In general, a Vietnamese pronoun (Vietnamese: đại từ nhân xưng, lit. 'person-calling pronoun', or đại từ xưng hô) can serve as a noun phrase. In Vietnamese, a pronoun usually connotes a degree of family relationship or kinship. In polite speech, the aspect of kinship terminology is used when referring to oneself, the audience, or a third party. These terms might differ slightly in different regions. Many of them are derived from Chinese loanwords, but have acquired the additional grammatical function of being pronouns over the years.
Vietnamese terms of reference can reveal the social relationship between the speaker and the person being referred to, differences in age, and even the attitude of the speaker toward that person. Thus a speaker must carefully assess these factors to decide the appropriate term. It's not unusual for strangers to ask each other about age when they first meet, in order to establish the proper terms of address to use. If the speaker does not know the stranger there is a certain pronoun that they can address the speaker in order to sound respectful.
True pronouns are categorized into two classes depending on whether they can be preceded by the plural marker chúng or các. Like other Asian pronominal systems, Vietnamese pronouns indicate the social status between speakers and other persons in the discourse in addition to grammatical person and number.
The table below shows the first class of pronouns that can be preceded by pluralizer.
|First person||tôi (could be formal)||chúng tôi (excluding the addressed subject)|
|ta (neutral, non-formal)||chúng ta (including the addressed subject)|
|tao (superior to subordinate, familiar)||chúng tao (vulgar, excluding the addressed subject)|
|mình (intimate)||mình or chúng mình (intimate, including the addressed subject)|
|Second Person||mày or mi (superior to inferior, familiar)||bay, chúng mày, tụi mày, chúng bay (superior to subordinate, familiar)|
|Third Person||nó (superior to subordinate, familiar)||chúng nó|
The first person tôi is the only pronoun that can be used in polite speech. The first person ta is often used when talking to oneself as in a soliloquy, but also indicates a higher status of the speaker (such as that of a high official, etc.). The other superior-to-inferior forms in the first and second persons (tao, mày, mi, bay) are commonly used in familiar social contexts, such as among family members (e.g. older sister to younger sister, etc.); these forms are otherwise considered impolite. The third person form nó (used to refer to animals, children, and scorned adults, such as criminals) is considerably less arrogant than the second person forms tao, mày, mi, bay. The pronoun mình is used only in intimate relationships, such as between husband and wife.
The pronominal forms in the table above can be modified with chúng as in chúng mày, chúng nó. There is an exclusive/inclusive plural distinction in the first person: chúng tôi and chúng tao are exclusive (i.e., me and them but not you), chúng ta and chúng mình are inclusive (i.e., you and me). Some of the forms (ta, mình, bay) can be used to refer to a plural referent, resulting in pairs with overlapping reference (e.g., both ta and chúng ta mean "inclusive we").
The other class of pronouns are known as "absolute" pronouns (Thompson 1965). These cannot be modified with the pluralizer chúng. Many of these forms are literary and archaic, particularly in the first and second person.
|First person||min (familiar, literary)||choa (literary)|
|qua (male to female, literary)|
|thiếp (female to male, literary)|
|trẫm (sovereign to mandarins or subjects, archaic)|
|Second Person||mi (familiar, literary)||–|
|bậu (female to male, literary)|
|chàng (female to male, literary)|
|Third Person||y (familiar)||người ta|
|va (familiar, male)|
Unlike the first type of pronoun, these absolute third person forms (y, hắn, va) refer only to animate referents (typically people). The form y can be preceded by the pluralizer in southern dialects in which case it is more respectful than nó. The absolute pronoun người ta has a wider range of reference as "they, people in general, (generic) one, we, someone".
Kinship terms are the most popular ways to refer to oneself and others. Anyone can be referred to using kinship terms, not just people who are related. It is quite common, for example, for lovers to call one other anh ("big brother") and em ("little sibling"). (While this can sound incestuous in Western languages, it parallels the pet names in other East Asian languages, whose speakers are just as nonplussed by English's romantic use of "daddy" and "mama".) The Vietnamese kinship terms are quite complex. While there is some flexibility as to which kinship terms should be used for people not related to the speaker, there is often only one term to use for people related by blood or marriage, for up to three generations. Some of the kinship terms are:
|Term||Reciprocal||Literal meaning||Non-kinship usage||Note|
|cha||con||father||a priest||May sound too literary for contemporary use. Preferred in literary contexts (folkloric tales, myths, proverbs, etc.). Many other terms are preferred in actual use, depending on the dialect: ba, bố, tía, thầy. Archaic: bác, áng.|
|thầy||con||father||a male teacher||Only the "male teacher" sense is universal. The "father" sense is only dialectal in the north.|
|mẹ||con||mother||mẹ is the Northern form, má is used in the South. Many other terms are used, depending on the dialect: u, bầm, mạ, má. Archaic: nạ.|
|anh||em||older brother; parent's older sibling's son (male 1st cousin)||a non-elderly man; a man who's a little older, like one's own "big brother"; a man in a heterosexual relationship|
|chị||em||older sister; parent's older sibling's daughter (female 1st cousin)||a non-elderly woman; a woman who's a little older, like one's own "big sister"|
|em||anh or chị||younger sibling; parent's younger sibling's child (1st cousin)||a person who's a little younger, like one's own "little sibling"; a student; a woman in a heterosexual relationship|
|con||cha, mẹ, bà, etc.||biological child or grandchild||a much younger person, usually in southern use|
|cháu||ông, bà, bác, chú, etc.||grandchild; niece; nephew; cousin of junior generations||a much younger person, usually in northern use|
|ông||cháu or con||grandfather||an old man; formally, a middle-aged man||Paternal and maternal grandfathers are differentiated as ông nội (paternal grandfather) and ông ngoại (maternal grandfather), respectively. Nội (literally "inside") and ngoại (literally "outside", from the Chinese prefix for maternal relatives) are also used for short in the south.|
|bà||cháu or con||grandmother||an old woman; formally, a middle-aged woman||Paternal and maternal grandmothers are differentiated as bà nội (paternal grandmother) and bà ngoại (maternal grandmother), respectively Nội (literally "inside") and ngoại (literally "outside", from the Chinese prefix for maternal relatives) are also used for short in the south..|
|cô||cháu||father's sister||a female teacher; a woman who's a little younger than one's parent, like their "little sister"; a young adult woman||In some dialects, literal meaning is restricted to father's younger sister; dialectally also o. When paired with chú, always precedes it, as in cô chú.|
|chú||cháu||father's brother; dì's husband||a man who's a little younger than one's parent, like their "little brother"||in some dialects, literal meaning is restricted to father's younger brother|
|thím||cháu||chú's wife||informally, an effeminate man||dialectally also mợ or mự|
|bác||cháu||a parent's older sibling; his/her spouse||a person who's a little older than one's parents||in some dialects, can also refer to father's elder brother or sister as well as mother's elder brother or sister; like em, modified by trai (male) or gái (female)|
|dì||cháu||mother's sister; stepmother||in some dialects, literal meaning is restricted to mother's younger sister|
|cậu||cháu||mother's brother||in some dialects, literal meaning is restricted to mother's younger brother|
|mợ||cháu||cậu's wife||in some dialects, used by the husband to refer to his wife, children to refer to mother, or parents-in-law to refer to a daughter-in-law|
|dượng||cháu||the husband of cô or dì; stepfather||dialectally also trượng|
|cụ/cố||cháu||great-grandparent||a very old person|
|họ||either the paternal or maternal extended family||they||third person plural for a group of people|
Kinship terms are "inherited" from parents if it is unclear what to refer to someone. For example, two cousins whose mothers are sisters will call each other using the kinship terms appropriate for siblings: the one whose mother is younger will have a lower rank (em) than the one whose mother is older (chị, anh) regardless of their ages. Sometimes, old people assume the rank of their children in referring to others (for example, in the case of calling a slightly younger woman cô or a younger man chú) . Spouses have equal rank in each corresponding side. If two people are related to each other in more than one way (for example, by marriage), the rank of the closest relationship is used. This hierarchy may lead to situations in which an older person addresses a younger person using a term usually used for older people, such as ông trẻ (literally "young grandfather"). This phenomenon is highlighted in a Vietnamese proverb: Bé bằng củ khoai, cứ vai mà gọi (Small as a potato, but call by rank).
Singular kinship terms can be pluralized using the plural marker các, as in các anh. When speaking to an audience in a formal context, kinship terms are often strung together to cover common individual relationships: các anh chị em refers to an audience of roughly the same age, while các ông bà anh chị em, sometimes abbreviated ÔBACE, refers to an audience of all ages.
Non-kinship terms used as pronouns
In Vietnamese, virtually any noun used for a person can be used as a pronoun. These terms usually don't serve multiple roles like kinship terms (i.e. the term has only one grammatical person meaning). Words such as "doctor", "teacher", "owner", etc. can be used as a second-person personal pronoun when necessary. When referring to themselves, Vietnamese speakers, like speakers of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean languages, tend to deprecate their position while elevating the audience. While many of these terms are now obsolete, some remain in widespread usage. The most prominent of these words is tôi, literally meaning "servant". It is used as a fairly neutral term for "I" (not very friendly, nor very formal). Tớ, also meaning "servant", is also popular among young people to refer to themselves with close friends (used in conjunction with cậu for "lad").
Pronouns that elevate the audience still in use include quý khách (valued customer), quý vị (valued higher being). Bạn (friend) is also popular among young people to call each other.
Vietnamese speakers also refer to themselves and others by name where it would be strange if used in English, eliminating the need for personal pronouns altogether. For example, consider the following conversation:
- John: Mary đang làm gì vậy?
- Mary: Mary đang gọi Joe. John có biết Joe ở đâu không?
- John: Không, John không biết Joe ở đâu hết.
Directly translated into English, the conversation would run thus:
- John: What is Mary doing?
- Mary: Mary is calling Joe. Does John know where Joe is?
- John: No, John doesn't know where Joe is.
A normal translation of the conversation into English would be:
- John: What are you doing?
- Mary: I am calling Joe. Do you know where he is?
- John: No, I don't know where he is.
While always referring to oneself or the audience by name would be considered strange in English, in Vietnamese it is considered friendly and slightly respectful, especially between acquaintances of different sexes who are not very close (as to use even more familiar terms such as tao, mày), or between young girls. Referring to oneself by name is also the preferred way used by music artists, or even actors, models, etc. However, in a kinship context, people with a lower rank cannot address their superiors by name.
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Some pronouns are no longer commonly used, such as the royal we trẫm. Many of them are no longer applicable because they refer to royalties, and Vietnam is no longer a monarchy. Some archaic pronouns include:
- trẫm (朕) – used by the monarch to refer to him or herself, adopted like the Japanese chin from its use by the Chinese emperors following the example of Shi Huangdi
- khanh (卿) – used by the monarch to address a favored subject
- bệ hạ (陛下) – used by subjects when addressing the monarch; compare English "your majesty"
- thị (氏) – she
With the exception of tôi, pronouns typically go hand-in-hand with another: when one is used to refer to the speaker, the other must be used to refer to the audience.
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- The parenthetical information next to these pronoun forms indicates information about the social status between the speaker and another person (or persons). Thus, "inferior to superior" indicates that the speaker is in an inferior or lower social status with respect another person (such as the hearer) who is in a superior or higher social status. The label "familiar" indicates that the speaker and another person are in a closer relationship such as between family members or between close friends. The label "intimate" refers to a very close relationship such as that between spouses or lovers.
- Kinship terms are used instead in polite speech.
- Thompson (1965) marks va as literary.
- Compare Vietnamese người ta with the uses of French pronoun on, which is somewhat similar in function.
- Alves, Mark J. 1997. "Problems in the European Linguistic Analyses of Southeast Asian Languages". Explorations in Southeast Asian Studies. 
- Alves, Mark J. 2007. "Sino-Vietnamese Grammatical Borrowing: An Overview." in Grammatical Borrowing in Cross-Linguistic Perspective, 343-362. New York: Mouton de Gruyter, ed. Yaron Matras and Jeanette Sakel.
- Alves, Mark J. 2009. “Sino-Vietnamese Grammatical Vocabulary Sociolinguistic Conditions for Borrowing” in Journal of the Southeast Asian Linguistics Society, Volume 1, 1-9 PDF
- Ngo, Thanh. "Translation of Vietnamese Terms of Address and Reference". Translation Journal, 2006.