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. Richard 7 January, 2013 at 12:27 Reply

    The point is that it is written in Roman letters and it spells either ‘po’ or ‘fo’. Neither which is close to the actual pronunciation and is misleading.

  2. Cuong Huynh 7 January, 2013 at 13:03 Reply

    Richard: First off I want to say I appreciate your views and comments. The reality is, the proper spelling of the modern Vietnamese word for this dish is phở. For lack of any other way to do it, the “Westernized” version of it has been and will continue to be “pho” for some time to come. Many English speaking people don’t have a problem with it, while many others do.

    If your beef with all this is about the spelling versus pronunciation of pho, then consider a perspective on why it is so hard for many to learn to speak English: Words Are Not Always Pronounced The Way They Are Spelt. Talk about spelling vs. pronouncing! How the heck do you pronounce the gh as an f in the words cough, enough, laugh, rough, and tough is beyond many of us. Fortunately I do not have a problem learning English, but many of us Vietnamese did and still do. We just deal with it.

    Speaking of misleading, maybe it’s not misleading at all. The modern Vietnamese language has been converted from Chinese characters to alphabet under French colonial times. To borrow from Wikipedia for convenience’s sake, “Much of Vietnamese vocabulary has been borrowed from Chinese, and it formerly used a modified Chinese writing system and given vernacular pronunciation. As a byproduct of French colonial rule, Vietnamese was influenced by the French language; the Vietnamese alphabet (quốc ngữ) in use today is a Latin alphabet with additional diacritics for tones, and certain letters.” Source: Vietnamese language from Wikipedia. So please blame the French for this 😉 If the British had colonized Vietnam back then, we would probably have your “far” or “fah.”

    By the way, I’ll just share another interesting and funny bit here. Vietnamese communists (at least those during and right after the Vietnam War) never liked the French, and they actually started using fở in place of phở. But really, that did not work well at all; beside the fact that we Viet just laughed at such attempt and would never use it that way, they were still using the Western alphabet and the French accent marks in fở.

  3. harry 21 June, 2013 at 17:00 Reply

    thanks for this, cuong. i absolutely love pho-the delicately sweet, aromatic broth, the razor thin slices of rare beef that cook in the broth as you eat them, the crunch from the bean sprouts and ground peanuts…such a delicious and healthy dish. i just had a bowl(as well as a couple of ‘summer’ springrolls with grilled pork) a few hours ago! After listening to your files, i will attempt to order properly next i pop in for lunch-no more ‘i’ll have # 33..’ thanks again!

  4. Cuong Huynh 21 June, 2013 at 19:14 Reply

    @harry: Very eloquent in describing your pho. And watch out, you may give your server a shock, as they’d never expect a Harry to order his pho speaking Vietnamese.

  5. stop being so pretentious 16 January, 2014 at 14:32 Reply

    if you’re an american ordering this in america, it’s pronounced “foe” like Poe. anything else is pretentious and grating on the ears of any decent-minded people in the vicinity. anyone who says “fuh” or “fa” or whatever in the context of an English conversation is an awful human being. Dropping a heavily accented and culturally intoned word into a sentence spoken in a different language makes you a terrible person. people who say, “let’s go get some fuh” are just as bad as people who say, “let’s go get a burrrrrrito” (rolling their Rs like an idiot), especially when they’re from a culture different than the word they’re arrogantly trying to pronounce is from.

    and stop getting all high and mighty about the need to respect a [bleep]ing bowl of soup. it tastes good. that’s all. it doesn’t need you to protect it, much less protect its pronunciation.

  6. Cuong Huynh 16 January, 2014 at 14:45 Reply

    @stop being so pretentious: Thanks for spending the time to read the article and provide feedback. Your message has been edited for content. I’m pleased that you enjoy phở, just don’t hate so much.

  7. Huh Pho 17 July, 2014 at 20:38 Reply

    If Americans can learn to pronounce “quesadilla” or “chipotle” correctly – then they can certainly master the proper pronunciation of Pho.

    Thanks for the primer.

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