Sunday, November 18, 2007


Our apartment's leafy cross street runs about six blocks north before ending at a large intersection. These blocks are shady, dotted with restaurants, easy to navigate. This is a rapidly-blossoming nook of District Three, recently written-up in local expat mags. Le's Café, my wireless coffee shop, is down this street. My favorite Korean food, my regular Vietnamese, the nicest gecko-decked sign, are all here. The latter advertises restaurant Bún Việt, which serves excellent fish soup. But this post isn't about food; it's about language. Vietnamese, a tonal language, strips me of certain lingual crutches. In other countries, when I'd like to ask if a restaurant stocks coffee, all I really need is that one local word: "Coffee?" Waiters usually understand I'm simultaneously asking can and may, and perhaps the complex inquisitive format of "do you have" is merely outside my ability. In Vietnamese, that "?" is precisely the way one pronounces a rising up-tone, and tones are essential to word pronunciation itself. I know how to say "coffee" locally: flat tone; but "coffee?" means something different--or nothing at all. The last time I was at Bún Việt, I was thinking about all this while, incidentally, wondering if they served coffee. When the waitress walked by I said, as flatly as possible, "coffee", the perceived demand a lesser concern than my dipping caffeine level. She smiled, ran off, and returned with my check. Oh, well. I did not get up to leave immediately after paying, and soon another server appeared with a cup of the mild jasmine tea that frequently serves as table water here.* "Coffee!" he announced. I suspect he just called up the wrong word, like I did one night on a Spanish train when I announced that this next round of cheese was on me. [Cavin]

Then, a 1 sided conversation ensued...

To which Blogger Mr. Cavin added:

* Wow, I can't believe we don't give this away at every restaurant in America, too.

Monday, November 19, 2007 12:48:00 AM  

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