Tuesday, 30 November 2010

It's getting chuột in here

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.


  1. Great post, many lols, and very cute hamster

  2. Interesting article!

    You know the statement that certain INUIT languages, of which there are many, have hundreds of words for snow is a myth. It's not true.


  3. Awesome! I love learning language quirks. I could share some Lao phrases that make me laugh but some of them involve potty talk.

  4. You can learn a lot about a nationality from the words in their language, or lack there of.

    I have had chats with Spaniards about the difference between a turtle, tortoise and terrapin - similar to your rat/mouse/hamster conversation.

    The fact that a tortoise spends most of its time on land, and the turtle in water, doesn't seem to occur to them. They are all the same animal - tortuga.

    Strangely, the word for wife is the same as the word for handcuffs in Spanish. What could this tell us...?

    You can also tell a nationality by the way they drive...

  5. Funny post. Even guinea pigs are sometimes called chuot, when I looked it up in the dictionary I found "chuot lang" (just in case you're ever talking about guinea pigs!)
    Also if you have the blue-green problem w/ "xanh" you can say "xanh la' cay^" for green (leaf green) and "xanh da troi`" for blue (sky skin blue)!
    Glad I found your blog
    The West Lake Review

  6. Ahem...also scored 100% in that quiz. Perhaps living in Sydney has really made us fine tune those rat/mouse identification skills. Glad to see they've proven to be so useful. Seeing that hamster reminded me of the awesome hamster I had as a toddler...but I think he tried to eat my fingers and he was sent away. Shame.

  7. Thanks for your comments everyone!

    Suzy: If the Captain is still alive when our friends leave Hanoi then we're going to inherit him! But apparently hamsters only live about two years, so we're not counting our chickens just yet.

    Jonathan: You should never let facts get in the way of comedy, but I concede the point.

    CanCan: This blog is not at all averse to potty talk - I referred to the Hoan Kiem turtle as a dicknose.

    Anonymous: I think I must be Spanish at heart, as I am incapable of remembering the difference between turtles and tortoises. Also, I recently discovered that English is one of the few languages that differentiates moths from butterflies.

    Zac: Glad you're enjoying our blog! I'm yet to see a guinea pig in Vietnam, but on that subject, I would say that hamsters are about a bazillion times better pets than guinea pigs. Australia needs to get into the hamster game.

    Edyta: Must be a slow day at work when you actually take the rat vs mouse quiz. But well done.

  8. love your writing Tabitha... gives me more to smile about in this wonderful city... I too wondered at the piles of dirt on your street... I also spied the biggest by far Chuots in Danang at the w/e... maybe twice the size of any in Hanoi I have seen... and everywhere!
    (Nina here BTW)

  9. one even attempted to take over my bike ( while i was in it) the biggest chuot probably can be found in old apartment buildings or at my palace

  10. Hey guys, yes that in general we call CHUỘT. However it surely can be specific in situations: CHUỘT CỐNG for RAT and CHUỘT NHÀ for mouse or CHUỘT BẠCH/NUÔI for HAMSTER.Gruuuuuuuuuuu

  11. Confusion about the differences between rats and mice is not restricted to Vietnam: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-12187409


  12. I just discovered your blog - really like it :)


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