Meaning of Vietnamese Names
One major difference between Far Eastern and Occidental onomastics is the problem of meaning, so to say the semantics of proprial units. Particularly, when it comes to Vietnamese scholarship, the vast majority of onomasticians assert that proper nouns do have meanings. But what kind of meaning (or content) do they possess? Do they have conceptual meaning as lexical words do? Or implicit meaning? As for placenames, it is often claimed that they have historical meaning. What about anthroponyms? Given names in Viet Nam are commonly chosen by parents and they frequently have a literal meaning in the Vietnamese language. For example, they often represent pleasing objects, attributes, characteristics, qualities, or wishes (e.g., flowers, jewelry, modesty, bravery, loyalty, happiness, success, etc.)
Quang Thiem Le contends that personal names belong to the practical stratum of sense and expression and therefore carry designated meaning. For instance, parents might name a daughter Hồng Hà to commemorate the place where they spent cherished time in the past. Such names are tied to significant moments in name givers’ personal lives and therefore require considerable non-linguistic knowledge to understand them thoroughly.
It is not always easy to determine the intended referential meaning. Take, for example, the male personal name Đức or a female personal name Hằng. Đức may denote “virtue”, but it may also denote the country ‘Germany’. Hằng may refer to the “moon” or “Goddess of the Moon”; or it may refer to characteristics such as durability, determination, or loyalty. Only the nominator can identify what the intended inner, denotative meaning of these names is.
In the Vietnamese language, most proper names, as nominal units, may be formed from any available lexical word or syllable, particularly personal names. For this reason, it has been argued that Vietnamese names are in fact common words and therefore have all the properties of lexical words (including meaning). This thinking may result in the dilemma that names in Vietnamese onomastics have denotative, significative and pragmatical meanings or senses, just as common words do. Consequently, proper nouns could be legitimately regarded as homonyms of common words.
For example, a Vietnamese name like Nguyễn Thị Phòng does not require that speakers make a link between the given name and a “room”, although phòng means ‘room’. Nobody makes any nonsensical assumptions that the bearer of this name is a “room” or has any relation to an actual room. Therefore, to understand a name, no linkage is made to a general concept as is the case of common nouns. It is obvious that the meaning of a name, if it has any, is not the same as that of the homonymous word.
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Le, Q.T. 2008. Ngữnghĩa học [Semantics]. Ha Noi: Education Publisher.
Nguyen, V.K. 2022. Revisiting Semantic Issues of Proper Names: A Vietnamese Perspective. In Names: A Journal of Onomastics Vol. 70(1), 40-49.
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