ba ong - old people in Vietnamese

Bà & Ông – Grandmother and Grandfather in Vietnamese

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How to say grandmother and grandfather in Vietnamese? There are at least four different words for grandma/grandpa in Vietnamese, depending on the which side of the family one is referring to: Bà ngoại refers to the mother’s mother (grandmother), whereas bà nội refer’s the father’s mother. Similarly, ông ngoại refers to the mother’s father (grandfather), and ông nội refers to the father’s father.

Listen to the pronunciations below.

This terminology is different from English where the grandparents on either side of the family are referred to the same way, and are regarded with equal status. In Vietnamese society, the two groups of grandparents will play different roles in the lives of their grandchildren, depending on whether the grandchildren are the son’s children or the daughter’s children. For example, the bà ngoại (mother’s mother) is more likely to be the one who will move-in with the new-parents and raise their children while the parents work.

How to Pronounce Bà and Ông in Vietnamese

· Bà Ngoại – grandmother on mother’s side

· Ông Ngoại – grandfather on mother’s side

· Bà Nội – grandmother on father’s side

· Ông Nội – grandfather on father’s side

There are several difficulties for native English-speakers trying to pronounce the Vietnamese words for grandparents (bà ngoại, ông nội, etc).

First, notice the short down-tone on ngoi and ni, as indicated by the dot-diacritic below the and . This tone sounds like an abrupt descent in pitch — it almost sounds angry or aggressive, in contrast to the neutral/flat.

Secondly, ngoại has the infamous ng-sound, which is very difficult for most Westerners. We have an entire post dedicated to this sound (formally called the voiced velar nasal), which includes tricks and audio to help train your tongue to say it correctly, as well as train your ear to recognize it. In short, ng is neither an n nor g nor m nor ny, but something in-between all of them and deserves its own distinct letter (ŋ).

Ironically, it is the same sound as the ng in English, but you are unlikely to be able to perceive the distinction with either the n or g, without some practice.

Bà and Ông as Important Pronouns in Vietnamese

The words and ông, in addition to meaning grandparents, are also used as pronouns for strangers and neighbours who are very old. These words replace the second-person pronouns (“you”) and third-person pronouns (“he/she”) in Vietnamese sentences.

This may sound crazy to a native English speaker, but basically you just replace all you’s and he/she’s with and ông. For example, instead of asking an old person “what do you want?”, a Vietnamese person will ask “what does grandpa want?” (Ông muốn gì?). Referring to old people as grandfather/grandmother is a key element of Vietnamese polite speech.

One difficulty for foreigners is guessing the age cut-off for when to call a stranger and ông (grandma/grandpa) versus auntie/uncle (bác). It isn’t an absolute cut-off, but is a relative cut-off based on the speaker’s age. For example, if you meet a stranger who is approximately the same age as your own grand-parents, then you use or ông to refer to them. If they are approximately the same age as your parent’s elder siblings, then you refer to them as bác (e.g. Bác muốn gì?). A different speaker with a different age would use a different pronoun to speak to the same person.

What if you can’t determine the other person’s age? In such gray areas, Vietnamese people will often ask each other’s age explicitly, so that they don’t mis-age the other person and insult them — which seems the opposite of being polite in Canada/USA, but is true. Alternatively, you can default to the elder or younger pronoun based on a person’s sex and whichever alternative is more flattering. For women, it is more flattering to be perceived as younger, so you should default to the younger bác (auntie) instead of the older (grandma) when you can’t discern which is more appropriate. The opposite is true for men, where it is more respectful to say ông, because older men have more status and authority.

Other Familial Pronouns in Vietnamese

The following familial terms are used as age- and sex-specific pronouns when speaking politely with people in Vietnam. The only exception would be mother and father, which are only used within a family.

  • Em – younger sibling, any man/woman who is younger than you.
  • Chị – older sister, woman who is older than you within approximately 15 years.
  • Anh – older brother, man who is older than you within approximately 15 years.
  • Mẹ – mother (North Vietnam).
  • Má – mother (South Vietnam).
  • Bố – father (North Vietnam).
  • Ba – father (South Vietnam).
  • – aunt, specifically father’s younger sister (used in North Vietnam to refer to strangers).
  • – aunt, mother’s younger sister (used in South Vietnam to refer to strangers).
  • Chú – uncle, dad’s younger brother.
  • Cậu – uncle, mom’s younger brother.
  • Bác – sex-neutral older uncle or order auntie, for older siblings on either side of the family.
  • Bác gái – older auntie.
  • Bác trai – older uncle.
  • Bà – grandmother, generic.
  • Ông – grandfather, generic.
  • Bà ngoại – grandmother on mother’s side.
  • Ông ngoại – grandfather on mother’s side.
  • Bà nội – grandmother on father’s side.
  • Ông nội – grandfather on father’s side .
  • Bạn – friend, means “you” when referring to a stranger who is your same age, or a large anonymous audience.

Respect for Elderly People in Vietnamese

A bedrock of Vietnamese culture is the emphasis on respect for anyone older than you — the older the more respect they command. Elderly people can do things that others cannot, like cut-ahead in a line, demand that younger people do things for them, stop traffic, sit where they want, start eating before everyone else, etc.

So, when you are in Vietnam, be sure to be very nice and deferential to elderly people, and start by learning the appropriate familial pronouns to use when talking to them, so that you can address them properly and politely, like bà ơi (“Excuse me, Ma’am”) or ông ơi (“Excuse me, Sir”).

When you think about all the tumult that the elderly Vietnamese have lived through and survived, from war to collectivization to a globally-significant booming economy, it’s not hard afford them such respect.

“Ladies & Gentlemen” in Vietnamese

How to address an audience politely, like “Dear Ladies & Gentlemen”, in Vietnamese? Well, it is simply Ông bà. In other words, it is literally just the words for Grandfather and Grandmother.

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