Vietnamese eggplant opium (or not)

In Hanoi, ‘coffee’ was initially borrowed from the French /kafe/ as trà phê /ʈaA2feA1/ (Martini 1958: 337–338).The first syllable is a phonetic stretcher, as the tone is different from that (A1) affected by default to borrowings from toneless languages, and the initial /ʈ/ does not match the /k/ in /kafe/. This syllable is semantically motivated: it is none other than the Sino-Vietnamese word for ‘tea’, /ʈaA2/ trà. Labelling coffee as a type of tea acclimatizes the new beverage, introducing it into a set that previously included trà tàu ‘Chinese tea (black tea)’, trà Huế  ‘Annamese tea (green tea)’, trà hoa ‘camellia tea’, trà rừng ‘three-seeded mercury (herbal) tea’, and so on. As for the second syllable, /feA1/ phê, it constitutes both a straightforward phonetic rendering of the syllable /fe/ and a semantically appropriate syllable, as coffee is apt to produce a sensation of elation not entirely unlike that produced by opium—another commodity associated with foreigners, which was actively promoted by colonial authorities (Le Failler 2001)—, whose psychotropic effects are evoked in Vietnamese through the expressive form phê phê. On the other hand, Vietnamese people with a command of French would pronounce the foreign word as /kaA1feA1/, with tone A1 (a level, non-low tone, used as the default for foreign syllables without a final stop). A hybrid of the two forms emerged: /kaA2feA1/ cà phê, correcting the initial to /k/ as in the donor language, but retaining the tone of /ʈaA2/ trà ‘tea’. This form became standard (see e.g. Nguyễn Như Ý 1999), to the puzzlement of the linguist Emeneau, who tentatively hypothesized that the A2 tone in /kaA2feA1/ must be due to an (implausible) assimilation to /kaA2/ ‘eggplant’ (Emeneau 1951: 4, 158).


One response to “Vietnamese eggplant opium (or not)

  1. Pingback: Vietnamese eggplant opium (or not) | Reaction Times

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