Vexing Vietnamese #2: Food name origins and the pitfalls of grocery shopping

Names of things often tell a great deal about the origin of the item, or the paths through which it reached the homeland of the language spoken. Vietnamese is no exception, and the names of certain plants and animals in Vietnamese can reveal a lot about Vietnam’s historical position in trade networks.

In Vietnamese, items from Europe or the New World are often called “Western” or “Siamese”. The Western label is obvious – many of these products were brought in by western merchants or came with colonialism and were named accordingly (with tây, meaning west or western) . Because of this, potatoes are Western sweet potatoes (khoai tây), asparagus is western bamboo shoot (măng tây), etc. The Siamese appellation is a little more confusing and requires some historical background. Ayutthaya was a major trade centre in Southeast Asia, and many of these products came to Vietnam through Siam (now Thailand), leading them to be called Siamese. Examples include Siamese duck (vịt Xiêm, or Muscovy duck in English, which is equally confusing, as these ducks came from Mexico, not Moscow) and Siamese sugar apple (mãng cầu Xiêm, known as soursop, graviola, or guanabana in English, with origins in Central America). Some New World fruit, while widespread, retain their native names through loanwords, with Mexican sapodillas known as sapôchê (from French sapotier, which ultimately is derived from Nahuatl tzapotl; however, following the Siamese theme, it is also known as hồng Xiêm, or Siamese persimmon), and the South American lúcuma retains its name as lê-ki-ma (also known as quả trứng gà, or chicken egg fruit, due to the yolk-like consistency of the fruit’s interior).

Lúcuma to the uninitiated, courtesy of Wikipedia

Oddly enough, that perennially famous new world fruit, the pineapple, somehow manages to have at least THREE names in common use in Vietnamese, none of which indicate an obvious foreign origin (dứa in the North, thơm in the centre, and khóm in the South, although some southerners have told me khóm can refer to a particular cultivar). Fruit and vegetables, whether native or imported, seems to have confusing names in general in Vietnamese – a plum is called mận where I’m from in central Vietnam and đào in southern Vietnam, while a water rose apple is called đào where I’m from and mận in southern Vietnam (northerners call them mận and roi, respectively, and đào usually refers to a peach in the north). Cassava? Take your pick between sắn and khoai mì. Mint? To this day, I still am unsure what Southerners actually call mint; when I use the word from Central (and Northern) Vietnam, bạc hà, I end up with something quite unlike mint. All those fresh vegetables that accompany Vietnamese dishes? Good luck trying to replicate them in another region without knowing the local names. Even tofu gets a few names – in the North, it is referred to as đậu phụ (Sino-Vietnamese reading 豆腐); however, it is called khuôn đậu in Central Vietnam, and tàu hũ in Southern Vietnam (possibly from Cantonese influence due to the number of Cantonese immigrants in Saigon). Soy-derived products in general seem to fall all over the place. Dessert tofu? Tào phớ in the North, đậu hũ in the Centre, and tàu hũ in the South (although they are prepared slightly differently). Soy sauce? Choose between nước tương and xì dầu (the latter is based on the Cantonese reading of 豉油, which is incidentally is also used by Peruvian Spanish under the spelling sillao). Confused yet? I know I am – along with any Saigonese grocers unfortunate enough to deal with me. Language often is just simply weird.

Wait, what am I even buying?

Naming foods after their perceived place of origin not a phenomenon exclusive to Vietnamese. The orange is a great example of this. While some languages allude to the fruit’s Chinese origin (such as appelsien in Dutch or апельсин/apel’sin in Russian), others refer to oranges with names deriving from Portugal, presumably because the Portuguese were among the first to bring the fruit to several regions (portakal in Turkish or portocală in Romanian). Similarly, the innocuous turkey seems to have a bewildering range of names (and is native to the Americas, not Turkey), including dinde (d’Inde, from India) in French, hindi in Turkish, and perú in Portuguese (Vietnamese, incidentally, simply calls turkeys gà tây, meaning “western chicken”). Another well-known example is the names for tea around the world, which is generally derived from either cha (from Cantonese) or teh (from Hokkien), both of which are simply different readings of the character 茶. This reflects classical trade routes – most western European countries use some variation on teh (tea in English, thé in French, te in Spanish, Tee in German, etc.), with the notable exception of the ever enterprising Portuguese, who use chá. In Eastern Europe and the Middle East, names are generally derived from cha, such as Turkish çay or Russian чай (chay). Vietnam does not fit neatly on this divide due to extensive historical ties with China, and tea can be called chè or trà based on dialect and variety of tea (trà being the Sino-Vietnamese reading for 茶 and thus is another variation of the teh vs. cha theme, whereas chè appears to be native and gets its own Nôm character 𦷨); in my experience, Northerners tend to use chè to refer to both the plant and the drink, whereas people in the Centre and South tend to use chè for the plant and trà for the drink. That said, I have also heard trà used for the drink in the North, and I would also use chè to refer to a drink made from fresh tea leaves. However, my knowledge of tea is limited, so use my guidelines with caution when talking to a real Vietnamese tea connoisseur.

So next time you’re doing your groceries (also known as having your weekly dose of public interaction/anxiety attack during social distancing), pay attention to the names of what you’re buying – they might reveal a lot about how they ended up at your grocery store.

Vexing Vietnamese #1: What’s in a country’s name?

Country names is one of those lessons that invariably come up when learning a new language, as each language seems to have its own conventions on naming. Vietnamese is no different – official country names run the gamut from Sino-Vietnamese readings of Chinese country names to transliterations of Spanish and French. It’s amazing how much this reflects Vietnam’s history, from the strong influence of classical Chinese to French colonisation and alignment with the Eastern Bloc. The names adhere roughly to the following conventions:

  1. Sino-Vietnamese: Many countries are referred to by Sino-Vietnamese readings of their Chinese names, which themselves are frequently transliterations, meaning that they often bear little resemblance to their original versions. Many of these Vietnamese names are also shortened or modified versions of the Chinese original, adding further confusion. This grouping can mostly be found in the Indo-Pacific region, such as China (Trung Quốc), South Korea (Hàn Quốc), North Korea(Triều Tiên), Japan (Nhật Bản), Mongolia (Mông Cổ), India (Ấn Độ), Australia (Úc) or in/near Europe, such as the United Kingdom (Anh), France (Pháp), Germany (Đức), Spain (Tây Ban Nha), Portugal (Bồ Đào Nha), Netherlands (Hà Lan), Belgium (Bỉ), Switzerland (Thụy Sĩ), Sweden (Thụy Điển), Norway (Na Uy), Denmark (Đan Mạch), Finland (Phần Lan), Poland (Ba Lan), Italy (Ý), Greece (Hy Lạp), Egypt (Ai Cập), Turkey (Thồ Nhĩ Kỳ), and Russia (Nga). The United States (Mỹ/Hoa Kỳ) also fall into this category, along with South Africa (Nam Phi) and the Central African Republic (Cộng Hòa Trung Phi). Many other countries, such as the Philippines, New Zealand, Mexico, Ireland, Argentina, and Iceland used to be referred to using Sino-Vietnamese names but common usage has shifted to versions that match their native names more closely. Sino-Vietnamese names are distinct in that they are not hyphenated (Vietnamese orthography dictates that multi-syllabic western loanwords be hyphenated).
  2. French: Due to the legacy of French colonisation in Indochina, several countries’ names are simply Vietnamese transliterations of their French names. This group consists mostly of former French colonies, such as Algeria (An-giê-ri), Tunisia (Tuy-ni-di), Morocco (Ma-rốc), Lebanon (Li-băng), Syria (Xi-ri), Guinea (Ghi-nê), Benin (Bê-nanh), Cote d’Ivoire (Cốt-đi-voa), Mauritania (Mô-ri-ta-ni), and Gabon (Ga-bông), along with several countries (mostly located near the Mediterranean) that are not former French colonies such as Libya (Li-bi), Jordan (Gióoc-đa-ni), Albania (An-ba-ni), Bulgaria (Bun-ga-ri), Romania (Ru-ma-ni), Luxembourg (Lúc-xem-bua), and Cyprus (Síp). The French version of some countries’ names, such as Singapore, used to be more prevalent but has fallen out of use.
  3. Spanish: Countries in Latin America are usually referred to by their Spanish names. Examples that are most obviously Spanish include Mexico (Mê-hi-cô) and Argentina (Ác-hen-ti-na).
  4. Russian: Former Soviet republics are usually referred to using their Russian names. Examples that are most obviously Russian are Lithuania (Lít-va) and Georgia (Gru-di-a).
  5. Countries’ native names: Cambodia (Cam-pu-chia) and Laos (Lào) are both referred to by their native names (in Khmer and Lao, respectively)
  6. Mixed: Some countries mix Vietnamese words with foreign names, usually when the Vietnamese word refers to directions, geographical features, or conjunctions. Examples include Equatorial Guinea (Ghi-nê Xích Đạo), Trinidad and Tobago (Tri-ni-đát và Tô-ba-gô), Solomon Islands (Quần đảo Xô-lô-mông), and Timor-Leste (Đông Ti-mo).
  7. Indeterminate: The remaining countries are referred to using names that are similar to their English counterparts but may have origins from other languages that also use these names (e.g. when the French or Spanish name is largely indistinguishable from the English name).

For example, here is a map of Europe colour-coded by the most likely name etymology in Vietnamese (in several cases, such as Estonia and Latvia, where the name in Russian and English are similar, I made the judgement call of labelling it as Russian, as Lithuania is referred to as Lít-va, which is clearly based on the Russian Литва. Other cases for this are Armenia and Azerbaijan, where Georgia is also referred to as Gru-di-a, based on the Russian Грузия). Ireland and Iceland used to be referred to by Sino-Vietnamese names (Ái Nhĩ Lan/爱尔兰 and Băng Đảo/冰岛, respectively), but neither name is the most common usage at this point. Interestingly, both Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia had SIno-Vietnamese names (Nam Tư/南斯 and Tiệp Khắc/捷克, respectively).

European country name etymologies in Vietnamese

Here is the map for Asia. As in Europe, usage has changed over the years; for example, the Philippines used to be known as Phi Luật Tân/菲律宾, Myanmar as Miến Điện/缅甸, and Singapore as Xanh-ga-pua/Singapour. Cambodia may also occasionally be referred to as Cam-bốt/Cambodge, or, more rarely, using the pre-20th century name, Cao Miên/高棉. Thailand is an interesting case, as Vietnam uses Thái Lan/泰兰 instead of the name that China currently uses, which is 泰國/Thái Quốc.

Asian country name etymologies in Vietnamese

These maps were labelled to the best of my knowledge, so please let me know if I got anything wrong!