January 08, 2005

Noi lai and contrepets

One of the talks I plan to hear at the LSA today is by Marcy Macken and Hanh Nguyen, on the topic "Phonological Constituents". According to a copy of the handout that I've seen, the part that looks like the most fun is about Vietnamese "nói lái" and their role in the work of the 18th-century poet Ho Xuan Huong.

You can think of nói lái as subversive communication by means of implied speech errors. For example, in the period after the fall of Saigon to the communists in 1975, residents would say of the obligatory picture of Ho Chi Minh that they would like to "lộng kiếng" = "frame (it in) glass", by which they meant that they would like to "liệng cống" = "throw (it in the) sewer" [from this site].

A series of posts on an archived newsgroup about nói lái in recent Vietnamese culture, starting with this one, include this assertion:

As of my own experiences, its uses proliterated in various places in Saigon during the period of 1985-89 (I left in 1989) as a street slang.

About 5-6 out of 10 words were "la'i" and the whole conversation can be conducted in this manner. Most of the times, it was spoken extremely fast to confuse others whose the conversation was not meant to. ;-)

The spirit of this kind of use in slang or disguised speech is similar to that of Cockney rhyming slang and recent French verlan, but the earlier historical practice seems most like the French contrepets. These are exemplified by phrases like "que votre Verbe soit en joie", which literally means "may your Word be in joy", but which expresses a less spiritual message if the indicated sounds (not letters!) are swapped: "que votre verge soit en bois" = "may your staff be of wood". (This reminds me again of the hypothesis that "some of the differences between American and French intellectual life can be explained by the fact that we Americans have the opportunity to get this sort of thing out of our systems in high school..., while the French, with their more formal and rigid educational system, do not".)

As John Balaban says of Ho Xuan Huong,

the greater part of her poems--each a marvel in the sonnet-like lu-shih style--are double entendres: each has hidden within it another poem with sexual meaning. In these poems we may be presented with a view of three cliffs, or a limestone grotto, or scenes of weaving or swinging, or objects such as a fan, some fruit, or even a river snail--but concealed within almost all of her perfect lu-shih is a sexual design that reveals itself by pun and imagistic double-take.

Macken and Nguyen go over this lu-shih:

Kiếp Tu Hành

Cái kiếp tu hành nặng đá đeo
Vị gì một chút tẻo tèo teo
Thuyền từ cũng muốn về Tây Trúc
Trái gió cho nên phải lộn lèo

Life of a Monk

The life of a monk is as heavy as carrying stone
Who cares about the little things
The boat of religion would want to go to Buddha's home
But the adverse wind came, and the halyard was entangled

Among the other nói lái here is the implicit transformation lộn lèo "entangled halyard" → lẹo lồn "copulating vagina", in which the tone sequence of the two syllables remains the same, but the rimes are exchanged. In the traditional Vietnamese terminology, the tone sequence (I think) is nặng + huyền (in both the original and the transformed version), and in the phonetic spelling that Macken and Nguyen use, the non-tonal part is [lon lɛw][lɛw lon].

Some French literary contrepets are intentional, just as the nói lái in Ho Xuan Huong's poems were, but others are probably accidental: "Il ôta lentement sa casquette et après avoir lissé les mèches luisantes, il la remit" [NABOKOV, La Vénitienne, cited here].

As secondary jokes, the French refer to la contrepèterie belge, where the output of the transformation is the same as the input (e.g. "Il fait chaud et beau"), and the contrepèterie britannique, which are the riddles I recall from junior high school that pose questions like "what is the difference between a woman in a church and a woman in a bath?"

[More on the (original Chinese version of the) lu-shih form can be found here.

John Balaban's translation of the cited poem is

The Lustful Monk

A life in religion weighs heavier than stone.
Everything can rest on just one little thing.

My boat of compassion would have sailed to Paradise
if only bad winds hadn't turned me around.



Posted by Mark Liberman at January 8, 2005 08:24 AM