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All in the Family

August 14, 2011

I met some friends last night for boba drinks, which gave us the opportunity to continue our debate on the use of kinship terms over pronouns in the Vietnamese language.

In the Vietnamese language, kinship terms such as anh (older brother), chi (older sister) or em (younger sibling) extend from the family and are used in everyday speech with non-family members. One way of establishing social ranking with non-family is asking the person with whom you are speaking for his or her age. This social convention of asking someone his or her age in order to establish status and, thus, knowing how to address the person with the appropriate term was problematic and the very issue at hand for one of the group members.

His question was, “Why not use a pronoun like we would use in English such as you or I?”

It is true that there are pronouns in Vietnamese, but they are hardly used in the language because they are very formal and are seldom used in polite speech; thus, the extension of the kinship terms.

There were arguments from both sides ranging from showing respect and tradition versus society changing, thus the language should adapt as well (i.e. the use of pronouns should replace the use of kinship terms in speech with non-family members).

One way I would like to analyze this ongoing debate is by introducing the topic of evolution; after all, language is always evolving. If we recall, in evolution, the traits that survive, or are passed on, are the ones that are best able to adapt to any change in the environment.

So, why haven’t Vietnamese people adopted the use of pronouns more frequently in everyday speech with non-family members? Evolution would tell us that this trait was not strong enough to adapt to the changing environment. Recall, the person advocating the replacement of kinship terms with pronouns argued that society is changing. While there may be others who share this same exact sentiment as my friend, not enough people are ready or rejected this proposed change, thus, it was not able to adapt.

Personally, I like the use of kinship terms, even when used with non-family members because I find them to be endearing.

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