Introduction of Pronouns from Vietnam

As we have learned before in the Grammar lessons, Vietnamese sentence structure is similar to that of English.

One of the difficulties that may prevent you from making rapid progress with your Vietnamese, though, is … pronouns. Their use is not different from English, only that for each English pronoun (I, You, etc.), there are several different Vietnamese words. And not always are the different terms synonymous.

For different Vietnamese words, the grammatical reasons for the same word, say I, are, first, to express the difference in age, which is a “huge deal” culturally; and, secondly, to express the two genders.

And another complication is that local words are commonly used for pronouns in various regions (North , East, South) (which is not true for most other Vietnamese words) …..

But there’s nothing to be afraid of, because you’d know the requisite common words to use in almost every situation after finishing this lesson, and you’d be understood everywhere in Vietnam.

By beginning with the ‘I-You’ pair, let’s learn how to say Vietnamese pronouns.

Say I, in Vietnamese, you,

From my experience, learning this part by shifting our mind from asking questions such as How do I say ‘I’ in Vietnamese is usually more efficient. Or how do I say, in Vietnamese, ‘You’? Instead, it is helpful to pose the question: What is the right word to refer to the conversational elder / younger person?

Let us take a look at the following table to see why the latter is a more fitting question:

In separate cases, Vietnamese words for I and You

Word for me – Word for YouWhen to use
Tôi – Bạn‘I’ and ‘You’ are more or less at the same age
Em – Chị‘I’ is younger than ‘You’ and ‘You’ is female
Chị – Em‘I’ is older than ‘You’ and ‘I’ is female
Em – Anh‘I’ is younger than ‘You’ and ‘You’ is male
Anh – Em‘I’ is older than ‘You’ and ‘I’ is male

If you are older (than ‘I’) and are female, as can be seen from the above table, the correct word is chị. And interestingly, chị is also the term for ‘I’ if ‘I’ was female and older than ‘You’.

Think of the following scenario as an illustration:

Mai (feminine, older than Huy): Em đang đi đâu vậy? (Where will you go?)

Huy (male): Em đang đi học, còn chị (I go to classes, do you?)

Mai: Chị đang đi đến cơ quan. (I’m at the office)

Mai is older than Huy in this debate, so Mai uses the word em in the first line to refer to Huy. Huy refers to himself when answering Mai’s question using the same word em!

In line 2, we again see that Huy uses the word chị to refer to Mai, while Mai still uses the same word in the third line to refer to herself.

So in the case of similar or moderately different ages, i.e. within the span of 10 years, we have learned how to approach ourselves and the other individual. The number 10 is not stone-carved, but approximate. So it’s acceptable as long as you believe that both individuals are of the same age.

Next, when the gap in age is important, let’s learn the words to use.

If there is a large difference in age, tell I-you
Word for ‘I’ – Word for ‘You’Age relation
Em – Cô/BácThe other person is much older than you, but not very old yet (looks younger than 70?) for a female.
Em – Chú/BácThe other person is much more senior than you (looks older than 70?)
Con – BàThe other person is really much more senior than you (looks older than 70?)
Con – ÔngSame as above, but for males.

You can use the word in cases where the other person is female, and much older than you, as can be learned from the table above. This term is also the same term that the other person will use while talking to you to refer to herself. She may decide to use another term, but it has to be equivalent to . And because is the most common word for this situation, in order to get started, you can simply learn this word.

And the interesting observation is that you should clearly recall the word bác, which can be used for both males and females if you don’t want to recall the word for females and chú for males. In practice, in the case of addressing males, the word bác may be more common than chú, whereas is more commonly used for females.

As almost no description can be as illustrative as a good concrete illustration, let’s go through another illustration of a brief dialog in which a young man named Trung speaks to a very elderly couple.

Trung: Ông bà đang nấu gì vậy? Trung: (Grandpa’s Grandma cooks what?)

An old pair: Ông bà đang nấu xôi. (Lady Grandpa cooks sticky rice)

Trung refers to the senior couple in this example as ông bà, juxtaposing the words ông and to refer to the couple. The senior couple themselves use the same word ‘ông bà’ to refer to themselves when addressing Trung’s question.

If all has been clear to you so far: Congratulations! You have a knack for Vietnamese pronouns. Realy

Before we finish this segment, it is worth repeating that the age gap of the 2 speakers, not absolute age, is one of the deciding factors when selecting the right word pair to use. A young boy at 20 would call you anh if you’re 45 male, but your high school mates, who are also 45 years old, would certainly not refer to you using anh because you’re not older for them.

Donna Vo’s following video will help you review what we have been through so far.

Say He, Vietnamese in She

The not-so-good news is that there are several different translations for He and She, just as for the pronouns I and You that we have learned above, depending on the age relationship between the speaker and the referred person as well as the gender of the referred person (and remember how English still has 2 words: she for female and he for male.

The utterly wonderful news is that all those words you’ve already heard! The following table confirms why.

He, She in Vietnamese

[The word for ‘You’, if you were talking to the person directly] + ấy (or ta).

What’s the expression for him, if the guy is older than you, to clear things up?

To get to the correct answer, what’s the word to refer to an older guy you’re talking to? It’s anh, right? (If you got it wrong, please review the section about ‘I’ and ‘You’ above).

Then the sentence for him is … anh + ấy = anh ấy. What if you’re younger than him? Em ấy is the key.

Just to make sure that all is completely understood, how can you translate that she likes to talk with friends? Below is the answer:

Cô ấythích trò chuyệnvới bạn bè
Shelikes chattingwith friends

You (plural), We, and They (plural)

We’ll learn how to refer to a group of individuals in this segment.

In section 1 above, we discovered that there are many phrases such as em, anh, and chị for the (singular) you. We simply add the word các in front to make you plural to refer to the many individuals you’re referring to.

To refer to the plural version of You, use các + [The suitable word for singular You]

First, let’s talk about the pronoun They since it shares a law close to the plural You. Họ or bọn họ is the normal translation. In cases where they consist of only men or only women, we typically interpret them to show this clearly in another way.

They (all men) ‘các’ + [The suitable word for ‘He’]

They (all ladies) ‘các’ + [The suitable word for ‘She’]

Then what is implied by [the right word for ‘He’] above? It means, depending on the age relationship, you need to use the right word for the pronoun he is. The correct phrase would be các + anh ấy, for instance, if they are a group of men all older than you. Again, when referring to older persons, anh ấy is the translation of him.

If some of them are older than you, what do you use them for, and some are younger? If any of them are older than you, I don’t think you would mind referring to the whole party as if they were all older than you. You would?

Finally, let’s see how we say that in Vietnamese.

We = tụi/bọn/chúng + [the suitable word for ‘I’].

A group of kids talking to their teacher, for instance, would refer to themselves as tụi em or bọn em. When talking to junior students, a group of senior students will use tụi anh in place of us.

Certain caveats on the use of pronouns

We learned how to say the different pronouns in this lesson: I, You, He, She, We, You, They. One thing you need to be aware of now is that for each of the English pronouns, there are several different words, mostly for two reasons: age and gender.

The first thing I would like to remind you of is that please take your time to use the right word in situations where there are different male and female words. Or maybe they think you’re confused about their gender — just a joke.

However, you still need to exercise some caution for your age. The answer is that if you speak to an older person, that needs the word anh for male or chị for female, but instead you use the word em. This will make the other person think that you do not value him/her, and this is probably one of the mistakes you don’t want to make (unless you’re deliberately disrespectful). And if the other person is a man, there is no doubt that this is not a trivial error.

In our discussion in section 1, when the other person is older than you, we said that you will use anh or ch. But if you have the slightest question as to whether or not you are older, deem them older and use the right term. That’s the easy and brief way to be right.

Now, let’s dig a bit into the complexities behind why it is important to use the right term. Talking to them using anh demonstrates that you regard them highly when the person you speak to is male because the word has developed into a sign of power, not just a mere language-correct way of referring to someone older than you. As such, it is clear that, particularly in business settings, you should take every opportunity to use the word and to refer to a man you speak to. And you’d see that they often refer to you using anh or chị. It’s friendly and is used by locals every day, so you can obey it.

The wind flows in the opposite direction if the other person is a lady. In the eyes of men, Vietnamese women, like women everywhere else, wish to be seen as “young.” So if you’re male and older than the woman, use the word em certainly to refer to her. And even though you’re younger there’s a slight age gap, use them, too. And if she ever suggests that you’re younger than her, thank her for looking so young (you’re wrong, she’s younger than you). It’s simply working.

However, in company environments, where it is unknown who is younger, it might be better to use chị.

In business settings, it’s polite to refer to the other person using the word for a senior person.

In Vietnamese, My, Your, Ours

There is really no direct counterpart to possessive pronouns like Mine, Your, etc. in the Vietnamese language. This implies that when translated directly into English, in order to say, for instance, my, you would say of me or belong to me. And the ‘of‘ or ‘belonging to‘ translation in Vietnamese is của.

My = của + [the suitable word for ‘I’]

Your = của + [the suitable word for ‘You’]

In all such instances, the following law applies: his, her, our, our, their, etc.

Let’s translate the expression to practice: This is my friend, John. The translation is explained in the table below:

Đây làngười bạncủa tôi, John
This isthe friendof me, John

In Vietnamese, Me, You, Us

It can’t be better: for ‘me’, the same term for ‘I’ is used. For ‘us’, the same term is used for ‘we’. For other pronouns, the same applies. What wonderful news!

Maryyêuanh ấy
Anh ấyyêuMary


This is a difficult lesson, there is no doubt. So please have it read as many times as you need to. And please simply write in the Comments section below if you have any questions.

In this lesson, the most significant points are:

  • Depending on the age and gender of the person you refer to, there are different Vietnamese words for each English pronoun.
  • The famous Vietnamese canonical words for I-you are tôi, bạn, anh, chị, and em, etc. Other pronouns: He, She, We, The words I and You are built upon.
  • It is polite to refer to colleagues in business settings as anh and chị.
  • The way of saying my name in Vietnamese belongs to me or to me. Analogous to yours, his, her, our, theirs.
  • For both subject and object pronouns, the same word is used in Vietnamese: I and me, He and him, etc.
  • We didn’t mention this at all: is the term for It and It.

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