The Vietnamese family name Ngô is the 12th most-common name in Vietnam. Throughout Vietnam’s history, there have been great Ngô Dynasties and heroic figures named Ngô, such as Ngô Quyền .
The pronuciation of “Ngô” is very challenging for native English-speakers. Even attempting to pronounce it properly would likely raise the eyebrows of listeners as if you were rudely mocking Vietnamese people. Therefore, in the following sections, we will discuss:
The proper Vietnamese pronunciation requires practice of the infamous ŋ-sound (as in running, talking, walking).
That being said, the most-common Anglicized version of Ngô is simply pronounced as “No/Know” (although this is unlike the Vietnamese version). For example, the famous Vietnamese-American journalist Andy Ngô has a podcast entitled “Things You Should Ngo” .
Proper Pronunciation of Ngô [AUDIO]
To authentically pronounce Ngô, you must contend with two Vietnamese sounds:
– the ng-sound
– the vowel ô
Put them together and you get Ngô
The Infamous Ng-sound (ŋ)
The ng-sound is not an n-sound, nor a g-sound. In English, it occurs at the end of “-ing” words, such as running, talking, and writing. If you listen carefully, you can hear that ng really deserves its own unique character (officially ŋ), being entirely unrelated to both “n” and “g”.
Because there are no English words that begin with “ng”, the English tongue is reluctant to utter it at the start of a word. The difficult part is to train the English tongue to start a word with the (i)ng sound, for which we have a little trick: see our post dedicated to the Ng-sound including a progressive practice exercise to learn how to pronounce it.
Vietnamese Vowel ô
The Vietnamese language has a very rich set of vowels that are differentiated by various diacritics (such as ^). In English, such vowels are mostly lumped together as various types of long or short “o’s”. The English ear can distinguish among the many Vietnamese vowels (unlike the more problematic ng-sound).
Fortunately “ô” is basically the Vietnamese version of the English long-“o” as in “no”. However, depending on one’s accent (e.g., Western Australia) this can be wildly different from the Vietnamese version.
RELATED: Learn more about Vietnamese vowels.
Anglicized Approximation of Ngô
If you don’t want to settle for pronouncing Ngô as “no/know”, then the closest Anglicized approximation is something in-between “no” and “(m)go”, where the “g” isn’t the hard guttural g-as-in-goat, but something morphing in-between “m”, “n”, “y” and “g”, but not any of those.
How can such a sound exist? The fault lies with English in that we do not dedicate a unique character to this particular “ŋ” sound, and so we must resort to such awkward descriptions.
Are Vietnamese People Insulted if You Mispronounce Their Name?
Everyone is different. If you have a Vietnamese colleague who is from the elder-Millenial or Gen-X generation, you can ask them directly and privately how to pronounce their name. In particular, it would be a sign of good intentions if you learned a little about the Vietnamese alphabet and tones ahead of time. For example, if you acknowledge that the ŋ-sound has no English character, and so you find it extremely difficult to even hear the sound properly, they will better understand where you have trouble.
A word of warning: it does seem that younger generations, such Gen-Z’ers and young Millenials, are more sensitive about “micro-aggressions” (e.g., see this bizarre article form FastCompany about so-called micro-aggressions). They seem to expect that everyone should be able to pronounce all names in all languages on-the-fly. For such sensitive persons, consider broaching the topic obliquely by asking “Don’t you hate it when people mispronounce your name?“
The Meaning of Ngô
Ngô is the 12th most popular name in Vietnam. Approximately 1.3% of the population has the surname Ngô. The word means “corn” in modern Vietnamese.
There are several sinoized versions of the name which are popular throughout the Mandarin and Cantonese-speaking world. For example, the popular Singaporean name Ng has the same root as Ngô. Other romanized variants include Wu, which is the 6th most popular surname in Mainland China.
Ngô in Vietnamese History
There have been many kings and legendary figures who bore the Ngô family name. The earliest record of the name goes back Ngô Nhat Dai in 700 BC. One of his progeny, Ngô Quyền, lead a Viet army and defeated the dominating Chinese forces at the Battle of Bach Dang in 938. Ngô Quyền thereafter took the throne and established the Ngô Dynasty. His victory ended nearly a thousand years of Chinese domination of the Viet people. It resulted in a long period of Vietnamese independence.
There is beloved Vietnamese war-story about the Battle of Bach Dang, as depicted in the image below. As told, the Chinese navy was massive and professional, whereas the rebel Viet armies consisted of mostly peasants. However, for what they lacked in power, Ngô made-up for with cunning and craftiness: at low tide, they planted massive underwater stakes into the nearshore navigable zone. These subsequently ensnared the attacking Chinese fleet, who, being neither able to manoeuvre nor flee, became like prey and were vanquished. This story is beloved in Vietnam as a Viet-version of the classic “David vs. Goliath” architype.
To this day, Vietnam is still weary of China. Despite the fact that both governments have Socialist origins and share a common ancient-culture, Vietnamese citizens feel much more sympathy and cultural-connection to the USA and Europe, whereas China is seen as a perpetual national security threat. The growing wealth, success, and cultural-prominence of Vietnamese-Americans is helping to solidify the Western-Vietnamese cultural connection.
Ngô in American Pop-Culture
One famous Ngô in Western pop-culture is the Vietnamese-American journalist Andy Ngô. He is one of the few journalists to do high-risk, on-the-ground coverage of left-wing extremism in the USA. He is routinely subject to racist, anti-Vietnamese harassment and violent assault by the domestic terrorist group known as “Antifa”. You can follow him on Twitter and his podcast “Things You Should Know” .