So I have been in
It's all in the way it sounds
First, the most essential aspect to the language is that it is tonal. Tonal means that the inflection that you give an individual word will change its meaning entirely. In Vietnamese there are 5 tones:
1) the up (rising) tone, indicated with a ³ mark over the vowel. It sounds like you are asking a question.
2) the down (falling) tone, indicated with a ` mark over the vowel. It sounds like a sigh.
3) the question (sqiggly) tone, indicated with a dotless ? over the vowel. It sounds like an "ah-hah" intoning in the letter (start low, rise to the top, fall back to the bottom).
4) the tripping tone, indicated with the ~ mark over the vowel. It sounds like your voice catches in the middle of the phrase, or "trips" over the letter
5) the short tone, indicated with a . beneath the vowel. This tone pulls the word up very short and sudden, almost a grunt.
Some books teach that there is a 6th tone, the no tone. This describes any word not having one of these accent marks, and is spoken flat, with no inflection. Actually, there is a bit of relaxed inflection to these words – it is only foreign words that are spoken with a jack-in-the-box robotic lack of inflection.
The tone itself can change the meaning of a simple word completely. Here is one popular example:
There is often no logical connection among the meanings of the words with different tones, and there isn't necessarily a different meaning or even a true word for every tone combination for any given word/syllable.
Yet, each syllable has one tone, and all words in Vietnamese written as mono-syllables, but an entire word may need two syllables to be complete. So all words are very short, but it may take two syllables (and two tones), separated by a space, to give a word proper meaning. For example:
ăn means to eat, and ăn sáng, ăn trưa, ăn tôi, accordingly mean to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner. But then it can get more confusing:
ăn anh: to be photogenic
ăn cắp: to steal
ăn chặn: to appropriate
ăn khớp: to fit together
ăn học: to study
nhà by itself means house, but when combined with other syllables, in additions to all the usual permutations and adjectival descriptions of a house/building (e.g., brick house, old house, unoccupied house and printing house, bank, restaurant, skyscraper), it can mean
nhà báo: journalist
nhà binh: military, army
nhà buôn: merchant, dealer
nhà chồng: in-laws
nhà chung: Catholic clergy, priest
nhà ngươi: thou, form of address to an inferior
nhà nước: state or government
nhà tôi: my spouse
There are a few annoying examples where the first word can have several different meanings, and the second word on its own means nothing. Each syllable may have its own meaning, or it may be a nonsensical syllable without a partner. For example, đồng means field, but when combined with hồ (meaning lake), it means clock or watch.
I am in the third person
One of the other extremely important cultural and linguistic aspects of the language is personal pronouns and forms of address. First, one helpful rule of thumb is to think of it as speaking in the third person all the time. There are multiple words for "I" – all depending on the social situation you are in at the time. There are a few more "neutral" options to express I or my, but much of the time several select words are used depending on your relative rank in any given situation. These also change depending on whether you are male or female.
This is a short list in order of increasing rank:
I used to refer to one's self when speaking to an old person. This is also second and third-person speak for child, so phrases might literally translate as, "Child wants [I want] to ask old person [you] a question," and "Child is [you are] welcome to ask old person [me] a question."
I used to refer to one's self around persons older in age than one's self, or to refer to those, either in second or third person, younger in age than yourself. Young men should not use this of young girls. Sometimes people use this to emphasize a lower rank, either of themselves or of the other person, regardless (but usually in general reference to) age. Third person pronoun adds the word em ấy to indicate he/she/him/her.
For young men referring to themselves or for second person pronoun for a young man; third person pronoun adds the word anh ấy to indicate he/him.
For women. Chi refers to oneself when around younger persons or for second person when a younger person is speaking to an older woman. Cô is more formal and is used for teachers or any polite encounters with authority (or for expressing respect to an older woman or woman of rank). Like anh, add the syllable ấy to indicate she/her.
Used for first/second person for a middle-aged/older man. ấy is added to indicate he/him.
Used for first/second person for a middle-aged/older woman. ấy is added to indicate she/her.
Refers to a person of very old age. ấy is added to indicate he/she/him/her.
I, my, myself, you all generally used between persons of the same age, closer friends, or more informal situations. There are some additional ones used between schoolchildren, etc.
One all-purpose, I'm-not-sure-what-the-rank-really-is, first-person pronoun. However, it's not commonly used…or at least people aren't generally as comfortable using it, and neither am I.
Also, people will just refer to themselves using their names. "What are you doing today?" "Erica will go to the market and then Erica will go home and clean her house." The Vietnamese do this a lot, but I'm about as comfortable doing this as I am using tôi. It just feels strange. Sometimes I do a bit better using my nickname, sếp, which means boss or chief and is what the staff seem most comfortable using around me. I think this developed out of 1) them not being confident pronouncing Erica in the beginning, and 2) a general shyness about using my name when I have a higher rank than them and 3) knowing that I would get confused if half of them called me bà, half chi, and half em. So, they stuck with calling me boss, which works for me.
Not using the right rank is generally considered very disrespectful – and respect is a cornerstone to culture here. I've also heard it used quite explicitly to remind a person of their relative rank. I've intentionally used a specific one or another a few times when I want to assure a person of what relative status should be – or to drive home that I am now speaking as the "boss" or as an older woman. And several times to tell a person that I respect their ideas as my elder. I still get laughed at for using them both correctly and incorrectly.
Well, that's only scratching the surface. And also a disclaimer – this is only my understanding as an extreme amateur at this language. I may have made grievous mistakes just in describing some things above, but I would like to give you a taste for how the language and the culture here are intertwined.