Con Nhà Nho Giáo – Children of the Grapes

grapes girl.

Con Nhà Nho Giáo

Everybody has heard this saying and everyone thinks it means a person who is from a well-educated family.  That is true, to a certain extent, but it does not describe the statement fully.

In the old days (oh some thousands of years in the past, all the way up to about a hundred years ago), the kids who could read ancient Việt language were called Con Nhà Nho Giáo (Children Educated in the Ancient Court Việt Language).  For some inexplicable reason, the word Nho also means grapes in Vietnamese, so I always thought it meant Children of the Grapes.  As a naturally curious little child, I asked my Daddy what Children of the Grapes meant.  He threw me a desultory look and said, “Haven’t you ever heard of a ‘homonym’?  Honestly, you are con nhà nho giáo—children of family educated in the court language, you shouldn’t let people hear you asking such silly questions or they will think you crawled out of the jungles.”

Psshhh!  Out of the jungles indeed.  Isn’t that better than being known as Children of the Grapes?

Methinks Daddy is so silly.  Why should I keep calling it Chử Nho?  It sounds so dumb.  To call it Ancient Vietnamese Court Language (which is what it actually is) is just as pompous and formal.  I would rather just keep it short and simple.  I kinda like Grapes Words myself, to be honest, and since this is my blog, I’m going to call it whatever I wish.

Grapes Words it is

So here I am, using ancient Grapes Words to transcribe out each word from the Three-Words-Book into Quốc Ngữ, the modern-day written Việt alphabet.  Keep in mind that the Chinese pronunciation of each character will be different from its Việt counterpart, but the character and the meaning will remain the same.  Also keep in mind that this is ancient Việt which is very different from modern-day Việt.

Nobody talks like this or write like this any more.  Most can’t even understand it without translations because the days when folks were actually taught to read this is long gone.  The Tam Tự Kinh (Three-Word Book) was meant to be a primer for school age children to learn the Hanzi script which is the script used by the courts.  Everyone else used either Nôm characters (which is similar yet has a separate set of different characters) or they didn’t write at all.  Grapes characters look just like the modern-day Chinese character script but it is spoken differently.  This is similar to the Run Spot Run, Go Jane Go book, only much less fun, much more difficult.

Before I go into the actual translation, I need to explain a few things:

Tam Tự Kinh

When I speak the title of this book out loud, it sounds so mystical and magical.  To my ears, it sounds like an incantation or ancient spell, ready to burst forth, sparkling with magic and energy.  Alas.  It is merely the sound of three mundane words.

That’s right.  Just three words.

The Three-Word-Book is called Three-Word-Book because each line of this book consists of only three words that are written in Grapes Characters (Hanzi).  As an example, I am going to take the first two sentences of this book and write it out as it was originally written in the book.


If we could read Grapes Characters, this would need no translation.  Sad to say, both myself and most of my readers need a little bit of translation help.  To translate these four lines, I have to combine the characters into two lines of six characters each, separated by a comma followed by a semi-colon (or a period), so that a two-sentence phrase can be created to form a single complex idea.

 人之初, 性本善;
性相近, 習相遠.
苟不教, 性乃遷;
教之道, 貴以專.

Once the lines have been separated correctly, I then have to phonetically write out each character into the alphabetized Grapes Words.

Here is how the Grapes Words look and sound like when it has been written out phonetically.  Notice that each green Grapes word corresponds with each individual red Hanzi character:

Nhân chi sơ, tính bổn thiện;
Tính tương cận, tập tương viễn.
Cẩu bất giáo, tính nãi thiên;
Giáo chi đạo, quí dĩ chuyên.

Afterwards, I will translate each individual word into English.  Since the translation needs to be as accurate as possible, where appropriate, I will deviate away from the three-letter format for accuracy and ease of understanding.

The two sentences above break down to this English translation:

People are born naturally good;
Similar in nature, yet dissimilar in life experiences.
Lacking in teachings, their character traits deteriorate;
Teach them the way, pass on the value of diligence.

Obviously, I must use many more English words in each sentence to fully express the idea that the Grapes Words can express in twelve succinct words each sentence.  I will try to keep the English words to a minimum while still maintaining the clearest translation that I am able to.

(…to be continued)

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