Linguistic Constructs in Vietnamese and English



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Linguistic Constructs in Vietnamese and English
Although Vietnamese and English are highly distinct, these two languages do share some common features in sentence structure. Vietnamese and English both follow the same canonical sentence structure of subject–verb–object (SVO). For example, Tôi ăn cơm in Vietnamese exactly translates to “I eat rice” in English. Like English, Vietnamese also allows for multiple clauses within a sentence, and both coordinating and subordinating clauses are possible (D. H. Nguyen, 1997). Given the use of SI, we presently focus on subordinating clauses. In Vietnamese, as in English, subordinating clauses can be divided into three types: adverbial, nominal, and relative (D. H. Nguyen et al., 2018) clauses. An adverbial clause functions as the adverb in the sentence and modifies a verb, a relative clause, or another adverbial clause, as in cậu bé tức giận tại vì con mèo ăn hết cá or “the boy was mad because the cat ate all the fish.” A nominal clause functions as a noun and can take the subject or object position, as in cậu bé thấy những gì con chó ăn or “the boy saw what the dog ate.” Finally, a relative clause functions as an adjective in a sentence (sometimes with the help of a relative pronoun) and modifies the noun or pronoun, as in cậu bé ăn đồ ăn cậu mua or “the boy ate the food that he bought.”
While Vietnamese and English do share some language features, the two languages are more different than they are similar. Vietnamese is an isolating language: There is no inflectional morphology, and grammatical relations are shown exclusively through word order (D. H. Nguyen, 1997). Three features unique to Vietnamese that are relevant to this study include classifiers, pro-drop constructions, and biclausal constructions.
Vietnamese has a complex classifier system that is not easy for nonnative speakers to comprehend and children to fully acquire (Tran, 2010). A classifier is a functional word that precedes a noun and categorizes the noun based on features, such as animacy, shape, or function (Tran, 2010). There is a debate as to the exact number of classifiers in Vietnamese, which ranges from four to over 200 (Pham & Kohnert, 2008). The most common classifiers are con, which indicates animacy (e.g., con mèo/“cat”) and sometimes things that have movement (e.g., con sông/“river”), and cái, which indicates inanimacy (e.g., cái bàn/“table”). Other classifiers indicate certain features of the noun, such as shape (e.g., quả/“roundness” as in quả bóng/“ball”) or size (e.g., mảnh/ “small” as in mảnh vải/“small piece of cloth”; D. H. Nguyen, 1957). Sometimes, classifiers can stand alone when used to replace a known noun. For example, imagine a conversation where the buyer says Tôi muốn mua những quả táo này or “I want to buy these apples” and the seller asks bao nhiêu? or “how many?” The buyer can then answer ba quả or “three [apple classifier, i.e., apples].” Omitting the classifier or using an incorrect classifier makes a sentence ungrammatical.
Like many languages, including Spanish, Vietnamese is a pro-drop language. Vietnamese allows for sentences without a pronoun or subject when the subject is known in context. For example, the following constructions are possible in Vietnamese: Con mèo thấy một con cá. Bắt cá. Ăn cá. Đi về “The cat sees a fish. Catches the fish. Eats the fish. Goes home.” In this example, Con mèo “cat” is the known subject and is carried throughout all the sentences. Therefore, the addition of pronouns or subjects within each sentence is not necessary in Vietnamese. However, if another subject were mentioned within the construction, the speaker would need to insert the new subject before dropping pronouns in subsequent sentences. An omitted pronoun with an ambiguous referent is ungrammatical.
Lastly, Vietnamese has biclausal constructions involving the verbs bị, được, and làm (roughly translated as “undergo,” “obtain,” and “do,” respectively) followed by nominal clauses. There are no direct translations of these verbs within a biclausal construction. However, they provide a grammatical structure to the sentence. To construct the sentence, bị, được, and làm have to be the predicate of one clause followed by a nominal clause and cannot stand alone as one clause. Note that these biclausal constructions are different from serial verb constructions (Đông, 2012), which we coded as monoclausal. Bị and được constructions are sometimes considered passive constructions (Simpson & Tam, 2013). For example, Con mèo bị con chó bắt [cl- cat bị cl- dog catch] “The cat was caught by the dog.” Biclausal constructions using làm require the second clause to have an unaccusative verb, an intransitive verb whose subject is not responsible for the action (Phan, 2013). For example, Cậu bé làm rớt trái banh [The boy làm fall cl- ball] “The boy dropped the ball.” In the example, the unaccusative verb rớt (to fall) is the predicate of the second clause following the làm predicate in the first clause. These biclausal constructions in Vietnamese are very commonly used. The omission or substitution of these verbs can lead to a predicate error within a biclausal construction.
Based on these cross-linguistic differences between Vietnamese and English, there are features that are important in English but are not shared with Vietnamese, such as tense and agreement morphemes (e.g., past tense –ed) and nontense morphemes (i.e., plural –s, possessive –'s, and progressive –ing). Because Vietnamese does not have inflectional morphology, grammatical errors that are common in English, such as verb overgeneralization (e.g., goed) and double tense marking (e.g., wented), are not possible in Vietnamese. Other English features not shared with Vietnamese include definite articles (i.e., the) and indefinite articles (i.e., a/an). Whereas the notion of (in)definiteness does exist in Vietnamese, its expression often necessitates a quantifier + classifier phrase (e.g., một con bò [one cl- cow] “a cow”) rather than a one-to-one mapping with English articles (H. T. Nguyen, 2013).
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