The Mutilation of Our Mother Tongue

(Part 1): The Lục Bát

Tyler Nguyen is a Freshman at Columbia College, majoring in Financial Economics. He was born in Michigan, USA, but was brought up in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, for the first 11 years of his life before moving back to the US for high school and college. The following poem and its translation was written in response to the alteration of the Vietnamese language, caused by a new education curriculum being tested in Vietnam; that seeks to revolutionize the way children learn to read and write in Vietnamese. In the following excerpts from an interview with us, Tyler also explains the significance of this traditional Lục Bát form and why he chose it.

Part 2 of this submission, an accompanying essay which delves into the system that is currently altering the pedagogy of the Vietnamese language, will be published next week.

Interview conducted and transcribed by Jade Yeen Onn

(Excerpts from our interview with Tyler)
You talked about the six and eight syllable lines and couplets. Is there anything significant with this specific form?

T: Okay, so Vietnamese poetry is very unique in the world, even compared to Chinese poetry- even though they’re similar, Vietnamese poetry is very unique because it has six tones. And in order to make the words flow, you have to find a way to unify the tones so that it doesn’t cause friction between the words. So as early as when Vietnamese people started writing poetry, they’ve always used those tonal structures to their advantage and they have developed many structures that would fit the tones just right. 
One of the best structures is the Lục Bát, which just means “six and eight” (form). So the first line has 6 words, and the second line has 8, which translates to 6 and 8 syllables because Vietnamese is a monosyllabic language. There are then oblique tones and regular tones. In the 6–8 form, there is a very specific structure (for these tones) that you must follow, which then creates something like an iamb in English.

J: That’s really interesting. So, this might go without saying, but it means that you had to write this poem in Vietnamese first, then translate it into English.

T: Yes. You can’t do it in English first because English is a multi-syllabic language, which makes it difficult to fit into this form, because Vietnamese is monosyllabic.

J: So when you translated it into English, you translated the “meter” created by the accents as well?

T: Yes. I’m trying not to throw too much lingo in here, but I basically tried to create 3 iambs, which has 2 syllables, to make lines of 6, and 4 iambs for lines of 8. So I tried to keep that metric in place, but also retain the meaning line by line. If the meaning of one line bleeds into the next, so be it, but I really wanted to keep that meter in so that even when you read it in English, you still have that traditional Vietnamese flow to it. That’s why I disregarded all of the rhymes- I didn’t care to put rhyme in here (the translation) because I wanted to preserve that metric.

J: Is there any rhyming in the traditional Vietnamese version?

T: Oh, there is. The point of poetry in Vietnamese is very strict rhyming, which you can still see even if you don’t read Vietnamese.

Illustration of the rhyming formula, as explained by Tyler.

T: They don’t have to be at the very end of the line, but they have to be at the exact numbered syllable. So if this word appears at the 6th syllable, then its rhyming word has to appear at the next 6th syllable, so you kind of have this zig-zagging mesh of rhymes that hold the poem together.

J: That’s amazing. Well, thank you for that crash-course in Vietnamese poetry. Do you have anything else you’d like to add?

T: I just really enjoyed writing this- I think that this phenomenon doesn’t really happen at all to other countries. I have never seen another country try to revolutionize its own language in the way it reads and the way it writes, so I just think that since it’s happening to my own country, I might as well make other people know about it and its effects.

unSEAled is Columbia University’s Southeast Asian Zine, a new mini-magazine focusing on sharing Southeast Asian and Southeast Asian-American voices. Stay tuned to see Part 2 of Tyler’s work as well as submissions from other contributors and our physical Zine, to be published at the end of November!

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