Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Nam Nam Nam Nam - A Viet Namese Primer

The disembarkation card the pretty airhostess of Tiger Airways handed us over when the aircraft was preparing to land at Ho Chi Minh City Airport was bilingual. In such situations, for want of anything better to do, I do two things: the first is to look for typos; the other, to compare the English words and the corresponding words in the 'other' language, to find similarities between the two.

This time I was not lucky on either count. No typos, no similar words. They I decided I could try learning some Viet Namese words. 'Nam', I found, was Year - as in Date of birth (Date/Month/Year).


Soon, it was touchdown time. Presently, we were in the terminal building. After the immigration and customs formalitis which took an unduly long tme, as we waited for the carousel to bring our registed baggage, I thought I could go to the loo. Proceeding in the general direction, I saw two doors adjacent to each other bearing the words NU (with the picture of a woman) on one and NAM (with the picture of a man) on the other. Pretty obvious.


Then it struck me: the two words - the words for year and man in Viet Namese - are the same! I know there are a few words in most languages which have two or more meanings (Without them, life would be hard for the punsters!) but usually they would be used in only one very commonly understood sense. Like in Sanskrit, Raatri (or nisha, rajani or nisheetHini etc) means night, but all of them mean turmeric too. It must be tough, I thought.


But surprise was yet to come. A couple of days later, I accompanied my son Hari to the vegetable market in Buon Ma Thuot, the capital of Dak Lak Province in Central Highlands. (He causes a flutter wherever he goes in Viet Nam, as he stands a jaw-dropping six foot three inches tall in a land where the average adut male height is 5' 3". I often see that by the time the jaws are hoisted back to their normal position, they drop again when he opens his mouth: he likes to show off the more than usual proficiency he has acquired in Viet Namese language in less than nine months of stay here!) He asked for a kilogram of broccoli. The piece that the vendor picked weighed a kilo and a half. Hari said, 'Don't cut it, I'll take it, though it is 500 grams heavier.' I thought I heard the word 'nam' there. When I asked him, Hari told me, Nam means 'five'. And he added, 'Nam' can mean South, too.

I wondered: If someone wanted to say in Viet Namese that a man had lived in the South for five years, what would he say?

That was not the end. We were in an upmarket cafe in Da Lat that serves coffee in different forms - espresso, mocha, cappucino, cold coffee, chocolate coffee, cafe au lait, etc. I opted for coffee with milk and a lot of ice and Bhawani for hot coffee. Hari translated our choice for the benefit of the attendant: 'Ca phe sua da for him and ca phe nam for her.'

It is a testimony to the strength of my mind that I did not faint when I realised that 'Nam' also means hot!

7 comments:

Santanu Sinha Chaudhuri said...

Interesting, particularly the study of vertical movement of jaws. What does the Nam of Viet Nam mean?

A Stoic said...

How much longer do you have left to write.....? You might consider writing more tenaciously now; and not perfunctorily.
[Of course, you might have penned serious stuff earlier....]

A Stoic said...

I meant, take up writing more seriously; and not that what you wrote is not serious...
People who have things to say often leave without saying them, and humanity loses thereby.

wannabe said...

Santanu, Thanks. I need to find out.

A Stoic, the trouble is, I am not wannabealdoushuxley, I am wannabewodehouse! Only serious persons can take to serious writing. If I have written on any serious subject, that is an exception, ot the rule.

Ashok Menath said...

I am catching up after some break. Anyway, I have serious reservations about the insinuation that PGW was not serious. Every writing is serious.Isn't it?
Let us not be "Eyeless in Blogosphere" ( with due apologies to AH)

Ashok Menath said...

I am catching up after some break. Anyway, I have serious reservations about the insinuation that PGW was not serious. Every writing is serious.Isn't it?
Let us not be "Eyeless in Blogosphere" ( with due apologies to AH)

wannabe said...

Ashok, I agree. Wodehouse had a flippant style, but dealt with many serious topics of his time. As for me I do not know if my style is flippant, but I have hardly any serious thing to say!