Compound nouns in Vietnamese and English commercial texts

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Compound nouns in Vietnamese and English commercial texts


Compound Nouns in Vietnamese and English Commercial Texts

A Contrastive Analysis

Hồ Ngọc Phương Trâm

University of Pedagogy

Contrastive Analysis Course 2010

Instructor Dr. Nguyễn Ngọc Vũ

December 31, 2010


Learning has always been a challenging process to obtain knowledge. This is undeniably true in studying economics in a different language. The quest to understand a concept itself may present some difficulties. Yet, comprehending the wordings that may lead to such understanding can also be overly frustrating. Through reading some economic magazines and essays, the author notes that there are many strange compound nouns whose meanings can only be revealed by careful examining the contexts they are in. In this paper, the author attempts to analyze the meanings of some strange English compound nouns in some particular contexts, followed by comparisons and contrast analyses with regards to Vietnamese compound nouns. The purpose of this paper is to give learners a general view of the difference in the two languages’ compound nouns so that it may be useful in expanding one’s vocabulary.

Compound nouns in Vietnamese and English commercial texts

Overview of compound nouns

Compound nouns are ranked as a productive language in our modern society now. They frequently appear in many articles, magazines, and books. Nevertheless, they are quite difficult for non-native speakers. Compound nouns themselves have always been making learners quite frustrated such as “brother-in-law”, “up-to-the minute”, “two-hour flight,” or “Vietnamese-American”. To understand the structure and the meanings of these words, students have to learn by hearts when they meet these complicated words, especially in many English commercial texts. Compound words in special subjects are even more difficult to grasp. For the learners studying economics whose English is not their mother tongue, contextual comprehension is really a tough problem. They often have limited knowledge of these words. As a result, I decided to do a research about the morphological and semantic features of compound words as well as compound nouns in some commercial texts in order to give learners some general understanding about some typical English words.

Morphological and semantic features of compound nouns in Vietnamese and English commercial texts

Definition of compound nouns in English

According to Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, “a compound word is a noun, an adjective, or a verb made of two or more words or parts of words, written as one or more words, or joined by a hyphen”(OU,2010). In addition, a compound noun is a noun composed of two or more words that are used together to form a single noun, for instance: chopstick, football, up-bringing... We have various types of compound nouns as their structures are quite complex. Another definition of this type in Cambridge Grammar of English is:

"The compound noun structure is extremely varied in the types of meaning relations it can indicate. It can be used to indicate what someone does (language teacher), what something is for (waste-paper basketgrindstone), what the qualities of something are (whiteboard), how something works (immersion heater), when something happens (night frost), where something is (doormat), what something is made of (woodpile), and so on." (Carter and McCarthy, 2006)

Generally, I would like to list some basic structures of noun compounding methods below:

Noun + Noun


djective + Noun

Verb + Noun

Preposition + Noun

However, in some texts writing about economics, there are some nouns compounded from different morphological and semantic features. When someone reads many articles about business, finance, or accounting, they may have to deal with many strange compound nouns such as “me-too product”, “bail-out”, or “big gun”... These words have no certain so-called ‘root’ words and you may consult a dictionary to get the correct meaning. Thus, in this essay, I want to discuss some special compound nouns in morphology and semantics.

Some special structures of compound nouns in English commercial texts

Structure with Noun + Preposition + Noun

In commercial texts, nouns can be compounded with Noun + Preposition + Noun. Let’s see what is the meaning of “ cost-of-capital” in Wikipedia

The cost of capital is a term used in the field of financial investment to refer to the cost of a company's funds(both debt and equity), or, from an investor's point of view "the shareholder's required return on a portfolio of all the company's existing securities".(

For this structure, we often have to base on the circumstance. As given in the saying, “cost-of-capital” will be translated into our language as “chi phí vay vốn”. An another example is “door-to-door” in the sentence: “ (…)For decades, direct sellers--which have no stores and limited retail distribution--have relied almost exclusively on the enthusiasm of “door-to-door” sales reps.(…)”(Berman, 1999) In this situation, we can define the meaning of “door-to-door” as“ dịch vụ tận nơi.”

We can’t translate word by word with respect to those special terms, which are jargons made by compounding nouns for uses in particular fields. For those words, we have to consider the context so as to get their meanings correctly.

Structure “Noun + Preposition”

Due to the diversity of the morphology, compound nouns can be formed by one preposition and a noun, which seem quite familiar to the learners. But in the term of commerce, these words give Vietnamese learners some obstacles to translate because it’s not as simple as “hanger on” or “passer-by”. It‘s rather complicated like “bail out” in the context-quoted from

(...) Chrysler, a large U.S. automaker was in need of a bailout in the early 1980s. The U.S. government stepped in and offered roughly $1.2 billion to the failing company. Chrysler was able to pay the entire bailout back, and is currently a profitable firm.  (…)

If we base on semantic features, we can hardly guess the meaning of this compound noun because we can’t translate each word as “bail”- a container used to remove water from a boat and “out”- in a direction away from the inside. Yet interestingly, when we combine these two dissimilar words, they become a compound “bail-out” that has a completely different meaning from its origin “cứu trợ tài chính”

Structure “Noun + Verb-er”

This is more common such as “shoe-maker”, “shop keeper”. The formation and the meaning of these words are easy for learners to understand. They belong to exocentric compounds (headless compounds). Compound nouns can come from different word classes. In contrast, here are some compound nouns with the same structure yet they are incomprehensible. My purpose is to provide some special examples in English commercial text, for instance, “bean-counter”, “loss leader” or “share-holder”, etc. Unless we put them in context, we can’ fully get their semantic features. With “bean-counter”, we can see that each word carries its own meaning so we can’t translate them in a compound word. However, in this article

(…)Times are changing though as businesses struggle through challenging times and are demanding more assistance to bolster their key financial indicators, requesting direction to implement preemptive measures, rather than have a ‘bean counter’ report on the damage, after the event.(…) (Clark,2009)

Looking over that sentence, my translation of “bean counter” is “kế toán”. Also with “loss-leader” in

(…) Dispersion in retail prices of identical goods is inconsistent with the standard model of price competition among identical firms, which predicts that all prices will be driven down to cost. One common explanation for such dispersion is the use of a loss-leader strategy, in which a firm prices one good below cost in order to attract a higher customer volume for profitable goods.(..) (Ambrus & Weinstein, 2008)

Taking minutes in dictionaries (“loss leader” is a product sold at a low price to stimulate other, profitable sales), I connect its definition with the article to have the meaning “phương án bán hàng chịu lỗ để thu khách”.

Structure “Adjective + Noun”

Similar to “Noun + Verb-er”, this form is easily recognized to everyone. Moreover, we can get words’ meanings which are often based on the head nouns such as “a high school”, “middle class”, “full moon”, “half sister”. Adjectives are considered as modifiers for nouns. However, if students keep the way of translating compound nouns in economics like this, they never find out what these words actually mean. I take few words as my examples to explain my point “big-gun”, “distressed-sale”. If those two words don’t stand in any context, I can never guess those meaning. For the word “big gun” in an article of VOA “(...) It was not a public company with shares traded on the stock market. My friend knew about my business. He is a leader in the sign-making industry – a real big gun” (...)( Thanks to this example, we can use it with the meaning of “nhân vật quan trọng”. And “distressed-sale” can be translated into Vietnamese as “ nhu cầu bán gấp”

(…) Every silver lining has its dark cloud. In this case, it’s the “shadow inventory” of homes that are likely to show up on the market in distressed sale in the future. Officials expect distressed sales to linger in the market and hold down housing prices down for the next couple of years. (…)( McKenzie, 2010)

With two compound nouns above, we partly see that beside the morphological features, sometimes we have to rely on the semantic ones in particular context.

In addition to the first structure, there is a variation of compounding words as well as compound nouns. Some of them are very special. Hardly can learners recognize them apart from in business articles such as “higher-ups”, “also-rans”, “has-been”, “go-between” and “me-too product”. Let’s take an overlook into them.

Higher-ups” is the combination between two different part of speech- adjective and adverb. As far as I’m concerned, nouns often have to compound with another word class to become a compound noun. Here are an adjective and an adverb. Still, it is a compound noun and it occasionally appears in commercial texts. “Female faces are scarce higher up the totem pole”, (Ginindza, 2010). It is a title of an article quoted from a business website. So, according to the text, “higher up” is equivalent to “người thành đạt” or “người có địa vị cao” in Vietnamese.

And another special term which also makes students unpleasant is “also-rans”. If “higher-ups” is quite exotic to understand, this word is even more difficult. For this one, structure can’t tell students anything about the meaning. To have some notions, we should put it in a specific situation as “(…) Big companies now spend a lot of time and money trying to make sure they don't get blindsided by their smaller, leaner counterparts. But it's not easy to distinguish genuine threats from also-rans as they emerge. (…)” (Rafii & Kampas, 2002) Now, problem can be solved when we have an image of the compound noun “also-ran” in this sentence which means “đối thủ cạnh tranh không quan trọng”

Continuously, “has- beens” to the best of my knowledge- is just a tense of verb present perfect. However, it turns out that is a compound noun, which means “vật hết thời” in a sentence “(…) in some cases, top management has allowed staff functions to become a warehouse for corporate misfits or a graveyard for managerial has-beens. (…)”of a research named “What is a global manager?” (Bartlett & Ghoshal, 1992)

While doing research in economic field, I came to a big surprise from these special compound nouns. I hardly believe it’s a compound word until I look up their meanings on dictionaries of business. “Go-between” is one such word. Definition of a go-between

The go-between might be a former employer; a friend of the family or a client; maybe someone you met at a networking event who told you to call if you were ever looking to move.(Schaffer, 2009). It’s “người môi giới”.

Moreover, with the head noun “product”, I have discovered a new compound noun “me-too product”. I do think it is a dubious task of translating this word into our language only using the direct meaning of each component. In this article, it is included “(…) it is quite apparent that without some difference in the new offering, there is no chance of meeting any success in the market place, and one would end up becoming only a "me-too product". The idea is to cross the threshold of customer expectation by a large margin. (…)”. (Aithal, 2010) It‘s easier to comprehend its meaning which is “hàng giả”.

With regard to the morphological features, compound nouns in English commercial text are much diversified and complicated. Sometimes, we also come across those words that seldom appear in our studies. The more we read, the more we gain knowledge from these types of compound nouns. However, English compound nouns in economic text are too intricate for Vietnamese to comprehend. You have to know the meaning of business terms so as to translate them into our language. In contrast, Vietnamese compound nouns are rather simple even though they are used in business.

Compound nouns in Vietnamese

In Vietnamese daily lives, compound words constantly appear in every conversation. People easily create a compound word with the combination of words. Little do Vietnamese use a single word in communication. Sometimes, they make foreigners confused in the way of forming them. However, this paper attempts to provide some Vietnamese compound nouns in business. In other words, my essay will be limited to those aspects of the morphology and semantics of compound nouns that seem most relevant to my research of compound nouns in commercial texts. While studying this aspect, I find out that our compound nouns aren’t as complex as those in English. Moreover, the simplicity here is there aren’t as many special structures as English. And they all have the same structures which are composed of more than two morphemes, not any exceptions. There are two main types of word compounds: coordinate compound nouns (từ ghép đẳng lập) and subordinate compound nouns (từ ghép chính phụ)

According to the book “Cơ sở ngôn ngữ học và tiếng Việt”, a coordinate compound noun, which is created by two morphemes, relies on individual meanings, for instance: chén dĩa (dishes), nhà cửa (house), thầy cô (teacher), làng xã (village)… Because of their characteristic, each morpheme has its own meaning and neither one of them is a modifier for the other. Not so many coordinate compound nouns are used in commercial texts. But still there are some which become popular in Vietnamese terms of business, for examples: “kinh tế” (economy), “thương mại” (commerce), “thị trường” (market), etc. One special point in these words is that people usually use compound nouns which are formed by “Sino-Vietnamese” (Hán-Việt) and “Sino-Vietnamese” in expressing an abstract term of economy. The semantic feature of these compounds relies on both components. Those two parts carry the whole meaning for that compound. As far as you have known, coordinate compound nouns are divided into three cases. Yet, in commercial context, there are two types:

Sino-Vietnamese + Sino-Vietnamese (Hán Việt + Hán Việt): “thương mại” (trade), “tư sản” (private property), “tài chính” (finance), “tín dụng” (credit)…

Sino-Vietnamese + Vietnamese (Hán Việt + thuầnViệt): “hàng hoá” (goods), “khách hàng” (customer), “tài khỏan” (account), “tiền của” (money), “công việc” (job)…

If you read many articles about business, you will meet a large amount of compound nouns with the structure of coordinating by two “Sino-Vietnamese” (Hán-Việt). In terms of semantic features of this type, the meaning of the whole word is based on meanings of both parts. As the word “thương nghiệp” (trade), “thương” means “buôn bán” and “nghiệp” is “nghề”. When we combine them, the meaning of “thương nghiệp” is “nghề buôn bán”.

Unlike this type of compound noun, subordinate compound noun has some typical differences. The first one is the semantic feature of these words. I take one example to make clear my point. “Hàng nhái” which means “counterfeit” is compounded by two components “hàng” and “nhái”. If we split it into two separate words, we can’t have the same meaning as the previous one. So, those components seem not equal to meaning. One of two elements will cover the meaning for the whole word- called the main word in a compound noun and the other is the modifier. They are subordinate compound nouns such as “hàng thật”, “tiền nợ” or “ngân khố”, “chợ đen”, “trái phiếu”, “vốn liếng”. As you can see these words, the meaning basically depends on the main word. For the morphological feature, subordinate compound nouns can be the composition of a main nouns and any part of speech.

Subordinate compound nouns

Noun + Noun

Tiền công (wage), công nhân (worker), tiền lãi (interest)

Noun + Adjective

Hàng giả (counterfeit)

Noun + Verb

Tiền nợ , vốn vay (funding), kế tóan (accountant), buổi họp (meeting)

Those two typical types of compound nouns are mentioned in commercial texts. Furthermore, I realize that in terms of economic field, three-word compound nouns are considered as productive ones, which is one special feature of the compound nouns’ morphology. Especially, they are used as frequently as two-word compound nouns. Some examples will support my point:

  • kinh tế học (economics)

  • thẻ tín dụng ( credit card)

  • suất chiết khấu (discount rate)

  • lãi cổ tức ( dividend yield)

  • vốn tài chính ( financial capital), vốn nhân lực (human capital)

  • Thuế nhập khẩu ( import duty), thuế thu nhập ( income tax)

In short, Vietnamese compound nouns are also very abundant, namely for economic field. We often depend on the semantics of each component so that we can use them precisely. It’s my last point for Vietnamese compound nouns.

Comparison of compound nouns of Vietnamese and English in commercial texts

To be more informative in my research, I want to discuss some particulars of both languages. As mentioned above, I only focus on the compound nouns in business. So in this essay, you can see that special compound nouns in English are nearly different from their original structures. We – Vietnamese learners can hardly guess or recognize whether they are compound nouns or not. If you have worked quite a long time in that area, you have to learn these words by hearts. Or else, you will face many difficulties in reading comprehension. More often than not, we fail to guess the meaning. They are not only the compound nouns but also the terms of particular field. As the word “go-betweens” or “has-beens”, if you follow the way of translating word by word, you certainly make a terrible mistake. Compound nouns in English commercial texts do not have semantics relation between meanings of each word. You can’t treat compound nouns as single words because no word has a dominant meaning than the other. In accordance with the examples above in English compound nouns. “Me-too product” has three words belong to different part of speech and meanings. But unexpectedly, its meaning is “ hàng nhái”. You will base on the context in order to have a comprehensible interpretation. Conversely, Vietnamese compound nouns are easier to translate. However, almost compound nouns in this field are combined by “Sino-Vietnamese” elements so you have to understand the Vietnamese meaning of each word. Supposing that you can understand individuals, you link them together. “Công nhân” : công – công việc and “nhân” – người. So we grasp its meaning immediately without putting it in any context. “Công nhân” is a person works in factory. You have the full meaning of that word easily. This is the most pronounced difference between Vietnamese and English compound nouns in a particular area.

Implications in language teaching

Due to the complicated and diversified morphology and semantics of compound nouns, the learners face a lot of problems. To some extent, they are rather challenging to our Vietnamese learners, particularly for economic students. In order to understand special compound nouns, learners have to spend time reading magazines or newspapers related to this field. As a teacher-to-be, I myself think that compound nouns are very essential not only in our studying but also in our lives.

Firstly, the basic knowledge of compounding nouns isn’t my purpose of this research. I made up my mind to give students some information of special compound nouns in English and Vietnamese commercial text. Beside many familiar compound words, I want to provide some exceptions. English can be more difficult than Vietnamese because in terms of business, they have different morphological and semantic features. After doing much research on terms of commerce, I give my students the most appropriate interpretation for those compound nouns. Perhaps students can take my essay for reference. Above of all, they can enrich more knowledge of compound nouns.

Secondly, in this paper, I give students a chance to revise Vietnamese compound nouns. Especially, learners will see that a large number of commercial compound nouns are borrowed from Chinese so-called “Sino - Vietnamese” words. These combinations can cause confusion of the classification of compound nouns whether it is a coordinate or subordinate one. And they can review their general understanding of Vietnamese in order to use them in the most effective way. Furthermore, Vietnamese students can translate many economic articles without any hesitation of new compound nouns.


Compound nouns are always the most difficult aspect in teaching and learning English. So I hope this contrastive analysis in economic field concerning Vietnamese and English compound nouns useful to learners. It is the reason I tried my best to give as much information as possible in this essay. For teachers, I think that we should spend more time on teaching these words so that our students won’t feel discouraged in learning them. In particular fields, we have different special compound nouns to study. This paper probably can’t present every bit of knowledge but I do hope that Vietnamese learners get essential understanding of English and Vietnamese compound nouns in commercial text. I also want to thank Dr. Nguyễn Ngọc Vũ for giving me a chance to do research on my topic. I have gained more knowledge of compound nouns, which is very helpful for my English teaching in future.


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