3. The Most Dangerous Language

3. The Most Dangerous Language

The Vietnamese sound system is very rich — close to seven thousand syllables including the six tones (eight, according to another theory). Vietnamese, especially the Hanoi dialect, is replete with “glottal stops”. See the chart of nearly 7000 syllables (with tones) that we compiled at our institute. Yes, almost 7000 syllables!!

When some people speak they sound like they are constantly gagging on one “glottal stop” after another, almost as if they are on the verge of choking! One day I came up against a phrase that gets first prize for “the most dangerous word to pronounce.” It’s written cưới ngựa and means “to ride a horse.” Here are members of the Nguyen Family, where I had dinner as part of my “total immersion” course, demonstrating the art of not choking on a Vietnamese horse 🙂

cưới ngựa! — the art of not choking on Vietnamese horses.
Thuy explains why Vietnamese is “most dangerous.”

Just listen to the first two words — cưới ngựa! — pronounced by mom, dad and daughter. Can you say it without gagging!? So I decided to nickname Vietnamese “the most dangerous language in the world,” because if you try a few of the dangerous phrases, you might gag, retch and choke! Now listen to one of my teachers, Thuy, describing how to ride a horse in “the most dangerous language,” with her version of cưới ngựa.

My other teacher, Van Anh, liked the joke so much that she bound my study notes into a booklet entitled “Which is the most dangerous language in the world?” I value this more than the Old Testament 🙂

My wonderful teacher Van Anh Pham
“The Dangerous Language” notebook by Van Anh Pham

Now let’s take the discussion of danger to the next level. Van Anh wrote a sentence that has enough glottal stops to make you gag, choke and gasp, all at the same time! “Nghĩa vừa cưỡi ngựa vừa cười ngặt nghẽo nên ngã ngựa, Nghĩa cười ngượng nghịu, ” which in English means “Nghia was laughing his head off while riding the horse so he fell off, Nghia smiled shyly.” Be careful when you watch the video. 🙂

But, after all is said and done, no, I don’t think you need to take out a life insurance policy to study this Most Dangerous Language 🙂

The most dangerous sentence of the most dangerous language 🙂