“Just Another Indo-European Language”

It’s time to visit another museum.  Early in the morning, we went to Uncle Hồ’s tomb.  Now it’s the Museum of Ethnology in Hà Nội; after that, we’re going to the Women’s Museum.  Later, there will be a lecture by a professor, and then we’ll have our farewell dinner tonight.

Front of ticket Back of ticket

The list of things done and things to do jogs my memory.  In one of Bill Cosby’s comedy albums, Wonderfulness, he is deeply jealous of the class of Special Ed students in his school.  He and his classmates are trapped in humdrum courses like shop, home ec and algebra, while Special Ed kids get to go on field trips all the time.  “Oh, boy, we’re goin’ to the zoo,” one says.  “Then we’re flying to Berlin on the Concorde,” another one chimes in.  But I’ll bet they got real tired of all those field trips.

Hà Nội Museum of Ethnology

Some of our field trips are making me a little weary.  Still, I’m impressed with the design of the building.  It’s easy to compose pictures.

Hà Nội Museum of Ethnology

Inside, at the book counter, I buy a copy of The Cultural Mosaic of Ethnic Groups in Vietnam, by Nguyen Van Huy.  Clearly for tourists, the only diacritics are on the final page, the equivalent of a copyright page without the notice.  I figure the book will be an interesting companion in a museum of Vietnamese cultures.

The first major exhibit I see, though, is of Australian art.  I sit on a bench and admire it.  There are no fans anywhere, but I find it’s only a problem on the lower floors.  On the upper floors, there’s a breeze, like there was at the Dragon House in Sàigòn.

Australian Art in Hà Nội

There is also a nice view of some reconstructed ethnic buildings out behind the museum.

Huts Hut

Naturally, the museum is full of displays of artifacts made by different cultural groups who call Việt Nam home.  One of the more complex is a complete house built of shaped and fitted wooden boards with carvings decorating most flat surfaces.  It’s on the second floor, and you can go in it.  I try to take pictures, but the light’s just too poor.  I don’t think the dimness is part of the experience, just poor layout.  The carpentry’s outstanding, but I fail to write down or remember the name of the responsible ethnic group from the cultural mosaic.

Later, I manage to get a couple of pictures of musical instruments.  The left one is an older style of monochord, which everyone says is the single truly native Vietnamese instrument; it’s the one that sounds like a Theremin, only prettier.

Monochord Hammer dulcimer

On the right is a hammer dulcimer.  It’s played, at least in America, by whacking the strings with little felt mallets (contained in the little box at right bottom in the photo); the same principle is employed in pianos and pianofortes.  When you strike a key, a little felt mallet thwacks the string for you.  Harpsichords operate by plucking the strings, using tiny picks; it’s easy to see the connection between lutes, banjos, guitars and harpsichords.  The dulcimer’s soundboard has the names of the notes painted on its face:  “Đo re me fa sol la si đo.”  I wonder if maybe “ti” is a bad word in tiếng Việt.  The instrument seems to be dated 1927, but the lettering is blurred enough to make me uncertain.

Many exhibits have multimedia presentations that last five minutes or so.  By pressing a button, you can watch movies showing how the Sedang weave their communal houses or how the Lachi groom bathes his bride’s feet in warm water.  All of these films are very well done, but three minutes too long.  Most visitors do not have the patience to listen to the whole presentation, so the museum seems to be watching itself, or playing to invisible robots.  People don’t seem to have enough patience to even read the crisply detailed signs that accompany the exhibits. Daily activities around the Muong hearth  “Daily activities around the Muong hearth,” and Silk Dyeing of the Khmer “Silk Dyeing of the Khmer.”

I have the patience to sit through two of the movies I start, but after those, I contribute to the general air of surrealism by pushing buttons and departing.

I wander downstairs and find a huge map of the language families represented in Southeast Asia.  I read about Sino-Tibetan and Austroasiatic languages.

Sino-Tibetan language family
Austroasiatic Language Family

Miriam comes up and joins me.  I’ve already mentioned how jealous I am of her; she speaks and reads Chinese and Japanese fluently.  I point out how the Sino-Tibetan and Austroasiatic language families are at opposite ends of the relatedness spectrum.  “It says here,” I say, “that Chinese and Vietnamese are completely unrelated.  I’d always thought Vietnamese was like another Chinese language.”

Ralph Levering, Buddhist Monk, Miriam Levering
Miriam, her brother Ralph, and a Buddhist Monk;
taken in Hué

Miriam peers over her glasses at the signs.  “I had assumed they were related too, but the more time I spend here the less I think they are even cousins.”

“It looks like they’re about as close as Basque and Japanese,” I said.  She grins at that.  We talk about Asian languages and why we like them.  “There’s none of that stuff,” I say.  “Nominal declension.  Conjugation.  Verbal inflection.  Agreement.”

Miriam brightens up.  “Yes!  What a lot of baggage!”

“I don’t know about you,” I say, “but I’m so glad to not have to memorize all that crud anymore.  I took Russian in college.  I thought it would be different, exotic, alien.  Boy, was I disappointed, ’cause it’s just—”

Miriam sees exactly where I’m going and joins in on the chorus: “—just another Indo-European language!”

Someone else who understands!  We talk about Chinese languages:  Cantonese, Mandarin.  I can’t remember any others.  “Someone on a list I’m on claimed recently that they were dialects, not real languages, because they all share the same writing system,” I say.  We crack up.

“Utter nonsense,” Miriam agrees.  “I notice they don’t say Japanese is a dialect of Chinese.”

“Or that Finnish is just a dialect of English, because it uses the Latin alphabet.”  I wonder where Korean fits.

We go our separate ways.  I pause in front of another exhibit, push a button, thumb through my book, read.  “The Cong,” it says.  “Proper names:  Xam Khoong, Phuy A. Population:  1,261 people.”  Really!  I flip through more pages.  “The Brau.  Other names:  Brao. Population:  231 people.”  The Hoa, or ethnic Chinese, I find, have a population of 900,185.  The Tay, or Thai, 1,190,342.   I flip to the back of the book, expecting to find a little note:  “During the printing of this book, 98,123 babies were born.  Please adjust the population figures accordingly.”

The dominant ethnic group in Việt Nam is the Việt, listed last in the book, and in that position merely because of the alphabet, I’m sure.  I check the population figures.  Instead of numbers, we are given this entry:

Population:  The Viet have their own language and writing system.  Vietnamese belongs to the Viet-Muong language group (of the Austroasiatic language family).

The conclusion I think I’m supposed to reach is that those “ethnics” are precisely countable and finite, by implication controllable, while the Việt are not.

Court musicians on a houseboat in Hue

I learn some other things from my four-dollar book.  When we heard the court musicians in Hué play, Mr. Song was careful to give us the name of the women’s clothing:  áo dài, which we all knew.  Mr. Song then pointed out that the men wore what appeared to be a dress, but didn’t tell us the name.  I learn from my book that “in the olden days, a Viet man used to wear chan que trousers (a kind of wide-legged pants that looked something like a skirt), with a brown shirt (in the North) or a black shirt (in the South).”

I also learn that in the olden days the Viet did not wear shoes.  In the olden days of anthropology, we all used terms like “olden days” and nobody thought anything of it, any more than we thought there was anything wrong with “primitive.”  I wonder if the English-speaking “reviser,” credited in the back of the book, is responsible for “olden days” as well as for dumbing down the spelling.

The recording I started to go along with the book runs down, and so do I.  Most of the others are already outside.  I need bottled water and the gift shop only offers books and Ho Ti statues, although none in the same class as my glow-in-the-dark Quan Âm.

Tacky, green, glow-in-the dark, Quan Âm

Outside, I look around.  Our bus is filling up and Mr. Song is looking nervous; I spot the concession stand off to one side of the museum.

Looking at the concession stand

I buy water and head back to the bus.  I’m the last one on, and before I reach my seat the driver is pulling out of the lot.  I guess we’re behind schedule.


Indo-European languages: http://www.geocities.com/indoeurop/index10.html

Chinese languages:  Yüeh (Cantonese), Pûtônghuà or Han (Mandarin), Hsiang (Hunan), Hakka, Kan, Min (Northern and Southern) and Wu.  http://acc6.its.brooklyn.cuny.edu/~phalsall/texts/chinlng2.html

Korean:  Korean seems to be another language like Basque and Japanese; not a member of any larger language family.  See http://babel.uoregon.edu/yamada/guides/korean.html

Ti:  “Ti” isn’t offensive, but there is a similarly-spelled word with a different tone that is definitely so.

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