Before going into the details, the good news, again, is that verbs in Vietnamese is generally much simpler than their counterparts in English. Let’s see below why this is true.
First of all, while each verb in English has a singular form for the third-person case (she, he, it) by, generally, adding “s” to the base form, this isn’t a feature of Vietnamese. That is to say that you’ll use the same verb form đi(“go”) in Tôi đi(“I go”) and Cô ấy đi(“She goes”). How simpler this is for learning Vietnamese!
The major simplification you’ll enjoy in learning Vietnamese verbs lies in its verb tense system. As a recap, we know that in English there are quite a couple of verb tenses, and for good reasons, such as past simple, past continuous, past perfect; the equivalents for the present and the future; …and more. You should then be very relieved to learn that the only major verb tenses in Vietnamese are: the present simple, the present continuous, the past simple and the future simple!
A possible question by the keen readers: How would we then express the equivalents of past continuous or past perfect? The answer for the absence of the past continuous tense is that Vietnamese “leverage” on the present continuous to express the past continuous. How about the past perfect? Well, that would not be expressed through verb tense, but the use of relative time indicators such as before and after.
Let’s go into a little more details about this interesting difference in verb tenses through a concrete example. Suppose that you want to ask a friend when she will come back home, you’d probably say something like When will you come home?. Similarly, if we want to ask when she came back: When did you come home?”. We can see from these two examples that in English we need to explicitly encode the notion of past or future time frame in the verb come by conjugating it in the past simple or future simple tense. Does Vietnamese share this way of time encoding with English?
Let’s imagine the situation: yesterday, you came home and saw your spouse at home to your surprise because she/he usually gets home from work later than you; then you remarked: You came home early today!, followed by the question When did you come home?. In this specific circumstance, it’s quite clear that the question of when refers to the past, which means we may not need to reflect that in the tense of the verb come. Or at least that’s the way we would use in Vietnamese: When do you come home?. Yes, the time frame is encoded not in the sentence but in the situation! Certainly, this feature of the language would potentially make it ambiguous in some situations and, should the confusion arise, time expressions such as yesterday or just now or tomorrow would be employed.
Now that the notions of the past and the future are encoded implicitly in dialogues’ settings and not in verbs, it’s no surprise that the present tense is the one that you would encounter most frequently. In order to express the present continuous, you add đang before the verb as in the following example.
|Vietnamese based on English
|tiếng Việt dựa trên tiếng Anh
The two remaining questions that need to be addressed are: how can we express the relative order of actions in relation to each other, which is expressed using the “perfect” tenses in English? And the second question is about redundancy: why is there still the past simple and future simple tenses in Vietnamese as mentioned above, if the notion of time is implicitly indicated by the circumstance?
In order to address the first question, let’s again use a concrete example:
When I came home, she had gone jogging.
The use of the English past perfect tense had gone is to indicate that the action of “going” took place before the action “came home”.
In Vietnamese, we’ll express this by using the word rồi, whose literal English translation is already. As such, we can rewrite this example in the Vietnamese way without the use of the past perfect tense by saying: When I came home, she already went jogging: this by the way is also an informal way of saying in English.
Combine this with our knowledge that the notion of time, in this case the past, is not usually encoded directly in verbs but in the setting itself, we’ll take away the past tense before doing a word-to-word mapping to Vietnamese: When I come home, she already goes jogging.
Translating the past perfect
|Original English sentence
|When I came home, she had gone jogging
|Rearranged for translation
|When I come home,
|Khi tôi về nhà,
|đi chạy bộ
Please take note that rồi must put after the verb phrase go jogging in Vietnamese.
Secondly, let’s address the second question of why we still need the past simple and future simple tenses in Vietnamese, given our knowledge that the notion of time is already indicated by the setting and not through verbs?
The first reason is that in isolated sentences, especially in writing, where the context doesn’t provide enough information about the time setting of actions (present, past or future), explicit use of the past simple or future simple is warranted.
Another instance where these tenses are used is for emphasis purpose: when we want to emphasize (for example, in making promises) that something actually did happen or will definitely happen. The past simple and future simple tenses are expressed by prefixing verbs with “đã” and “sẽ”, respectively.
Examples are given in the following table:
|bài báo này
|(sẽ) về nhà
|vào lúc 5 giờ
|will come home
|at five o’clock
As indicated in the table, the use of đã and sẽ are optional with regards to expressing time. They are needed, however, if we want to put an emphasis on the time.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning the very often used tense: the present perfect. As we’ve known, the two most prevalent uses of this tense is 1).to refer to actions that took place and have completed in the past without a definite point of time or 2). to indicate that an action, which took place some time in the past, is still continuing at the point of speaking.
Consider the first example in the above table. If we just want to say I’ve read this article, the Vietnamese translation would be Tôi đã đọc bài báo này. In this usage of the present perfect, there is no mention of time so that the use of đã in the Vietnamese translation is compulsory because without it we would fail to express the notion of the past. We could also have said Tôi đọc bài báo này rồi, whose literal translation to English is I read this article already. The word rồi(“already”), while signalling that the action “read” already took place and completed, also puts emphasis on the completion aspect of the action.
The second use of the present perfect tense, as in I have lived here for 2 years, is expressed in Vietnamese through the word được. In this usage, this word carries the meaning of for. The complete translation is given below.
|for 2 years
|được 2 năm
We can see that in this usage, the word đã is optional. This is because the action live in the sentence is unmistakably understood to have started in the past based on meaning. Also, the word được in this usage also carries with it the notion of something that has lasted for some time.
If the sentence has been written (more correctly) in the present perfect continuous tense: I’ve been living here for 2 years to put more emphasis on the time duration, the Vietnamese translation remains the same. Don’t you agree Vietnamese verb tenses are simpler? Agree…grudgingly?!?
Last but not least, it seems necessary to have a short discussion about phrasal verbs, which are used very extensively in (especially informal) English. To clarify, by “phrasal verbs”, we’re referring to such verbs as look after and boost up, which are comprised of a verb and a particle.
The good news is that there is almost no notion of “phrasal verbs” in Vietnamese. The Vietnamese translation of look after is chăm sóc, which has two words but you should think of it as one “unit” verb. It’s definitely not a verb + a particle. To digress a little bit, some Vietnamese grammarians may argue that chăm sóc is one word, and not two words. For our purpose of learning Vietnamese, the answer doesn’t seem to make a lot of difference. And to make it familiar, we’ll stick to spaces as the demarcating unit of words, as in English. In this light, we’ll say chăm sóc is a unit verb made up of two words.
Certainly, there are Vietnamese equivalents of English prepositions such as in and on; but they are not combined with verbs to form phrasal verbs. They can, however, be used compositionally with verbs to add meaning. For instance, consider the English sentence He’s walking up the staircase.
We can see that up is used to indicate the direction of the verb walk and there is no special meaning when combining walk with up. The Vietnamese translation is therefore a combination of the translation of walk, which is đi, and that of up: lên.
So much for our discussion on verbs. Let’s review the gist of this lesson.
This lesson on Verbs has demonstrated the simplicity of Vietnamese Verb tenses. In particular, we’ve learned:
- The notion of time is expressed either implicitly in the context or explicitly through time expressions, not in verb tenses.
- The two most frequently used tenses in Vietnamese are the present simple and the present continuous.
- There is no notion of “phrasal verbs” in Vietnamese
- Though Vietnamese verbs may consist of two or more words, they should be treated as a unit in that the verb’s meaning can not be immediately derived from constituent words’ meanings.
- There is no conjugation for third-person subject. This is in accord with the general rule we’ve previously learned: there is no inflection of any kind on Vietnamese words.
If you have questions related to this post, please comment below.