Vietnamese names usually consist of 2 to 4 words, although some royal names may have up to 6 or 7 words. Example of Vietnamese names are: Trần Lâm, Bùi Văn Nam, Nguyễn Thị Tuyết, Nguyễn Thị Xuân Ngọc.
As a quick recap, Vietnamese words are separated by spaces so it's pretty straightforward to identify them. To learn more about Vietnamese words and its alphabet, consult this language lesson on how to write Vietnamese.
In this article, we'll explore the most important aspects of Vietnamese names that would enable you to understand Vietnamese names thoroughly in just a few minutes. In particular, we'll focus on the single aspect of most practical significance: given a Vietnamese (full) name, identifying the first name correctly so that we can address the person properly.
Calling a Vietnamese by their family name is like shouting "Mr Paul" among a crowd for your colleague "Paul Smith". He would not think someone is looking for him.
Vietnamese (full) names always start with family name, or clan name (in Vietnamese: họ) and ends with first name (in Vietnamese: tên). All other words, if any, between the first and the last word can, for simplicity, be considered as part of middle names (in Vietnamese: tên đệm or tên lót, meaning "cushion name")
Order of a Vietamese name[Family Name: first word] + [Middle Names: 0 or more words] + [First Name: last word]
For example, in the Vietnamese name Trần Lâm, the family name is the first word Trần and the first name is the last word Lâm; there is no middle name. With Nguyễn Thị Tuyết, the first name is Nguyễn, middle name is Thị and first name is Tuyết. For any practical purposes, the above rule would suffice and you would always get the family name and first name of the person correctly.
However, there is some intricacies with names having more than 3 words: with the most common case being 4-word names. For the name Nguyễn Thị Xuân Ngọc, using the above rule, you would say Nguyễn is first name, Thị Xuân is the middle name and Ngọc is the first name. This analysis is fine, as far as our purpose of addressing the person is concered: you would use Nguyễn when you need to use her family name (which in practice you would never need to use, except for filling forms) and the word Ngọc to address her in person or in emails or mails: Chào Ngọc or Dear Ngọc.
So far so good. The confusion starts to kick in when you hear someone call her: Xuân Ngọc! (This way of addressing does happen but in practice it happens less frequently than just calling Ngọc.) To understand why this is the case, we need to know that for Vietnamese 4-word names, the 3rd word can be considered as part of first name, leaving only the second word as the middle name. This explain why with the name Nguyễn Thị Xuân Ngọc, Xuân Ngọc can be viewed as the first name and you can therefore call her Xuân Ngọc if you wish.
Note, however, that calling a person using the last 2 words in a 4-word name is considered rather formal in most cases. As such, you would do absolutely fine just calling her Ngọc in all situations, informal or formal. But, and a big but, please never call her Xuân; and if you do so, she wouldn't know that you are calling her. Her first name is either Ngọc or Xuân Ngọc, and never Xuân.
In this section, we'll learn some of the most fundamental rules that would help us identify the gender of a person given their Vietnamese name.
First of all, given a Vietnamese name, you need to identify the first name and middle name correctly as they may contain information about the gender. The family name is usually of little help since all children, whether males or females, would share the same family name of their father.
If you give a name to a native Vietnamese, in 95% of the case, the person would be able to tell you whether the name is of a man or a woman. Just as in English, given the names "John" and "Elizabeth", there is no doubt that the first name is of a man while the second is of a woman. This may be due to the fact that a native speaker is so familiar and has got so much experience with names that it has become part of their second nature.
However, the set of all rules would be too many and for now, we would make use of the following 2 rules to identify gender based on middle name:
- If the middle name contains the word thị, it's 99% a female's name.
- If the middle name contains one of the following words, it's quite certain (~70%) that it's a male's name:
- Văn, Hữu, Đức, Đinh, Công, Quang, Mạnh, Trọng, Quí, Xuân, Ngọc
There are a few noticeable characteristics in the cultural aspect of Vietnamese names:
- A married woman keep her family name, in contrast to many Western societies.
- All children, however, would take the family name of their father.
- The middle names of male siblings are usually (but not always) all the same as their father's middle name. For example, if the father's name is Nguyễn Hữu Toàn, his children's names may all have the middle name Hữu (and the family name Nguyễn of course).
- Vietnamese name is composed of [Family name] + [Middle Name] + [First name] in that order. Always address your Vietnamese acquaintance/friend/colleague/partner using their first name.
- Middle names contain the word thị almos always imply female names. Middle names contain words such as Văn, Hữu, Đức, Đinh, Công usually indicate male names.
- In Vietnam, married women keep their maiden name. Male and female children all take their father's family name.
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