Photo credit: William@VietnamDaily.ca
“Quần” (kwun, down-tone) – pants.
In isolation, Quần means pants. However, it also refers to any two-legged article of clothing worn over the legs. This includes shorts, underwear, over-alls, and jeans. It does not include dresses and skirts.
Quần is a good example of prototypical overloading in Vietnamese, where one word refers to a whole category of things, as well as one specific prototype that is a good representative that category.
In such cases, context is important to understand what a Vietnamese person actually means: you’ll have to use surrounding cues, both linguistical and physical, to deduce if someone is refering to quần-as-pants or quần-as-underwear (or other).
Fortunately, for travellers, it means that one does not need to remember so many words in order to speak Vietnamese at a minimal functional level, as compared to English. For instance, learning “quần” will help you muddle through many conversations about articles of clothing, unlike English, where the difference between boxers and over-alls is stark.
Other examples of overloading are “Áo” which means both “shirt” and any article of clothing you wear on your upper body, including jackets, coats, sweaters, hoodies, blouses and even bras.
Scenarios: Underwear or Pants?
To understand how Vietnamese people use overloaded words like Quần, let’s imagine a few scenarios:
- You walk into an underwear and bra shop and yell “Tôi muốn quần” (I want pants/underwear). Because the shop only sells undergarments, the salesperson correctly deduces that you mean quần-as-underwear, and directs you to the appropriate mens/womens/kids section.
- You walk into a general clothing shop and yell “Tôi muốn quần” (I want pants/underwear). The salesperson is confused and must ask: “Loại nào?” (what kind?)
- At the night market, you see a stall with its main sign advertising “Quần Áo 20k”. A huge crowd of women surround the stall. Because of the cheap price (20k) and the gender of the patrons, you can deduce that the stall is selling ladies undergarments.
Make sense? If it does, congratulations, you have an excellent grasp of Vietnamese and contextual resolution of prototypes!
Quần Áo as Clothing Categories
Quần in combo with áo is used to signify various categories or styles of clothing, such as womens-wear and mens-wear:
- quần áo nam – pants and shirts for men (mens wear)
- quần áo trẻ em – pants and shirts for children (childrens wear)
- quần áo cổ trang trung quốc – traditional (Chinese-style) pants and shirts
- quần áo bộ đội – military pants and shirts
- quần áo phương tây – Western style pants and shirts