What's That Pho? In Remembrance of Loan Words Past

baguetteParlez-vous Francais? French ‘loan words’ in Vietnam hark back to old colonial days

by Danielo [Le] Bloom- [icelli]
(Also published in the New York Times travel section)

Pho is a French word? Who knew?

One of the most popular dishes from Vietnam to make it to restaurant tables around the world, from New York to London, is pho. There’s pho bo and pho ga and pho tai and more.

And while the jury’s still out, it is widely believed by linguists and word sleuths that the word ”pho” is not a Vietnamese word, but in fact comes from the French term “pot au feu” (pronounced ”poh oh fuh”). The word was likely introduced to Vietnam by French colonialists more than 100 years ago, according to longtime Vietnam resident Didier Corlou, a top French chef in Hanoi. Corlou told a food seminar in Hanoi in 2003 that ”pho” most likely was a transliteration of the French term for hot pot.

The list of French “loans words” still used in Vietnam today is gaining recognition as young Vietnamese become more curious about their nation’s past, 23-year-old Abby Nguyen of Ho Chi Minh City told me in a recent email.

Before the Americans got involved in a long and protacted war in Vietnam in the 1960s and 70s, the French had been heavily involved in the country for over 300 years, she said. From 1853 to 1954, France ran Vietnam as an overseas colony. As a result, Vietnam’s French colonial past has left an indelible mark on the country’s language.

The Vietnamese word for cheese, for example, ‘pho mat”, comes from the French word ”fromage” — say it out loud slowly — and cake is called “ga to”, from the French word “gateau.”

The word for butter — “bo” — comes from the French word “buerre.”

During a recent research expedition via keyboard and Internet, this
reporter came across over 25 “loan words” from French still used in Vietnam today, in addition to pho mat and ga to and bo.

To understand all this, it helps to know a little French, but even if you never studied French in high school or college and you don’t know bonjour from bonsoir, ”amusez-vous bien”. That means: ”Enjoy!”

Liver pate is called “pa” in Vietnam today. Pate chaud, according to Californian foodie Andrea Nguyen of the Viet World Kitchen blog, is called “pa so.”

There’s more, according to sources in Vietnam and overseas.

“Ba” — father in Vietnamese — comes from the French word “papa,” many linguists believe.

“Va li” comes from the the French word for suitcase — ”valise”.

“Bia” comes from the French word for beer, “biere.”

A doll is called a “bup-be” in Vietnam, from the French word “poupee” for puppet.

What to call the necktie on that senior civil servant giving a press
conference on Hanoi television? It’s a “ca vat” — from the French word “cravate.”

“Doc to” comes from the French word “docteur”, which is not far from the English word doctor.

“Phac to” comes from “facteur,” the French word for mailman.

“Phim” means “movie” and comes from the French word “film”.

A “pha” is a headlight on a car or motorscooter, from the French word “phare”.

Motorscooters and motorcycles are themselves are called “moto” — from the French term “motorcyclette”.

If you make a mistake in France, it is called a “faute.” In Vietnam today, people often say “phot” for mistake.

“Bit-tet” is from the French term “biftek” — beefsteak, or just plain steak.

Coffee is called “ca phe,” from the French word “cafe”.

Wine is called “vang” (le vin).

Soap is called “xa bong” (savon).

A circus is called “xiec” (from the French word “cirque”).

Ben Zimmer, a noted U.S.-based word maven who writes the weekly “On Language” column for the New York Times, pointed this reporter to the work of Milton Barber, whose 1963 paper, “The Phonological Adaptation of French Loan Words in Vietnamese,” was eye-opening, to say the least.

MaryJo Pham, a senior at Tufts University in Boston who was born in Vietnam and came to the U.S. as a young girl, said she has been informally collecting French loan words used in Vietnam over the years.

“Piscine is still in use for ‘swimming pool,'” she said in an email. “And cyclo, or ‘xich lo’ in Vietnamese, is what we call a bicycle-drawn rickshaw.

Yogurt– ‘yaourt’ in French — is called ‘da ua’ in Vietnamese. Ice cream is called ‘ca rem’ from the French word ‘creme.’

A clothes zipper is called a “phec mo tua” in Vietnamese, from the
French word “fermeture,” Pham said. A woman’s bra is called “su chien” from ther French word “soutien,” she added.

“You can see how some French loan words influenced the actual transliteration of words — for motorscooters, women’s bras, coffee, frozen yogurt, baguette sandwiches — things that were and are indispensable to daily life in Vietnam,” Pham said. “‘Bo’ for butter, from the French ‘buerre’, is still definitely in use in Vietnam. And ‘phim’ for movies, film, cinema, yes.”

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