Le dictionnaire



War always affects the nature of language. The Indochina War was no exception. In French and Vietnamese, for example, a host of words entered each vocabulary to identify, denigrate, and even dehumanize the other. Members of the French army shortened Viet Minh to les Viet early on in the conflagration to refer to their adversaries in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). French officers and French Union soldiers used it widely in daily conversations, reports, and later in the war literature some of them produced. Many in the European settler community, the Français d’Indochine, did the same. Authors such as Roger Delpey popularized les Viet in Soldats de la boue. Memoirs published in the 1980s by Marcel Bigeard and others gave it a new lease on life in French and in the heat of the Boudarel affair.

But such use of language was not an exclusively French affair. Civil war witnessed Vietnamese coin and use words to refer to each other in similarly dehumanizing ways. Anti-communist Vietnamese nationalists referred to their opponents with the derogatory term Viet Cong, meaning Vietnamese communist but conveying something less than human. Communist nationalists shot back with couplets such as Viet gian, bu nhin, and nguy (“traitor”, “lackey”, and “puppet”). The idea in using all of these epithets was to try to deny legitimacy and oftentimes humanity to the other in what was a civil as much as a colonial war. Early on in the war, Vietnamese nationalists of all political colors opposed to the return of the French resurrected the term giac, meaning “pirate” or “bandit”, to refer to the “foreigners” attempting to steal or pillage the country. The Vietnamese had used this term to refer to the French during the conquest of the 19th century. Communist nationalists would use it to refer increasingly to the American “imperialists” intervening in the war from 1950 whereas non-communists directed it towards Chinese “communists” (trung cong) interfering on behalf of their Vietnamese allies.

With the communization of the DRV, communist Vietnamese cadres introduced more class-oriented terms to refer to their French, American, and Vietnamese enemies, including of course “imperialists”, “capitalists”, and “bourgeois”. Different social categories for the peasants emerged in DRV zones in central and northern Vietnam. Via the army, the school, newspapers, and scores of mass mobilization and propaganda campaigns, the DRV introduced a panolpy of revolutionary terms, few of which had ever been used in the Vietnamese countryside where the government was now based. Shortly after arriving in Hanoi in early 1951, one famous DRV operative, Nguyen Bac, had a real scare, when, during a visit to the local barber, the latter asked him if he were not from the maquis. Terrified, Bac asked him why he would think such a thing. The barber told him to take a look at the poor quality of his clothes, the buttons, and above all “your way of speaking”. As he later reminisced in his memoirs: “We, the party cadres, no longer spoke like ordinary people. We said “solidarity” for mutual assistance, “emulation” for an everyday rivalry, “revolutionary enthusiasm” instead of village celebrations … In any case this incident served as a lesson for me. It taught me to be on guard against myself and to rediscover my normal diction”.

War forced the DRV and the Associated State of Vietnam to rely heavily on the Vietnamese national language, quoc ngu. For both sides, literacy was vital to their ability to educate populations, train bureaucrats, cadres, and officers, in short operate a sustained and effective nation-state. War reinforced the use and spread of the Vietnamese language in other ways, too. Because the number of elites at ease in French was never sufficient to meet the needs of the war-state, the DRV promoted the Vietnamization of all types of knowledge. Specialists translated into Vietnamese scores of technical texts on radio transmissions, encryption, and decrypting.

War even led to a “re-indigenization” of Vietnamese medicine and its French-trained doctors. As the conflict intensified from 1950, the number of serious, combat-related casualties skyrocketed, increasing the DRV’s needs for medical personnel, doctors, and pharmacists as well as nurses, assistants, and medics. The DRV’s medical services had no choice but to recruit students from the countryside, where Vietnamese knowledge of French had always been weakest. As a result, in the middle of a full-blown war, the Vietnamese medical corps embarked upon the extraordinary project of translating scores of French medical textbooks, manuals, and lectures into Vietnamese, bringing French-trained intellectuals into closer touch with their own language and identity.

Lastly, the DRV, the French, and the Associated States of Indochina all sought out and recruited translators, interpreters, and bi- or multi-lingual people at all levels of society. Intelligence services in particular turned to the large overseas Chinese communities in Vietnam to serve as spies and sources of information. Vietnamese and French turned to métis to help them to navigate safely wide yet vital cultural divides. Bi-lingualism was a sine qua non.