An Ode to “ơi”

In this short piece, erin Khue Ninh, editor and educator, ponders about the nuances of the Vietnamese language and in particular, the untranslatable but meaningful “ơi.”

I have been thinking about “ơi” lately.  I’ve been thinking how it is the most heartaching word in Vietnamese language, and how it is hard to explain.

Maybe you learned it with “Má”; I learned how it worked calling “Mẹ ơi.”  The long vowel drawn out on my breath, or staccato with excitement. A Look what I found!  Or scraped knees from a spill.  Panic, from bad dreaming.  Or a tattle about to be told.  “Ơi” can telegraph all those things and more.  But always it means, Come to me.  Hear me.  I need you and know you’re near.

I came across a headstone in the Japanese American/now also heavily Vietnamese American section of a San Jose cemetery a few months ago.  Young man’s grave.  Etched on it I read, “Bố Mẹ thương và nhớ con lắm, con ơi.”  The “con ơi” set me weeping, but I couldn’t translate it.  Mom and Dad love and miss you very much…  o child?  Wrong.  It’s like they’re still speaking to him, I tried to explain.  You don’t say ơi if you don’t think the other person can hear you.

The Vietnamese-English dictionary says “ơi” means “Hey, hello” or alternatively “Yes.”  Here are its examples:

  • Hey, hello
    • em bé ơi, dậy đi thôi
      Hey baby, wake up!
  • Yes
    • Bố ơi – Ơi, bố đây
      Hey, dad! – Yes

To say “ơi” is like “Hey” is a stretch, though.  You use it to hail people, sure, and those people can be strangers, like waiters in restaurants.  (Ah, the limited language-use contexts of the second generation.)  But it could never be Althusser’s cop’s “Hey, you!”  “Ỏi” is a vulnerable sound, with a hint of supplication to it.  It asks to be recognized.  “Hey,” on the other hand, is a familiarity, bidding someone answer to what you’ve called them, whether they like it or not; actually saying “Hey” to your dad can get you smacked in the head.

“Hello” is even worse an approximation.  It doesn’t work at all to use “ơi” on first walking into a room by way of greeting.  People would look at you like, Yeah?  What do you want?  Imagine tugging someone frantically on the sleeve and then not saying anything when she turns around.  Creepy.

And “ơi” said in echo means, “I hear you,” so maybe “Yes?” but not “Yes.”  It’s a call, so when someone repeats the word back to you, it’s the response you were listening for.

That’s my ode to “ơi” today—for my Vietnamese American friends who are having babies, or my friends who are having babies with Vietnamese people.  May you hear everything that’s in it, and may the sound of closeness not fade.


erin Khuê Ninh is blog editor of Hyphen. She teaches in the department of Asian American studies at UCSB, and is the author of Ingratitude: The Debt-Bound Daughter in Asian American Literature.


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  1. What a wonderful, beautiful well written piece. Thank you soooo much for this. I was trying to explain “oi” to my Caucasian husband who is learning Vietnamese. However, during my attempt, I realized I couldn’t give him a clear grasp of what the word meant. After 5 minutes, I gave up and came to the conclusion that I have a horrible understanding of my mother’s language. After reading your post, I was instantly relieved that there was a reason for my lack of clarity and inability to pinpoint the meaning of the word. Thank you for letting me know that some words in the Vietnamese language are untranslatable.

  2. I think there are more words like that in Vietnamese like ” này, nè, ….” make the context more colorful.

  3. I remember awhile back when my Vietnamese American peers in high school (I’m a college student now, and almost done being one) would attach “o’i” to other peers’ names – often times strangers’ – when addressing each other. I remember that made me uncomfortable, like it was a mis-appropriation of my culture, my language. It was not a big deal, and a huge deal at the same time. I don’t remember myself using it ever since I was a little girl. Reading your article it makes me think – Why? I suppose it does somehow make me feel very vulnerable to the person I’m addressing, as if I am placing all my trust and no doubt into that person. That’s just very hard to do in this society now a day. O’i is also very loving. The people I would say it to are definitely people I would embrace and kiss and hold close to my heart. Thank you for writing this.

  4. hi, Mai. thanks for your comment. yes, interesting observation about “nha” — how even in saying thanks there’s something of an asking for agreement or consent. as if not wanting to impose thanks or presuming to see the other person again. funny, you’d think we were a way polite people!

    and very intriguing about the “emotion implicatives” — rife for speculation.

    definitely, one of the things i regretted not mentioning explicitly in the piece above, was that “oi” in itself doesn’t *mean* anything. it’s a “something you say when,” that has a clear function and yet… no content. what would Derrida have done with it?? and is it true that there are no English equivalents? i’m drawing a blank.

  5. Vietnamese has so many sweet but untranslatable little add-ons, which make it a really colorful and endearing language. One of my favorites is “nha”. “Thank you” or “see you again” are sweetened up a notch in Vietnamese by “nha”: “cảm ơn nha”, “gặp lại hôm khác nha”, etc.
    I think “ơi” is somewhat similar to the Korean 아/야 (ah/yah) added after a name, except “ơi” can be used more freely without a romantic implication between friends of opposite genders. It seems that the Asian languages have more “emotion implicatives” than the Western languages, could it be because our cultures more often imply emotions instead of expressing them via action verbs like “love”, “like”, “adore”, etc.?


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