point) don't round your lips. The fortunate thing is that /u/ is in English, so it is safe to make a comparison here - for example, it's like the "oo" in "soon". And now you know how to pronounce it: do a "oo" but keep you lips flat. The IPA approach may not be to everyone's taste, but it did help me with most of the pronounciation difficulties in Vietnamese.

"But how does the ư really sound?", you may be asking. "Am I doing it right?" Well, I describe it as a combination of a grunt in the back of the throat and the resonant effect from blowing into an empty wine bottle.

Since "Ừ" is the subject of this post (and it really is), I'll describe what it means: 'yes". Or more appropriately "yeah". As in "yeah, yeah, yeah, I hear you, yeah..."