You know how Eskimos supposedly have hundreds of words for “snow”? Well, by extension, you’d think the Vietnamese would have hundreds of different words for “rat”. Surprisingly, they only have one word, “chuột”.
Chuộts in Hanoi look much like this, only about forty times larger.
Even more surprising, there is also only one word for “mouse”. And it is “chuột”.
It turns out the Vietnamese have the exact opposite problem to the Eskimos: they don't have enough words for their rodent friends.
This has prompted the repetition of the following conversation with many Vietnamese friends, colleagues, and our Vietnamese teacher:
Me: Rats and mice are different animals.
Them: No they’re not. They’re the same animal, just different sizes.
Me: Actually, they are different species.
Them: No they’re not!
Me: Yes they are!
Them: They look the same!
Me: No they don’t!
But no amount of waving around Wikipedia articles will change their minds. We are dealing with a language here where the word for “blue” and the word for “green” is the same word.
The confusion surrounding rats and mice does not, however, explain the following:
It gets worse. Hamsters are also called “chuột”.
This does not, however, explain this sign in the pet shop:
It is technically illegal to own a hamster (or probably any other chuột) as a pet. They were outlawed in 2008, the Year of the Rat/Mouse/Hamster, when the government evidently feared a plague of escaped pet hamster bears would rise up and use their insane cuteness to take over the city.
Dreaming of the chuột revolution.
Two of our friends are risking the 30 million dong fine to keep an illegal hamster of their own. He is called Captain Alfonso Giovanni (named by – you guessed it – Nathan), and he often comes over to our house to sleep in our wine rack or play Settlers of Catan:
[Identities concealed for their own protection.]
And as if three meanings for one word wasn't enough, there's one final chuột: the “dưa chuột” or rat/mouse/hamster melon. Known to you and me as the cucumber.
If you were to take this quiz called "Rat or Mouse?" (on which I scored 100%, just for the record), you would note the distinct lack of cucumbers.