Introduction to Vietnamese Pronouns

As we have learned before in the Grammar lessons, Vietnamese sentence structure is similar to that of English.

However, one of the challenges that may hinder you from making rapid progress with your Vietnamese is...pronouns. Their usage is not different from English, just that there are many different Vietnamese words for each English pronoun (I, You, etc.). And the various words are not always interchangeable.

The grammatical reasons for different Vietnamese words for the same word, say I, are, firstly, to express the difference in age, which is culturally a "big deal"; and secondly, to experess the 2 genders.

And a further complication is that in different regions (North, Middle, South) local words are used extensively for pronouns (which is not true for most other Vietnamese words).

But there is nothing to be afraid, because after finishing this lesson, you'd know the necessary common words to use in almost every situation, and be understood everywhere in Vietnam. And there is an excellent video tutorial to help you learn how to pronounce the words you learn in this how-to-say lesson

Let's learn how to say Vietnamese pronouns by starting with the pair 'I - You'.

Say I, You in Vietnamese

From my experience, it's usually more effective to learn this part by shifting our mind from asking questions such as How do I say 'I' in Vietnamese? or How do I say 'You' in Vietnamese?. Instead it's useful to ask the question: What's the correct word to refer to the older/younger person of conversation?.

To see why the latter is a more apt question, let's take a look at the following table:

Vietnamese words for I and You in various situations

Word for I - Word for You When to use
Tôi - Bạn 'I' and 'You' are more or less at the same age
 
Em - Chị 'I' is younger than 'You' and 'You' is female
Chị - Em 'I' is older than 'You' and 'I' is female
 
Em - Anh 'I' is younger than 'You' and 'You' is male
Anh - Em 'I' is older than 'You' and 'I' is male

As can be seen from the above table, if 'You' are older (than 'I') and are female, the correct word is chị. And interestingly, the word for 'I' is also chị if 'I' were female and older than 'You'.

As an illustration, consider the following example:

Mai (female, older than Huy): Em đang đi đâu đấy? (Where are you going?)
Huy (male): Em đang đi học. Còn chị? (I'm going to school. And you?)
Mai: Chị đang đi đến cơ quan. (I'm going to office)

In this conversation, Mai is older than Huy so Mai refers to Huy using the word em in the first line. When answering Mai's question, Huy refers to himself using the same word em!

In line 2, we see again that Huy uses the word chị to refer to Mai while Mai also uses that same word to refer to herself in the 3rd line.

So we've known how to address ourself and the other person in the case of equal or moderately different ages, i.e., within the range of 10 years. The numer 10 is not carved in stone, but approximate. So as long as you feel both persons are in the same 'generation', it's appropriate.

Next, let's learn the words to use when the difference in age is significant.

Say I - You when there is a significant difference in age

Word for 'I' - Word for 'You' Age relation
Em - Cô/Bác The other person is much older than you, but not very old yet (looks younger than 70?). For female.
Em - Chú/Bác Same as above, but for male.
 
Con - Bà The other person is really much more senior than you (looks older than 70?)
Con - Ông Same as above, but for male.

As can be learned from the table above, you'd use the word in situations where the other person is female, and quite older than you. It's also this same word that would be used by the other person to refer to herself when talking to you. She may choose to use a different word, but its must be equivalent to . And since is the most common word for this situation, you can just learn this word to get started.

And the interesting observation is that if you don't want to remember the word to use for females, and chú for males, you can just remember the word bác, which can be used for both males and females. In practice, the word bác may be more popular than chú in the case of addressing males, while is more widely used for females.

As just about no explanation can be as illustrative as a good concrete example, let's go through another example short dialog where a young man called Trung is talking to a very senior couple.

Trung: Ông bà đang nấu gì vậy? (Grandpa Grandma are cooking what?)
The old couple: Ông bà đang nấu xôi. (Grandpa grandma are cooking sticky rice)

In this example, Trung refers to the senior couple as ông bà, juxtaposing the words ông and to refer to the couple. When replying to Trung's query, the senior couple themselves use the same phrase 'ông bà' to refer to themselves.

If everything has been clear so far to you: Congratulations! you've got the knack of Vietnamese pronouns. Really.

Before we wind up this section, it's worth repeating that one of the deciding factors when choosing the correct word pair to use is the age difference of the 2 speakers, not absolute age. If you're a 45 male, a young chap at 20 would call you anh but your high-school friends, who are also 45 years old, would definitely not refer to you using anh because to them, you're not older.

The following Video by Donna Vo would help you review what we've gone through so far.

How to say You in Vietnamese

Say He, She in Vietnamese

The not-so-good news is that just as for the pronouns I and You we've learned above, there are many different translations for He and She, depending also on the age relation between the speaker and the referred person as well as the gender of the referred person (and note how English also has 2 words: she for female and he for male.

The absolutely fantastic news is that you've already learned all those words! The following table confirms why.

He, She in Vietnamese

[The word for 'You', if you were talking to the person directly] + ấy (or ta).

To clear things up, what's the phrase for he if the man is older than you?

To get to the correct answer, what's the word to refer to an older guy you're talking to? It's anh, right? (If you got it wrong, please review the section about 'I' and 'You' above).

So the phrase for he is then... anh + ấy = anh ấy. What if he's younger than you? The answer is em ấy.

Just to make sure everything is absolutely well understood, how would you translate She likes chatting with friends? The answer is below:

Cô ấy thích trò chuyện với bạn bè
She likes chatting with friends

You (plural), We and They

In this section, we'll learn how to refer to a group of people.

We've learned in section 1 above that there are many words for the (singular) You such as em, anh and chị. To make You plural to refer to the many people you're talking to, we simply add the word các in front.

To refer to the plural version of You, use các + [The suitable word for singular You]

Next, let's talk about the pronoun They as it shares a similar rule as the plural You. The standard translation is họ or bọn họ. In cases when they comprises of only men or only ladies, we normally translate they in another way to indicate this explicitly.

They (all men) 'các' + [The suitable word for 'He']
They (all ladies) 'các' + [The suitable word for 'She']

So what does [The suitable word for 'He'] above mean? It means you need to choose the appropriate word for the pronoun he, depending on the age relation. For example, if they is a group of men all older than you, the correct phrase would be các + anh ấy. Again, anh ấy is the translation of he when referring to older men.

What should you use for they if some of them are older than you while some are younger? If some of them are older than you, I think you wouldn't mind refer to the group as a whole as if they consisted of people all older than you. Would you?

Lastly, let's see how we say we in Vietnamese:

We = tụi/bọn/chúng + [the suitable word for 'I'].

For example, a group of children talking to their teacher would refer to themselves as tụi em or bọn em. A group of senior students would use tụi anh in the place of we when talking to junior students.

Some caveats on pronoun usage

In this lesson, we've learned how to say the various pronouns: I, You, He, She, We, You, They. There is one thing you must be aware of by now is that there are many different words for each of the English pronouns, due mainly to 2 reasons: age and gender.

The first point I would like to remind you is that in the cases where there are different words for male and female, please take your time to use the correct word. Or they may think you're confused about their gender...Just kidding.

For age, however, you really need to exercise some caution. And the reason is that if you talk to an older person, which necessitates the word anh for male or chị for female but you use the word em instead. This would make the other person think you are not respecting him/her and this is definitely be among the mistakes you don't want to make (unless you're disrespectful on purpose). And if the other person is a male, there's no doubt it's not a trivial mistake.

In our discussion in section 1, we said you'd use anh or chị when the other person is older than you. But if you have the slightess doubt whether you or they are older, consider them older and use the appropriate word. That's the short and simple way to be right.

Now, let's delve a bit into the dynamics behind why using the appropriate word is necessary. When the person you talk to is male, talking to them using anh shows that you value them highly because the word has evolved to become a symbol of strength, not just a mere language-correct way to refer to someone older than you. As such, it's obvious that you should take every opportunity to use the word anh to refer to a man you talk to, especially in business settings. And you'd see they refer to you using anh or chị as well. It's polite and is used everyday by locals, so you should follow.

If the other person is a lady, the wind flows in the opposite direction. Vietnamese women, like women everywhere else, want to be viewed as "young" in the eyes of men. So if you're male and older than the lady, definitely use the word em to refer to her. And even when you're younger but the age difference is small, use em as well. And if she ever mentions you're younger than her, congratulate her on looking so young (that you were mistaken she's younger than you). It simply works.

In business settings, however, it may be safer to use chị when it's unclear who's younger.

In business settings, it's polite to refer to the other person using the word for a senior person.

My, Your, Our in Vietnamese

Vietnamese language doesn't really have a direct equivalent of possessive pronouns such as My, Your, etc. This means that in order to say, for example, my, you would say of me or belonging to me when translated literally to English. And the Vietnamese translation of 'of' or 'belonging to' is của.

My = của + [the suitable word for 'I']
Your = của + [the suitable word for 'You']

The above rule applies to all other cases: his, her, our, its, their, etc.

To practice, let's translate the sentence: This is my friend, John. The table below explains the translation:

.
Đây là người bạn của tôi , John
This is the friend of me , John

Me, You, Us in Vietnamese

It can't be better: the same word for 'I' is used for 'me'. The same word for 'we' is used for 'us'. The same applies to other pronouns. What a good news!

Mary loves him
Mary yêu anh ấy
 
He loves Mary
Anh ấy yêu Mary
 

Summary

There is no doubt that this is a tough lesson. So please review it as many times as you need to. And ask questions to clear your doubts.

The most important points in this lesson are:

  • There are different Vietnamese words for each English pronoun, depending on the age relation and gender of the person you talk to.
  • The common canonical Vietnamese words for I - You are tôi, bạn, anh, chị, and em, etc. Other pronouns: He, She, We, They are built upon the words for I and You.
  • In business settings, it's polite to refer to your associates as anh and chị
  • The way to say my in Vietnamese is belonging to me or of me. Similar for your, his, her, our, their.
  • In Vietnamese, the same word is used for both subject and object pronouns: I and me, He and him, etc.
  • We didn't quite mention this: the word for It and Its is .