Solve This Mystery and Win a Free Dinner!

This question is directed at people who can speak Vietnamese: I’ve been thinking about this language mystery a lot and haven’t found a good answer for it. You guys might think that this mystery is such a nonsense but as a language lover I can’t help wondering about it. Here’s the question:

I think Vietnamese is a gender-biased language with the preference of the masculine over the feminine. Men usually get to be mentioned first:  ông bà, bố mẹ,  thầy cô, anh chị em, etc.

But: what about cô chú ? Why is “cô” in front of “chú” ? What makes “cô chú” special?

I’m perfectly aware that there is no right answer for this but there might be some convincing theories out there. Show me your answer/theory by leaving a comment on this page or sending an email to ht.onair AT gmail DOT com. The deadline is 30/09/2012. Solve this mystery and get a free dinner with me.  In fact, I will come to your city and invite you to dinner in a restaurant of your choice!

I look forward to receiving your answer. Here are some reasons why you should have dinner with me:

  • I’m pretty good at dialogues
  • I’m a good walking companion
  • Give me a chance to get to know you and your city
  • I’m good at keeping secrets
  • I will pay for your dinner!

Update (01.03.2012)Misou suggested this:

You forgot “vợ chồng”, which I think is more prominent than “cô chú”. :)

As far as your question goes, I think it has something to do with the tune/melody of the phrase rather than order of importance. Like many styles of poetry (e.g. “thơ lục bát”) that follow the “luật bằng trắc”, the rising and lowering tones dictate the order of words so frequently-used phrases can roll off the tongue more smoothly.

My answer:

Hi there,
Thank you very much for this answer. You are right, ‘vo chong’ is definitely more common.I am not totally convinced by the melody theory though. I thought about it too before starting this ‘contest’ but as I repeatedly read the words out loud I kind of felt that things could be the other way around too. For example: ong ba seems to be more melodious but let’s say what would have happened if we had chosen’ ba ong’ from the very beginning. People might get used to it and it would be somewhat melodious too, don’t you think?For me it is more of a ‘the chicken or the egg’ dilemma. You know what I mean? Anyway, thanks again for the answer! It made me very happy. I will let you know if there are new theories out there until August/September (deadline has been extended).


Updated 14.05.2013 – Đức suggested this. He replied on 30/09/2012 but somehow I haven’t been able to post it. I am really sorry for that.

I am not sure if I missed the deadline for this mystery challenge on your blog. I found this interesting since I did not even question that myself before. Speaking of which, I think it has something to do with Matriarchy in Vietnam dated back to the first century A.D. (or even before that). Back then, the women played the central roles in the society, not the men. This could be clearly seen during the time of “Hai Bà Trưng” and “Bà Triệu“. A lot of historians raised the same question asking that why those heroines were allowed to lead the army and fight against the invaders. That was (really most likely) because Vietnam was a matriarchal society. Nowadays, we still can find some traces of Matriarchy in our speaking language. Let’s say, “Cái” (means “Mẹ/Mother”) also means “chính yếu, quan trọng nhất, crucial, important, etc.” for example “đường cái” (main road), “nhà cái” (banker, in gambling), etc.

Only when the Han Dynasty invaded and conquered Vietnam, the whole system flipped. Women no longer had the main role in the society, instead, men took the place, following the way we say “cha mẹ, ông bà, thầy cô, etc.” “Cô chú, dì dượng, mẹ cha, etc.” still existed probably because it was just the way the people had been used for a really long time. It’s hard to change, I guess. Speaking of which, I also thought that during the invasion of the Han Dynasty, we probably didn’t use “cô chú, dì dượng” much so that they were left intact. Maybe, just maybe.

I am not total convinced with my answer yet but this is the closest I could get. I am looking forward to the discussion with you on this. This is a really interesting question. Thank you for that.


My answer: 

Hi there,

Thank you for answering that question. Your theory sounds pretty good. What we need now are some sources that show us that “during the invasion of the Han Dynasty, we probably didn’t use “cô chú, dì dượng” much.” I agree with you on the matriarchial aspect of Vietnam before the Chinese came.


2 thoughts on “Solve This Mystery and Win a Free Dinner!

  1. Hi Bunny0,

    first of all, let me apologize for my bad english. Hopefulle it is not on the way to my free dinner. I am starving, literally. Why on earth do we want to talk about a vietnamese subject in english? But I try my best!!

    Second, I want to put in some mustard to the comment and answer above. Honestly the melodic thing came to my mind at first, too. But there are too many reasons which support the discarding of this assumption.

    I was surprised to see that someone can write english so well and has the knowledge of the “trắc bằng”-law at the same time. But if you look closely enough, you’ll see that “cô chú” is the only thing which doesn’t fulfill this law. And to say that something gets melodious over a long time, just because the majority got used to it… well, I would say that this person doesn’t know this law at all. It has nothing to do with the previous comment, just another assumption. The other reason for the discarding of the melodic assumption is the language itself. Well, being a god’s child — like other things under the blue sky — languages are living things. It evolves over time. If something isn’t melodious at first, it will be melodious later. But only if the melodic premise is true. But you can see that the “cô chú”-phrase is the counter evidence. To show you one example of language evolution let’s take the phrase “cám ơn”. Each word itself doesn’t really have a meaning. But the entirety means “thank”. The less melodic of it is “cảm ân” and each word can stand alone — “*feeling* the *gracefulness*”.

    Now, let’s talk about the reason why we are here. Well, the existing order obviously was neither taken randomly nor based on melody or emotion. It is not **love** what we are talking about, right? Such ordered-phrases need laws, so, let’s find some laws. We already have *gender*, now there are *age*, *generation*, *power*, and *respect*. And last but not least the *cultural background*. Are you agree with me?

    Try to find the commen denominator of these laws. You can see they can be applied perfectly to “ông bà”, “bố mẹ”, “thầy cô”, “ace”, etc. But what’s these dubious “cô chú” and “vợ chồng”? Well, let’s talk about something else… first.

    First, you have to know of is the reign of the chineses over vietnam for more than thousand years. In these *painful* time we had to devour the chinese language and culture. But instead of being chinese totally we decided to adapt in order not to lose **ourselves**.

    The second thing is the language… again. The vietnamese language is not only the composition of chinese “hán-việt” and “nôm”. There are more languages it composes of, like laos, campudia and so on. I am not a languist but i read an article about the root of the vietnames language. To be honest i cannot remember the details but i try to explain the main points of this article, so, please bear this with me.

    The vietnamese specially and the asians generally really like to use twin-words, a subset of it are “từ láy”. Let’s take the phrase “thâm sâu”. It means *deep*, each as well as both. A composition of chinese and nôm. Let’s take another phrase “lạnh lùng”. Well, like the previous one each and both mean *cold*, a composition of nôm and… let’s say, laos. I really cannot remember because of the many countries.

    Let’s see at two counter groups of words and phrases (maybe as an explaination for ‘từ láy’): {tâm can, can đảm, cân…}, {tim gan, gan mật, gân…}. Clearly you have on one side “hán việt” and on the other “nôm”. But do you see the similarities? What you do not know is that the nôm-group is much older. You can verify that with some right researches. Some nôm-words were taken from china and underwent terrible language evolutions long long time ago.

    Where were we? Let’s go back… and enter an house. To be polite I have to greet everyone… but who first? Maybe the oldest generation would be a good choice. But still… who first. With mathematical probability the older, most powerful and respectful is the man. Ohh man… i heard of the rumor mathematic being god’s language. So… nothing wrong to trust that. “Cháu chào ông, cháu chào bà ạ!” And so on.

    But like the nature itself there are always things out of order. We talked about ‘not losing ourselves’, about the root of our language and about an existence of a culture background much older than the chinese reign. What if there is an exception for the current generation, the less respectable persons, where the old cultural-background-law is still applied. Isn’t cool to know the vietnamese girls were more respected than boys? Well, it is still true by some minorities. Do you know that ‘vợ’ means under and ‘chồng’ above?

    Well, a wasted day writing nonsense. Let me know whether I deserve a free dinner. I’m starving, really!!! 😥

    • Hi,
      Thank you so much for your explanation. I really appreciate it. I am also sorry for not replying sooner. I just came back from Africa and wanted to take a short break from all digital media. It was a good break.
      It was my intention to write in English even though it is, as you have astutely pointed out, a Vietnamese topic. I wanted to do it that way because in doing so everybody can understand what we are talking about.
      Now let’s get back to the topic. I can see some similarities between your comment and Đức’s comment (please see above). The only difference is probably that he explained it in a clearer way. Your ” existence of a culture background much older than the chinese reign ” is pretty much what he described as “matriarchy”. Wouldn’t you agree?
      I think it is fair to have you both as winners since the answers are very similar and I can live with both of your theories.
      I will email you to ask about your preferences in regards to our meeting. Thank you very much.

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