The real reason Asian languages are hard to learn
By Nury Vittachi
Oo-la-la! Was she indulging in some sort of suggestive wordplay? Yum in the sense of “delicious” would certainly have described her. But then I remembered something. In south (but not north) Vietnam, d is pronounced y. And other Vietnamese sounds also tended to be not what they seem. So a girl who spelt her name Dang could quite logically pronounce it Yum, and might not be trying to hint at how delectable she was. (If you are heading to Hanoi, ignore the above. There, Dang would be pronounced Zum.)
It seemed only fair that my name baffled her. In south (but not north) Vietnam, v is pronounced y. It was bizarre to her that Vittachi started with a v.
After years of sampling Asian languages, one thing has become extremely clear to me. People who set up romanization systems should be boiled alive in tom yum (not tong yam, as Thai menus often say).
The romanization in Hong Kong is particularly screwed up. The Kowloon suburb pronounced Wonggok is spelt Mongkok. In most places, romanizers merely get the sounds mixed up, but in this case, the idiots accidentally turned the initial letter upside down.
Last time I was in Korea (a society which used to be led by a man named Roh pronounced No), I got the last room in a fully booked hotel. “Is Korean-style room,” the hotel staff member told me. “Not bad.”
“I’m sure it will be fine,” I replied.
Only when I got to the room did I discover that “Not bad” was his articulation of the English words “No bed.”
An American friend was taught the Cantonese word for book, which is a semi-whistled “szhu” sound, but is spelt su. He put up his hand from the back of the class. “Is it Sue or Shoe or Zoo?” The teacher’s forehead wrinkled. She whistled: “It is not Sue or Shoe or Zoo. It is szhu.” The Cantonese word for book hovers somewhere in the middle of Sue and Shoe and Zoo. It took me years to get it right, after which I started Mandarin classes, where I spent years un-learning it. (The Mandarin word for book is pronounced Shoe.)
My worst ire is reserved for the evil monster from the third layer of hell who created pinyin, the romanization system cursed daily by untold millions of scholars of Mandarin all over the world. This year is its 50th anniversary. The letter q is pronounced ch, while c is ts, z is ds and zh is j. Worst of all, pinyin includes one of the most difficult Asian language sounds to pick up: The letter r represents a sound which is j and z spoken simultaneously. Why why why? Because whoever created pinyin hated us and wanted to ruin our lives.
If I ever meet the guy who invented it, I shall expect him to have a look of pure evil in his eyes and introduce himself with something like: “Hello. My name is Smith. Spelt J.O.N.E.S.”
Anyway, those were the thoughts that went through my mind in that Saigon bar as the scrumptious Dang/Yum lost interest in me and wandered off. “Yum,” I thought. And: “Dang.”