Vietnamese is a fascinating language, as is the culture and history of Southeast Asia.
Visitors to Vietnam, if they go to the mountain town of Da Lat or the beach town on Con Dao Island, might be surprised to see what looks to be a smaller version of the Eiffel Tower sprouting from the top of a building in city center. Upon closer inspection, visitors might decide that they are indeed looking at an Eiffel Tower.
They might figure that it functions as an antenna, but they might also wonder why this distinctive shape came to be on the roof of the post office. The answer is: at the end of the nineteenth century the French created the postal system in Vietnam when it was part of the French colonial empire called Indochine.
By the way, the main post office in Ho Chi Minh City (Sai Gon), which sports a normal-looking antenna, was designed and built by Gustave Eiffel himself. Pertinently, the Vietnamese word for ‘post office’ is bưu điện: bưu is from the French word bureau ‘office’ and điện is the Vietnamese word for ‘electricity.’
The French took an interest not only in the buildings they themselves built but those they encountered in this part of the world. The most spectacular are the temple complexes at Angkor, located in present-day Cambodia.
Angkor was the ancient capital of the Khmer Empire, founded in the ninth century and abandoned in the fifteenth century to the will of the jungle. The first European to see the city was the Catholic Father Bouillevaux who happened upon these exotic and overgrown structures in 1850. A decade later French naturalist and explorer, Henri Mouhot, touted to the European press the beauty of this location, and Western efforts to restore the site began.
The most mysterious and magical of all the temples is Ta Prohm, a veritable ruin where the sinuous roots of kapok trees, some thicker than a large man’s thigh, snake around and through the temple walls. In 2001, British film director, Simon West, chose this visually startling location for the scene in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider where Lara encounters a mysterious girl who tells Lara where to go next.
Given the partial colonization of the imagination exerted by the global movie industry, tourists today are willing to stand in line for hours on end at a particular wall in Ta Prohm in order to have their picture taken in front of this famous movie set.
The power dynamics of concern earlier in Languages in the World are clearly at work here. The successful expansions described in the previous chapter involved the power of the innovation of farming, the possession of the most advanced technologies like ploughs and harnesses, the domestication of goats and yaks and horses, as well as the invention of conveyances such as a cart or a sled.
Today the expansive power of a culture might be the blockbuster movie. In this chapter we foreground the movements impelled by power in the ways that certain organized political structures feel the need to expand their territory. We call these movements colonization.
We begin with a look at the major pre-Columbian colonizers: the Chinese, the Persians, the Mongols, and the Slavs, as well as the Romans. We move on to examine the linguistic effects of another type of colonization – that which has occurred through the spread of world religions.
We end by taking a look at a different kind of linguistic legacy of colonialism, namely the way a variety of English has come into being in the particular eco-linguistic environment of Singapore.
See also: Languages in the World Blogs
From Chapter Eight Colonial Consequences: Language Stocks and Families Remapped. Languages of the World. How History, Culture, and Politics Shape Language. (affiliate) Julie Tetel Andresen and Phillip Carter. November, 2015. Wiley-Blackwell.
This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen