Zen and the Art of Speaking Vietnamese - Dấu Ngã header image

Zen and the Art of Speaking Vietnamese - Dấu Ngã

by The Tay Ho Times on 04/02/2020

In this instalment, we're going to talk about a very interesting sound in Northern Vietnamese, the dấu ngã.  It is one of the five "tones" in Vietnamese, but may actually be the easiest and most misunderstood as it is a sound that we use in English constantly, day to day, absolutely all of the time!  

That's because, orthographically, it is not really a tonal marker (granted, there is a little bit of an upward, questioning, Valley-girl lilt at the end, sort of like a dấu sắc).  What the dấu ngã actually is - mostly - is a glottal stop, which is a standard English phonetic sound. Here is a description from ThoughtCo:

In phonetics, a glottal stop is a stop sound made by rapidly closing the vocal cords. Arthur Hughes et al. describe the glottal stop as "a form of plosive in which the closure is made by bringing the vocal folds together, as when holding one's breath (the glottis is not a speech organ, but the space between the vocal folds)" ("English Accents and Dialects", 2013)

If that was too much jargon for you, then you can also think of the glottal stop as the sound you make when saying the word "little" or "bottle" and make the "-ttle" sound not with a hard T with the tongue on the front of the teeth, but with a little mini-cough from the throat.  Try it - feel it yet?  We use a glottal stop (i.e., close our vocal cords) every time we begin a cough, start a word with a vowel, as well as for many instances when a word ends with the letter "T" as in: cat, hat, suit, and boot.  Famously the apostrophe in Hawai'i is also a glottal stop. Try and think of a few more on your own!

If you're one of those people who grew up in a place where you pronounce all T's as hard T's with the tip of the tongue and an additional burst of air afterwards, then you may have to pretend to do a Brooklyn or Cockney accent, two accents which are known for their glottalization (vocabulary - nerd alert!) to pull it off.  For the rest of us, linguistically it's a little trick to save the effort of pushing the second burst of air.  Try saying this sentence out loud:

"A little cat put on his suit in his apartment and bought a light metal water bottle for his flight."

Counting only the Ts in the middles and ends of words, there are 11 potential interstitial or terminal glottal stops in that sentence depending on your accent (little, cat, put, suit, bought, light, metal, water, bottle, flight - and apartment even has two!).  Vowels at the beginnings of words are also initiated with a glottal stop, so counting those (a, on, in, and, a) then we've got a total of fifteen glottal stops. Egads!

Now that we are good and gratuitously agog with glottal gluttony (goodness gracious!) - let's give a few Vietnamese words a go:

Mỹ - United States.  Often said with a lovely little upward lilt, but missing that glottal stop.  Make sure you're making two syllables, "me" and "ee".  If it helps, think "me'ee".
Nước lã - if you're at a restaurant and just want a glass of water and not to pay 20k for a tiny Lavie bottle, here's the word for you!  Pronounced "nwook la'a" with the "nwook" having an upward lilt at the end, like a question.  "Nwook? La'a!"
Kim Mã - one of the busiest and most well-known streets in Hanoi, this street's name means "Golden Horse" - which is pretty cool in itself.  "Kim" is easy enough, but make sure "Ma-a" has two syllables!

Pablo Yang is a musician and educator based in Hanoi for over five years.  He has performed in nearly 20 countries and has worked extensively with UNIS, HIS, BVIS, and other international schools in Hanoi, speaks four languages and has recently begun to learn the button accordion.  His music lesson studio, The Secret Garden, teaches all ages and all skill levels from a convenient and sunny studio in Tay Ho.