The unreal relation for cultural addressing


Vietnamese people address others based on age. Which pair of words to be used to mean ‘you’ and ‘I’ depends on the age difference between the speaker and the listener. The relation scale is used to measure this difference in age: grandchildren (cháu), nephew/niece (cháu), younger sibling (em), older brother (anh), older sister (chị), younger aunt (cô/gì), younger uncle (chú), older aunt/uncle (bác), grandmother (bà), grandfather (ông), great grandparents (cụ). Once the ages of both of them are assumed in the relation scale the speaker then addresses the listener by using the pronoun that would be used to speak with their relative of the listener’s age. At the same time the speaker uses the other pronoun in the pair for that relation to address themselves.

Let's say the speaker is of the nephew's age and the listener is around the age of the speaker's aunt/uncle. The speaker would address themselves as ‘cháu = nephew/niece’ and a female listener as ‘cô = aunt’ (if younger than their mother) or ‘bác = aunt’ (if older), a male listener as ‘chú = uncle’ (if younger than their father) or ‘bác = uncle’ (if older).

This way of addressing assumes a unreal relation by borrowing the pair of cultural pronouns that would be used between the two relatives in the relation. If the age difference turns out to be different from initial assumption, both the speaker and listener would agree to use a new pair of cultural pronouns to adjust to the real age difference.

Some Western speakers wonder if kiss or hug is to help provide friendliness in human interactions in Western culture, where would a similar friendliness be found in the Vietnamese society. The answer is 'unreal relation' which assumes in imagination that a society is like a very big family.

Correct translations translate all cultural pronouns addressing the listener and speaker in the conversation into ‘you’ and ‘I’, indicating clearly that the two are not related. Incorrect translations translate cultural pronouns literally to leave audience free to interpret whether or not people in the conversation are related.

As real-world example, a Vietnamese defendant said in a police interview that she didn’t know the stuff was illegal and she gave it to ‘các cháu đến chơi’ to mean 'visiting youngsters’ who were friends of her nephew and in no way were they related to her. The interpreter took the word 'cháu' to mean 'nephew' and translated 'các cháu' as ‘nephews’ which made the police believe that she knew of the illegal activity and only gave it to her relatives to kept the operation secret.

In both conversations and writing, parents often use the word ‘cháu’ to mean their own children. This is because there are 2 relations at the same time: the ‘offspring >< parent’ relation between them and their children, and the unreal ‘nephew/niece >< uncle/aunt’ relation between their children and the listeners. They use the unreal relation to show respect to the listeners because the relation between the listeners and their children was given the higher regard.

In a trial in the UK in 2009, a translation from Vietnamese into English was questioned in court because, according to the English text, the father transferred title of his land to his ‘nephew’(cháu), instead of his own children. The translator didn’t sense that the father used the word ‘cháu' to mean their own children, and not 'nephew' or 'niece'.

In reality, for cultural reason, there would be many handwritten letters, certificates, agreements, etc. in which parents use the word ‘cháu’ to mean their own children when they give money, houses, lands to their offsprings. A culturally-blind interpretation of ‘cháu’ as nephew or niece would be a disaster.