North Vietnam: Language

Communication was no problem with the North Vietnamese. Though only a few interpreters spoke English, some officials read it, and everybody I met of middle-class origin over the age of forty—ministers, poets, critics, museum workers, doctors, specialists in information, the head of the Supreme Court—spoke French fluently. Even those who had no second language, a factory manager, for instance, were remarkably well informed about the United States. Coming from the West, eagerly bearing news of American political developments, we found they knew it all already: the New Hampshire primary, the dollar crisis, the latest editorial in the Wall Street Journal. Nor were they dependent on “peace” sources; I kept seeing old copies of US News and World Report. They were familiar with the voting records of Congressmen whose names I had barely heard of. The head of the Writers’ Union referred to Noam Chomsky’s work in linguistics and helped me out while I was groping for the author of “Nihil humanum mihi alienum puto”—Terence. You did not have to explain to them what a primary election was, a just-about hopeless job with French political intellectuals, nor sit squirming as I had done recently at a Paris press conference on the draft-resistance movement while speakers invoked “Samuel Bellow” and “William Thoreau.” The events that happened during my stay in Hanoi—the reassignment of Westmoreland and Admiral Sharp, Johnson’s April 1 speech, the Wisconsin primary, the murder of Martin Luther King—were instantly known in the Thong Nhat hotel; I heard Johnson, live, on the Voice of America, and our friends from the Peace Committee came to tell us, with a delicate sympathy—“Perhaps it may not be true”—of the death of King. As I established when I got home (my husband had saved the French and American and English papers), no important happening in the West had missed us in Hanoi or been distorted in the reporting. The only gap was in news from the East: Poland and Czechoslovakia.

Yet there was a difficulty in the sphere of communications—a sort of speech impediment. Though we talked of the same things, we did not always use the same language. Take “Viet Cong.” This name, which started out as a derogatory, derisive label, like “Commie” a few years ago in the United States, has passed into popular currency in the Western world, becoming the normal straightforward term for the insurgent forces in the South. If the term were taken away, nobody in Saigon could write a newspaper dispatch. In the South last year it had no pejorative sound, any more than “Gothic,” originally injurious, for a cathedral. The derogatory word was “Charlie”: “We caught Charlie with his pants down,” “Charlie is hurting bad.” By contrast, the abbreviation “VC” was a half-affectionate diminutive, like “GI.” But in the North, as I quickly perceived, the term “Viet Cong” was impermissible, since “Cong” was short for Communist, which was what they insistently denied about the leadership and inspiration of the movement. The right expression was “the People’s Liberation Army.”

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