Ho chi minh university of education department of english

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Student: Huỳnh Phương Dung Conversion in English and Vietnamese

Class: 4A06 Contrastive Analysis






Instructor: Mr. Nguyễn Ngọc Vũ

Student : Huỳnh Phương Dung

Class : 4A06

Ho Chi Minh City

December 27, 2009


Language plays an essential role in human life. It is the indispensable means of communication for human beings to convey their thoughts and ideas in every daily activity. Edward Sapir, the great philologist, defined language as “a purely human and non – instinctive method of communicating ideas, emotions and desires by means of a system of voluntarily produced symbols” (Sapir). And within these “means of a system of voluntarily produced symbols”, word is the core of a language. In fact, we directly deal with words to communicate with one another every day. The field of word – formation is also a lucrative field in linguistics. As it is so important a part of a language that there are usually many different ways of forming words in each language to fulfill the need for interaction in its society which is developing ceaselessly. Among these interesting ways is grammatical conversion or conversion (in short). Conversion, a popular phenomenon in languages, is a positive process of word – formation , which manifests the systematical autoregulations in languages. Interestingly, it is a productive process of word – formation in both English and Vietnamese. However, the conversion phenomenon of Vietnamese, an isolating language, and the conversion phenomenon of English, an synthetic language, are quite different from each other. So this research is aimed at helping readers have a closer look at the process of conversion in English and Vietnamese so that they can avoid mistakes in using word forms when learning and communicating in these two languages.


Word – formation is the creation of new word. In each language, the process of word – formation is developing constantly, adding day – by – day the new words to its vocabulary to meet the need of communication. Because of its own characteristics, a language has its own ways of forming words. Some of the main ways to form a new word in English are affixation, compounding, conversion, reduplication, clipping, acronymy, blending, and back – formation (or reversion) whereas in Vietnamese words are mainly created by the processes of compounding, reduplication and conversion. As we can see, conversion has an important part in the word – formation of both English and Vietnamese languages. In conversion process, a word is created without any change in form from its input word. Basically, in both English and Vietnamese, a word which is created through the process of conversion is identical in form to its original word. However, to their nature, the process of conversion in each language is different. This difference can be traced back to the morphological difference between English and Vietnamese.

Morphology is the study of word – structure and word – formation. So what is a word? Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (7th edition) defines a word as “a single unit of language which means sth and can be spoken or written”. This “single unit of language”, according to Bloomfield – an American structuralist, is “a minimum free form” which can be spoken alone with meaning in normal speech. More specifically and structurally, a word is “a unit of language that carries meaning and consists of one or more morphemes which are linked more or less tightly together, and has a phonetic value” (“Word (linguistics)”), or in other words, words are built up by morphemes. Kamil Wiśniewski points out that “Morphemes in morphology are the smallest units that carry meaning or fulfill some grammatical function” (2007). Both English and Vietnamese have two kinds of morphemes: free morphemes and bound morphemes. Free morphemes are morphemes which can form words by themselves, i.e. they can be used alone with meaning. On the contrary, bound morphemes are ones that cannot stand alone with meaning but have to be combined with another morpheme to constitute words. English words as well as Vietnamese words are formed through the combination of these two kinds of morphemes; however, rules for the combining of morphemes in each language is different from the other. In English, the bound morphemes may be added to the existing words or free morphemes to create new words. These bound morphemes, including prefixes like un–, re–, super–, anti–, en–,… and suffixes like –able, –tion, –er, –ship, –ful,…, cannot occur alone as independent words. This morphological feature is one of the criteria classifying English as a synthetic language. Actually the English conversion process also reflects the inflectional feature of its language. Conversion in English, in fact, is referred to as zero derivation in which zero morphs are added to the base to constitute words. This process can be demonstrated in the following formula: {output word} = {input word} + {Ø}. Take the case of the word father for example.

  1. Ben’s a wonderful father.


  1. He claims to have fathered over 20 children.


From the noun father (in sentence 1), the verb to father (in sentence 2), which has related meaning with the base, i.e. to become the father of a child by making a woman pregnant (Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary), is formed through conversion by adding the zero morph to the root: {father: verb} = {father: noun} + {Ø}.

Meanwhile, Vietnamese is an isolating language, which means its bound morphemes cannot be attached to a base to form a new words like in English language. They stand alone as independent words and can be compounded with free morpheme to form a word like đẹp đẽ (with đẹp as free morpheme and đẽ as bound morpheme). Conversion in Vietnamese is, therefore, the process in which an item changes its word-class without changing its phonology feature. For example, in Tắt Đèn, Ngô Tất Tố wrote: “Vừa nói hắn vừa bịch1 luôn vào ngực chị Dậu mấy bịch2 rồi lại sấn đến trói anh Dậu”. In this sentence, bịch1 is a verb which means “đấm mạnh vào người” (Từ Điển Tiếng Việt). In the second case, the word bịch2 has changed its word class from a verb to a noun which has related meaning to the input as cái/quả đấm mạnh vào người.

To sum up, (grammatical) conversion is one of the word-formation means in both English and Vietnamese. However, to their nature, the process of conversion in each language is different. English is an inflectional language, and conversion in English is referred to as zero derivation. Whereas Vietnamese is an isolating language, so conversion in Vietnamese is the process in which an item shifts from a word-class to another without changing its form. So people used to identify conversion as hymonymous.


Conversion is a process which creates new lexical items out of those that already exist. "Conversion is the derivational process whereby an item changes its word-class without the addition of an affix" (Quirk, Randolph and Greenbaum, p. 441). In English, conversion is fairly productive to increase its lexicon. There are two kinds of conversion: complete conversion and approximate conversion.


Complete conversion is the process of shifting the word class of a word without any change in its form. The input and the output word are are “completely identical in their phonetic realization” (Plag, p. 134). The major categories of complete conversion are the conversion of verb to noun, conversion of noun to verb, conversion of adjective to verb, and conversion of closed class categories to open class categories.

Conversion of verb to noun

  • Nouns converted from verbs expressing state of manner or feelings: hope, miss, love, doubt, experience, fear, etc.

  • Nouns expressing activities or events: laugh, guess, walk, attack, jump, spy, etc.

  • Nouns as the objects of the original verbs: answer (‘that would be answered’), buy, call, visit, increase, etc.

  • Nouns as the subjects of the input verbs: judge, spy, clone, bore, cheat, etc.

  • Nouns showing the instrument of the verb: cover, wrap, etc.

Conversion of noun to verb

  • Verbs expressing the action of put in/on the noun: to bottle, to pocket, to film, etc.

  • Verbs describing actions done with the original nouns as instrument: to knife, to hammer, to file, etc.

  • Verbs which mean to act as the nouns with respect to…: to host, to nurse, to father, etc.

  • Verbs which have the meaning of “to give (the input noun)/ to provide with (the input noun)”: to water, to coat, to carpet, to mask, etc.

  • Verbs which mean “send/ go by (the original noun)”: to mail, to telephone, to ship, to motor, to cycle, ect.

  • Verbs which mean “make/ change … into (the noun)”: to rule, to silence, to schedule, to cash, etc.

Conversion of adjective to verb

  • Verbs which mean “to make adj”: to slow, to black, to calm, to wet, to dirty, etc.

  • Verbs which mean “to become adj”: to empty, to dry, to clean, etc.

Conversion of adjective to noun

  • Nouns indicating person: the poor, the rich, the blind, the deaf, etc.

  • Nouns indicatinng state: the dark, the red, the blue, etc.

Converion of adjectives to adverbs: hard, early, late, etc.

Conversion of closed class categories to open class categories

  • Prepositions → verbs: to up (= to get up, to rouse oneself: She upped and left without a word.), to down (= to knock sb to the ground: He suddenly downed his wife.)

  • Prepositions → adverbs: in (= contained within a an object, an area or a substance: I can’t drink coffee with milk in.), on [= on sb’s body, being worn: What did she have on? (= What was she wearing?)]

  • Prepositions → nouns: the ups and downs = the mixture of good and bad things in life or in a particular situation or relationship.

  • Adverbs → nouns: the inside (= the inner part of sth: The inside of the box is blue.)

  • Auxiliary verbs → nouns: must (= sth that you must do, see, buy, etc.: This novel is a must for all lovers of crime fiction)

  • Phrase → adjectives: under – the – weather (I felt very under – the – weather.), out of date (These figures are very out of date.),etc.


Approximate conversion is “the process by which a word, in course of changing its grammatical function, may undergo a slight change of pronunciation or spelling” (Tô Minh Thanh, p. 102).

Slight change in pronunciation: some nouns which are formed from verbs through conversion have a slightly different stress from the stress of their original verbs (usually the stress is shifted from second to the first syllable): record, export, conflict, extract, insult, permit, convert, contrast,rebel, etc.

Slight change in spelling: there are some nouns ending in voiceless fricative consonants /-s/, /-f/ and /-θ/ which are converted into verbs with the voicing of the final consonant into /-z/, /-v/ and /-δ/, respectively (Bartolomé & Cabrera): advice → advise, thief → thieve, breath → breathe.


When using Vietnamese, we usually come across some words which is used in another word class but not its original word class. Consider this sentence:

Anh ấy vác cuốc1 ra cuốc2 đám đất trước nhà để trồng khoai.

Cuốc1 is a noun which means “nông cụ gồm một lưỡi sắt tra thẳng góc vào cán dài, dùng để bổ, xới đất” (Từ Điển Tiếng Việt, 225) while cuốc2 functions as a verb which carries the meaning “Bổ, xới đất bằng cái cuốc” (Từ Điển Tiếng Việt, 225). Obviously, the meanings of cuốc1 and cuốc2 are related to each other. However, they are used in two diferrent word classes: one as noun and the other as verb. This phenomenon is called (grammatical) conversion in Vietnamese. So conversion in Vietnamese is the process in which an item changes its word-class without changing its phonology features.

In this process, one word has the root meaning, and the meaning of the second word is derived from the first one. Take the conversion of adjectives to nouns for example.

(1) Anh ấy rất kiên nhẫn1.

(2) Kiên nhẫn2 là một đức tính tốt.

Kiên nhẫn in the first sentence is an adjective while in the second sentence it is a noun serving as the subject of the sentence. The adjective kiên nhẫn has the root meaning, i.e.: “có khả năng tiếp tục làm việc đã định một cách bền bĩ, không nản lòng, mặc dù thời gian kéo dài, kết quả chưa thấy” (Từ Điển Tiếng Việt, 524) and the noun kiên nhẫn is created from this adjective with related meaning.

The second case is the conversion of nouns to adjectives or adverbs.

  1. Tôi yêu Việt Nam1.

Cô ấy nhìn rất Việt Nam2.

Việt Nam, naturally, is a proper noun. Nevertheless, in the second sentence, Việt Nam is used as an adjective which means having the typical characteristics of a Vietnamese.

  1. Tôi bảo đảm cái đó sẽ có hiệu quả1 như mong muốn

Cô ấy làm việc rất hiệu quả2.

The noun hiệu quả in the first sentence is converted into the adverb hiệu quả in the second sentence which modifies the verb làm việc.

Thirdly, we should also take in consideration the case of conversion from adjectives to adverbs as in this sentence: Anh ấy học rất chăm chỉ. Chăm chỉ is, originally, an adjective while in the above sentence it is used as an adverb. So the conversion process has taken place in this example.

However, there are also some cases in which two words that have the same phonology feature and related meaning are from two different word-classes, and it can’t be decided which word has the root meaning. That is usually the case of conversion between nouns and verbs.

Ex.: Anh ấy mượn cưa1 để cưa2 gỗ.

Cưa1 refers to a kind of equipment, i.e. “Dụng cụ để xẻ, cắt gỗ, kim loại và vật liệu cứng khác, lưỡi bằng thép mỏng có nhiều răng sắc nhọn” (Từ Điển Tiếng Việt, 228). Meanwhile, cưa2 expresses an action done with that equipment, i.e. “Xẻ, cắt, làm cho đứt bằng cái cưa” (Từ Điển Tiếng Việt, 228). And it is really hard to identify whether the kind of equipment or the action done with that kind of equipment has the root meaning.

In conversion process, the input word and the output word have the same spelling and pronunciation, so this process is often mistaken for hymonymy. In his book Vấn đề cấu tạo từ của tiếng Việt hiện đại, Hồ Lê has pointed out that “Sự chuyển loại là một phương thức cấu tạo từ, có khả năng tạo từ mới trên cơ sở từ đã có, bằng cách giữ nguyên vỏ âm của từ cũ, tạo ra một nghĩa mới có mối quan hệ lô-gích nội tại nhất định với nghĩa của từ cũ, và đưa ra những đặc trưng ngữ pháp của từ cũ... và giữa nghĩa của từ ấy với nghĩa của từ được chuyển loại chỉ có một sự liên hệ duy nhất” (p. 164); whereas hymonymy is an accidental phenomenon relating to word meaning. Wikipedia points out that “Từ đồng âm trong tiếng Việt là những từ phát âm giống nhau hay cấu tạo âm thanh giống nhau, nhưng nghĩa hoàn toàn khác nhau” (Từ đồng âm trong Tiếng Việt). Therefore, conversion and hymonymy are two completely different phenomena by nature.

Ex.: (1) Anh tôi đi mua sơn1 sơn2 nhà.

(2) Ruồi đậu1 trên mâm xôi đậu2.

In the first sentence, the meanings of sơn1 which is a noun referring to “hóa chất dạng lỏng, dùng để chế biến chất liệu hội họa, hoặc để quét lên đồ vật cho bền, đẹp” (Từ Điển Tiếng Việt, 871) and the verb sơn2 which means “quét sơn lên bề ngoài của đồ vật” are clearly related to each other. So we call this phenomenon conversion. However, the second phenomenon is different. According to Từ Điển Tiếng Việt (2006) by Viện Ngôn Ngữ Học, đậu1 is a verb meaning “ở trạng thái yên một chỗ, tạm thời không di chuyển” (p. 302) whereas đậu2 refers to the seeds of a kind of plant “cây nhỏ, có nhiều loài, tràng hoa gồm năm cánh hình bướm, quả dài, chứa một dãy hạt, quả hay hạt dùng làm thức ăn” (p. 302). From these two definitions, the meaning of đậu1 is completely different from that of đậu2 although the two words have the same phonology features. In this case, the phenomenon is not called conversion but hymonymy.


Nowadays, English, as a global language, is widely studied in many other countries including Vietnam. Many Vietnamese people from various age groups study English for different purposes: for education, for career, for entertainment, etc. In fact, English is an interesting as well as a challenging language for Vietnamese learners to study since English and Vietnamese are from different branches of the language tree. It has lots of fundamental rules which are so different from Vietnamese ones that put Vietnamese learners in many difficulties. Among these difficulties is the use of words as the word formations of English and Vietnamese have some differences such as the conversion process I have discussed so far. Concerning conversion, Vietnamese learners of English usually encounter two problems: tendency to add suffixes to form new words and problem in translation.

As I have said above, English is an inflectional language, which means it has a lot of bound morphemes to add to input words to create new words. Thus one of the most common and typical ways to form words is affixation. “Affixation is the process by which an affix is added to a base to form a new word” (Tô Minh Thanh, 102). Vietnamese learners who are strongly influenced by this rule tend to add suffixes to every word to form a new one when using English. We tend to write a sentence like this:

The report calls for a ban on the importion of hazardous waste.

From the verb import, we mistakenly add the suffix –tion to make its noun instead of applying the conversion process, i.e. the noun of the verb to import is import.

Similarly, when we form an adverb from an adjective, we are likely to put the suffix –ly to the adjective although there are some adverbs which have exacly the form of its input like hard, late, etc.

Ex.: He studied hardly (instead of the true sentence: He studied hard.)

The following list contains some affixes that Vietnamese learners mistakenly add to English words to constitute new words.

  • To form nouns: –tion, –ment, –ness, –ship, –er, –ity, etc.

  • To form verbs: –ify, –en, –ize, etc.

  • To form adjectives: –ful, –ish, –ic, –able, –al, etc.

  • To form adverbs: –ly, –wards.

As Vietnamese learners who study English as a foreign language, we usually have difficulty in expressing our thoughts and ideas. The problem of translation is common and natural. Conversion is also a challenge for us in the process of translation.

When translating the Vietnamese sentence: Im lặng là vàng into English, we usually make a mistake, i.e. we use the adjective silent for im lặng like this: Silent is gold.

Im lặng originally is an adjective, whereas in the above sentence it is a noun functioning as the subject of the sentence. This is the conversion of Vietnamese. So when we deal with this matter, we have to understand clearly the conversion process of each language to find the right equivalent. With the above sentence, the correct translation is: Silence is gold.

It is the same case when Vietnamese learners deal with some English and Vietnamese adjectives and adverbs. In Vietnamese, it is correct to say: Anh ấy nói tiếng Anh rất lưu loát. In this sentence lưu loát serves as an adverb modifying the verb nói despite the fact that its original word class is adjective. Clearly the process of conversion takes place here. So if we use the word – by – word method to translate this sentence, the product will be like like this: He speaks English very fluent whereas the right one must be: He speaks English very fluently.


Conversion is an effective way to create new words in both English and Vietnamese. Days after days many new words are being created through the process of conversion. We constantly come across some cases in which a housewife says that she is going to microwave the chicken or friends talk about zip – coding their letters or pizza a bit before they freeway on home. In daily conversations we talk about a star who stars in a film shown at a theatre where an usher ushers or our plan to Christmas in Hawaii or a tailor who use scissors to scissor the material. For this reason, as Vietnamese learners of English, we should have a profound knowledge of the conversion phenomenon in both English and Vietnamese so that we are able to avoid making mistakes in using and translating between the two languages.


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Tô Minh Thanh. (2006). Giáo trình: Hình Thái Học Tiếng Anh_English Morphology (102). Vietnam: Hochiminh City.

Hồ Lê. (1976). Vấn đề cấu tạo từ của tiếng Việt hiện đại (164). Vietnam: Hanoi.

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Word (linguistics). Retrieved Dec 17, 2009, from http://www.spiritus-temporis.com/word-linguistics-/

Wiśniewski, Kamil. (2007). Morphology. Retrieved Dec 5, 2009, from http://www.tlumaczenia-angielski.info/linguistics/morphology.htm

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