Unintended meaning created by change in spelling, tones and by transliteration


The Vietnamese language has certain vowels similar in spelling, like A,ă,â or O,ơ,ô or U,ư. This allows word users to replace the vowel intended by the writer with their own one to create new meaning. For example: To (big), Tơ (silk cord), Tô (bowl)

Furthermore, a Vietnamese vowel could have up to 6 tones. Each tone is indicated by a diacritic written above or below the vowel. For example: ma ( ghost), mà (but), má (cheek/mother), mả (tomb/grave), mã (horse/appearance), mạ (rice seedling). Again word users can replace the tone intended by the writer with another tone of their choice to create a new word with a different meaning. The greater contrast the more amusement and satisfaction word players enjoy.

Business language catastrophe in Vietnam by native Vietnamese

The change in both vowel and tone can sometimes create the opposite meaning. This is exactly what happened to the first Vietnamese name of Indochina Airlines, a bankrupted airline in Vietnam. It was the first operational private airline in Vietnam. When it was licensed in May 2008 its name was “Tăng Tốc” (Speed Up).

The management probably wanted to emphasize the speed with air travelling as a compelling reason for buying flight tickets. The Airline began selling tickets on 12 November 2008 and launched its first commercial flight from Tan Son Nhat International Airport in Ho Chi Minh City to Noi Bai International Airport in Hanoi and Da Nang International Airport in Da Nang on 25 November 2008.

The company later faced difficulties in management and finance and at a time of trouble word players quickly came up with a deadly meaning for the airline: dead and grief, by changing both vowel and tone in the name to make it “Tang Tóc”. When the management realized this, they changed the airline name to Indochina Airlines. But it was probably too late as the public had already been struck with its horrible meaning and image at birth.

In a country where many people believe in feng shui and superstition such as lucky numbers, dates, times and so on, they were also quick to abandon the airline implicating dead and grief. After a series of troubles including unresolved debts and a drop in customers, Indochina Airlines ceased flying on November 25, 2009; its schedule was revoked two days later.

Transliteration has been used to create new Vietnamese words for foreign terms. Examples of Vietnamese words deriving from French include: bière (bia), cacao (ca cao), café (cà phê), carotte (cà rốt), gâteau (ga tô), salade (sa lát), jambon (giăm bông), moutarde (mù tạc), saussisse (xúc xích), vin (vang), chemise (sơ mi), veston (vét tông), blouse (bờ lu), manchette (măng sét), acide (axít), péniciline (pênixilin), vaccin (vắc-xin), vitamine (vitamin), guitare (ghi ta), mandoline (măng đô lin), violon (vi ô lông), béton (bê tông), balcon (ban công), clé (cờ lê), molette (mỏ lết), tournevis (tuốt nơ vít), canon (ca nông), culasse (quy lát), tank (tăng), savon (xà phòng), cresson (cải xoong).

When a new product, service or company enters Vietnam the native name would likely be transliterated into Vietnamese so it can be pronounced, especially for people not knowing foreign languages. If the transliterated term is made up of different individual words, proper linguistic analysis should be carried out to avoid the costly mistake made by Indochina Airlines, ironically by native Vietnamese speakers.