Pho Pronunciation: You Can Say It, Pronounce Pho, Say: Phở...

Updated 04-02-14. You need only read a few of my posts on this site and you'll understand my passion for pho. I take my pho seriously. And personally, I'm not one to make fun at my favorite, beloved and respected chow. Certainly not in substance, not in name, and definitely not in pronunciation.

pronounce-pho1Fuh? foe? FO? Fu-uuuuuhh? PhuUUH? What the P...? Well, you will find no funny stuff here. On the other hand, pronouncing "pho" can be challenging if you don't have the correct pho pronunciation to go by.

Use your favorite search engine and you'll find various ways that people suggest how to pronounce pho. If you care and search long enough you'll discover one or two ways to say "pho" getting propagated by many people. Well guess what, regardless of how widely spread and popular these Internet versions are, and how well-intentioned the individuals may be, these "pho" versions are incorrect pronunciation. Update: there are some decent pronunciation guides now on YouTube.

Since my goal aims to stop further proliferation of such 'slanderous' treatment of my favorite noodle dish called pho, I won't mention them here to further the butchering of the word. Instead I'll offer the following for your reading (and listening) enlightenment.

First let's set the record straight. I'm not a hard-liner. I believe in freedom and capitalism as the next sensible person. But I think we can all do better with pho pronunciation. It's not difficult, and with minimal effort, proper guidance/demonstration and practice, you'll impress a Vietnamese-speaking person or enjoy watching him/her in shock with such unexpected fluency and command of the language and your knowledge of the dish. Yes, no more "f..." or "ph...", or whatever. So here goes.

Wikipedia correctly makes a distinction between Vietnamese and English versions of written and pronunciation of pho. That is not to say that it is necessarily acceptable or there is nothing more to it. Granted, written words and their pronunciations in other languages have been "Americanized" before (read 'butchered',) so this is nothing new. But in this global economy it's probably a good thing to try saying non-English words as correctly as possible. Hey anything to help foster international friendship and understanding, right? And when it involves "pho", it's even more important to pho lovers and newbies alike.

So, using the International Phonetic Alphabet, the Wiki explains that Phở is pronounced phonetically as [fə̃ː] which sounds like this:

Phở pronunciation from Wikipedia.     
Below are my own versions. There are differences which will be explained below. Both wiki's and my versions are correct pronunciation.

Phở in normal speech.     
Phở in slower speech.     

 

Note: the Wikipedia pronunciation is from a Southern Vietnamese speaker, whereas my pronunciation has both Southern and Northern accents, with probably a 40-60% (South-North) influence. Also I deliberately accentuate to demonstrate the different sounds that exist in the word. Both are phonetically correct and legitimate pronunciation of the word phở.

Sometime a single sound doesn't really do justice. So below are a few additional phrases with proper pronunciation of "pho" in conversational usage so you get a better sense of the word "pho" and its inflections. You should be able to identify "pho" with no trouble. But more importantly you can now identify "pho" even when spoken in Vietnamese. Try numbers 3 and 4 below.

  1. Let's go have some pho today.     
  2. I had pho with a friend this past weekend.     
  3. Let's meet for pho at about 8 tonight - in Vietnamese.     
  4. How is your beef pho? - to lady friend in Vietnamese.     

There. It's pretty easy isn't it?

Well there is another challenge. North, Central or South Vietnamese accents. Encountering one when you're familiar with another can throw you off, but that's for another post. I can tell you one thing, of the two Vietnamese phrases above, one is Northern and the other, Southern accent. Can you tell which is which? If you promise not to cheat, take this poll below, and the answer is at the end of this article.

Which is Northern Vietnamese accent, recording #3 or #4?

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I hope that if you enjoy eating pho and care about this noodle dish (and who doesn't after the first bowl?), please pass on the proper pronunciation, or maybe gently correct a friend who has been misled. Better yet point them to this post so they can experience the recordings above themselves.

So what variety of pho pronunciation have you encountered? Share your views with us with a comment below.

By the way if you need help with Vietnamese pronunciation or would like some guidance or even request help, head on over to read my post on "Pronunciation of Pho and Other Vietnamese Words and Phrases," and leave a request.

#3: Southern Vietnamese accent
#4: Northern Vietnamese accent

73 comments

  1. Cuong 17 July, 2014 at 21:46 Reply

    @Huh Pho: I agree. I think Americans are smarter than we give ourselves credit for when it comes to foreign language, and we (I count myself as American) can do as much or as little as we want. Those who can do and want to, can really do a lot of great things. Those who won’t do much will find excuses for not doing much at all. Glad you find this post helpful.

  2. John 22 August, 2014 at 00:12 Reply

    I understand where the anger from ‘stop being so pretentious’ came from. It’s reached a point in middle-class American interactions where people pride themselves in not only pronouncing “pho” more or less correctly, but in correcting people despite their preference in pronunciation. It’s hardly the same respect, as many of said vain fools, deliver in pronouncing any other word or phrase appropriated from other languages into English and commonly morphed in pronunciation.

    While I understand the concern over proper pronunciation in general, I completely relate to the aforementioned frustration given how hypocritically and self-righteously corrections are delivered. “Pho” has now absolutely become one of pronunciations to boast about now that the the successful propagation of Tex-Mex pronunciations left us with, again, more or less correct pronunciations of “quesadilla”, “chipotle”, “guacamole”, and “jalapeño”.

    Regardless, I am very appreciative of this post and the recorded pronunciations for our ease of consideration. It was very helpful in cutting through the crap and getting to the point.

  3. Cuong 22 August, 2014 at 01:04 Reply

    @John: Thanks for your comments. Maybe some readers misinterpret my intention from the early part of the article. To some it may sound snobbish, but in fact it’s all tongue-in-cheek, evident by the word ‘slanderous’ being in quotes. I saw a great opportunity and an excuse for me to help those who cares or are curious to know, and I took it.

    Of course, I can’t force others to say things correctly; I can only help by putting this post out there. Correcting others for proper pronunciation is a sticky business, unless you know the person well. On the one hand, you risk alienating people by acting like a know-it-all. On the other, the person may be very appreciative to know the correct way so he/she does better next time.

    I hear you about the frustration you described and also from a few others. I think it’s not much different than the word “nuclear” being pronounced nuke – you – lerr. To many it just doesn’t sound right on the ear. And one can’t anglicize everything. I’ll throw my first name out as an example. In Vietnamese it’s written as Cường with certain pronunciation that’s almost impossible for Western tongue, so it had to be translated to “Cuong” for convenience and use in the states. And it’s still not easy. Don’t even mention the numerous times it had been butchered 😉 There are times when a new friend tried so hard to correctly pronounce my name that I felt guilty for putting him/her through such ordeal. Regardless, he/she didn’t mind.

    And that’s the key point. Those who don’t mind, won’t mind regardless. And those who mind will mind regardless. Why would a Westerner ask me how I pronounce my name? Isn’t it because he/she cares and doesn’t want to disrespectfully mispronounce someone’s name? One has to see the extra effort, and hopefully sincerity, being put forth by the inquiring person. It’s all about understanding and expanding one’s own horizon. I see phở the same way and that is the point of all these pronunciation guides.

    Anyway, I’m glad to hear your viewpoints. Let’s all go and have some pho?

  4. Marty 27 January, 2015 at 13:00 Reply

    Thanks for the pronunciation help!

    I have to take exception however, to your calling the Americanization of a word, “butchering” – it’s normal, and it’s done by every language on the planet. And I have to admit, I like the way a word changes as it moves into new territory. And it changes not because Americans (or Japanese, French, Vietnamese, etc) and cultural bigots, it changes naturally. The Japanese don’t say “television” or “tv” they say something that sounds kind of like “tereby”. It sounds a bit funny at first, until you realize that it fits perfectly with their language – it’s a borrowed word that made itself at home in a new place, with a new pronunciation. Likewise, saying “Pho” like “faux” isn’t really butchering to me, just different. Still, I’ll work at remembering to pronounce Pho closer to the original.

  5. Cuong 27 January, 2015 at 13:32 Reply

    Hey @Marty: Thanks for the feedback and all points are well taken. I wrote this article with a bit of tongue in cheek, and I guess I still need to work on doing it better. I totally agree with your point about words moving into new environments or territories.

    When something becomes popular and globalized, it’s really out of anyone’s hand or control, and it will go where the mass will take it. I’ve come to the realization (with reluctant acknowledgement) that this has happened and is happening to pho and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. There will be fusion pho and fusion banh mi and on and on. Heck there’s already Vietnamese food/restaurants opened by non-Viet people. There’s a “pho banh mi” done by none other than a Vietnamese chef! Likewise there will be zillions of ways that people will pronounce pho and make pho themselves. Oh how I hate it and how I love it at the same time :P!

    In the case of pho, I think we’re still in the early transitional phase with lots of dynamics still going on, and I just want LovingPho to be in there mixing things up a little bit while trying to maintain at least some traditional aspects of pho. I don’t consider myself a pho right-winger who can’t face changes. I’ll go where the money is lol.

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