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Versification of Vietnamese Riddles©

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    Versification of Vietnamese Riddles©

    The perhaps most complete book on English riddles, English Riddles from Oral Tradition by Archer Taylor, (1) is an effort to classify them by comparison of objects referred to in the riddles. The texture and stylistic features of the riddle were probably first touched upon by Aarne-Thompson when he adopted a classification based on form rather than theme. (2)According to Taylor, Robert Petsch's doctoral dissertation written at the end of the 19thcentury (later published as Neue Beiträge zur Kenntniz des Volksrätsch) was the first study on stylistic features of riddles. (3) Later, in 1949, William R. Bascom, in his article, "Literary Style in Yoruba Riddles", proposed to study their literary form and style. (4) His focus was on an analysis of linguistic patterns -- the distribution of grammatical units of subjects and predicates. For a fuller study of stylistic devices used in riddles, we should turn to the work of Charles T. Scott. (5) To find out whether a definition based on textural characteristics may hold for Persian and Arabic riddles, Scott isolates stylistic devices and identifies the frequency of their occurrence in the corpus of the materials he collected.

    With regard to early studies of Southeast Asian riddles, mention should be made of Donn V. Hart's Riddles in Filipino Folklore: An Anthropological Analysis(6) As suggested by the title, this book centers largely on the socio-cultural context of the riddle. Hart only notes in passing the closing formula of a riddle and the opening formula of a subsequent riddle posed by another person, and describes the most common rhyme pattern. In the same vein as Scott's study, Maung Than Sein and Alan Dundes present a small collection of Central Burmese riddles and analyse their poetic features. (7) Finding that the strict syllabic rhyme scheme (in 4-syllabic lines) is not limited to Burmese riddles but is applied to Burmese poetry as a whole,they re-emphasize folklorists' awareness that "stylistic characteristics cannot serve to define a literary genre". The following discussion is an attempt to evaluate applicability of this statement to the case of Vietnamese riddles.

    Small collections of Vietnamese riddles have appeared here and there since the beginning of the twentieth century. Some brief stylistic analyses of this genre of Vietnamese folklore have been made by Vietnamese scholars. (8) One such attempt in the English language is the late Professor Nguyen Dinh Hoa's article, "Vietnamese Riddles", published in Asian Culture(9)He describes the two most common meter patterns, namely the "luc bat" (six-eight) and "noi loi" (lines of four or five words), and illustrates these patterns with a number of riddles. I will extend Professor Nguyen's study so as to cover some other aspects of versification of Vietnamese riddles. We will understand versification, or poetics, to be the rules and principles of poetry -- structural and stylistic features which serve to distinguish verse from prose: rhyme,line pattern, and rhythm. Following analysis of each verse form, an attempt will be made to ascertain whether it is peculiar to the riddle or is shared by other genres of Vietnamese poetry. The order of presentation of these forms will be based on the frequency of their occurrence in Vietnamese riddles.

    While the concept of rhyme can be said to be universal, rhythm is defined in various ways in different language cultures. For example, rhythm in English poetry is produced by meter, which is recurrence of regular units of stressed and unstressed syllables in a line. Its counter part in Vietnamese poetry is melody which is conditioned by the length of lines and arrangement of tones within the line. Vietnamese is a tonal language consisting of six tones which are designated even (bằng), and uneven (trắc). Uneven tones are also referred to as "oblique". The two even tones are: high level, having no diacritical mark; and low falling, marked with a grave accent (`). The four oblique tones are: high rising, marked with an acute accent (´); low rising-constricted, marked with a hook above the letter(§); broken rising marked with a tilde (~); and low-constricted, marked with a dot below the letter (.) The rule of distribution of tones -- the aim of which is to give music to a poem -- specifies the slots in a line to be filled with even tones as opposed to those to be filled with oblique tones.

    I. The "lục bát" (six-eight). This is the most dominant verse form found in Vietnamese riddles, of which the basic unit is a line of six monosyllabic words followed by a line of eight monosyllabic words. It should be noted that Vietnamese vocabulary consists of monosyllabic words and combinations of monosyllabic words. The rhyme pattern in this form can be said to follow a general rule which specifies that the last word of each line rhymes with the sixth word of the following line. The majority of riddles in the luc-bat form have only two lines, thus exhibiting a single rhyming pair.

    Examples (rhyming words in bold):

    Tròn vành vạnh, trắng phau phau
    Ăn no tắm mát, rủ nhau đi nằm.
    (Completely round, they are very white.
    After a full meal and refreshing bath, they lie down together.)
    Answer: A stack of white ceramic bowls.

    Năm thằng cầm hai cây sào
    Ðuổi đàn trâu trắng chui vào trong hang.
    (Holding two long poles, five fellows
    Chase a herd of white buffaloes into a cave.)
    Answer: Eating rice with a pair of chopsticks. (10)

    Sông không đến, bến không vào
    Lơ lửng giữa trời làm sao có nước?
    (It neither goes to a river nor comes to shore,
    It is suspended in air, but somehow has water in it.)
    Answer: A coconut. (11)

    Bốn con cùng ở một nhà
    Mẹ thời chia của, con ra nhà người.
    (Four children live together in a house.
    When the mother divides her property, they go to other people.)
    Answer: A tea pot and four cups. (12)

    Thằng đỏ liếm đít thằng đen,
    Thằng đen không nói ăn 
    quen liếm hoài.
    (The red boy licks the bottom of the black boy.
    Since the black boy does not protest, the red boy gets into the habit of licking like that all the time.)
    Answer: A fire under a cooking pot. (13)

    Some of the riddles in this form consist of multiples of two such six-eight lines, and as the length increases, the poetic pattern is a little more elaborated. Here the line of eight words counts two rhymes: the sixth word rhyming with the last word of the preceding line, and the eighth word rhyming with the last word of the following line.

    The rhyme pattern can be presented as follows:

    __ __ __ __ __ a_
    __ __ __ __ __ a_ __ b_
    __ __ __ __ __ b_
    __ __ __ __ __ b_ __ c_

    Concurrently, the regular tonal arrangement follows two rules:

    (1) The second, the sixth, and the eighth words of a line must be of an even tone, and the fourth word of an oblique tone; the remaining words can be of either tone group.

    (2) In the eight-word line, the sixth and the eighth words must be of different even tones: if the sixth word is of the high level tone (unmarked), the eighth word must be of the low falling tone (marked with a grave accent ` ), and vice versa.

    The length of the luc-bat pair and the dominance of required even tones tend to project a gentle and pleasing melody to verses composed in this form.

    Example:

    Hai anh mà ở hai buồng
    Không ai hỏi đến ra tuồng cấm cung.
    Ðêm thì đóng cửa cấm trông
    Ngày thì mở cửa lại trông ra ngoài.
    (Two brothers live in two rooms.
    Neither one talks to the other, each seemingly closed in by himself.
    In the evening, they close the doors and can't look at things;
    In day time, the doors are opened and they again look outward.)
    Answer: the eyes. (14)

    We should note, however, that like other verse forms, the rules of the luc-bat form are not rigidly followed in oral tradition. Variations in length of line and in tonal arrangement are common, even as the overall melody is skillfully maintained.

    Example: 

    Một mẹ đẻ tám vạn nghìn con
    Sớm mai chết hết không còn một ai.
    Còn một ông lão sống 
    giai
    Nhăn nhăn nhó nhó chẳng ai dám nhìn.
    (A mother gives birth to eighty thousand children
    In the early morning, all of them die;
    Only an old man survives long.
    No one dares to look at his grimacing face.)
    Answer: The sky, stars and the sun. (15)

    Note that the first line has seven words; and further, the second word is of an oblique tone whereas according to the rule it must be of an even tone.

    This verse form is not limited to the riddle. In fact, it is the most original Vietnamese poetic pattern which enjoys an everlasting popularity in both oral and written poetry, old and new. The Tale Of Kieu, a national masterpiece cherished by Vietnamese from all walks of life, was written in the luc-bat form by the 19th-century poet Nguyen Du. In parallel, the form is prevalent in the corpus of folk literature.

    The Tale of Kieu:

    Trăm năm trong cõi người ta
    Chữ tài chữ mệnh khéo là ghét nhau.
    Trải qua một cuộc bể dâu
    Những điều trông thấy mà đau đớn lòng.

    Lullaby:

    Ru em cho thét cho mùi
    Ðể mẹ đi chợ mua vôi ăn trầu
    Mua vôi chợ Quán chợ Cầu
    Mua cau Nam Phổ mua trầu chợ Rinh.

    Proverb:

    Ăn trái nhớ kẻ trồng cây
    Nào ai vun xới cho mầy mầy ăn?

    Folk song's lyric:

    Ðố ai biết lúa mấy cây
    Biết sông mấy khúc, biết mây mấy từng
    Ðố ai quét sạch lá rừng,
    Ðể ta khuyên gió gió đừng rung cây.

    II. The "nói lối" form (four/five words lines). This verse form consists of lines of four or five monosyllabic words. The pattern of four-word lines occurs in riddles more frequently than that of five-word lines.

    The general principle stipulates that the last word of each line rhymes with the second word of the following line. If the riddle consists of more than two lines, the rhyme pattern repeats itself. In this case, the total arrangement shows that the second line has two rhyming words: the second word rhymes with the last word of the first line, and the last word rhymes with the second word of the third line. This is very similar to the common syllabic rhyme pattern that Maung Than Sein and Alan Dundes find in Burmese riddles.

    The rhyme pattern is presented as follows:

    __ __ __ a_
    __ a_ __ b_
    __ b_ __ __

    Aside from the fact that both words of a rhyming pair must be of the same tonal group, either even or oblique, there is no other strict requirement in tonal arrangement, which makes this form more flexible than the luc-bat form.

    Examples:

    Áo đơn áo kép
    Ðứng nép bờ ao.
    (Wearing many layers of garments,
    He/she stands hiding on the edge of a pond.)
    Answer: A banana tree. (16)

    Vừa bằng trái mướp
    Ăn cướp cả làng.
    (About the size of a squash,
    He robs the whole village.)
    Answer: A rat

    Hai gươm tám giáo
    Mặc áo da 
    Thập thò cửa lỗ.
    (Holding two swords and eight spears
    Dressed in a cow-leather tunic,
    He peeks through a hole in the door.)
    Answer: A crab. (17)

    Không sơn mà đỏ
    Không  mà kêu
    Không khều mà rụng.
    (Without being painted, it is red
    Without being rapped, it resounds
    Without being poked at, it falls.)
    Answer: The sun, thunder, and the rain.

    (2) Some riddles of this verse form, when having four lines, exhibit an end-rhyme pattern : the last word of the second line rhymes with the last word of the third line; rhyming between the last words of the first and the fourth lines is optional. There may also be included the rhyme pattern explaineed above. (In the chart below, optional rhymes are in italic.)

    The rhyme pattern is represented as follows:

    __ __ __ a
    __ a_ __ b_
    __ __ __ b_
    __ b_ __ a_

    Examples:

    Một đàn cò trắng
    Ở tại núi 
    cao
    Bàn đêm lao xao
    Ban ngày trốn mất.
    (A flock of white egrets
    Live on a high mountain;
    They are tumultuous in the evening
    And disappear in day time.)
    Answer: Stars. 

    Cái thân đi trước
    Cái bụng đi 
    sau
    Cái mắt cái đầu
    Cách nhau một thước.
    (The trunk is in front
    The belly follows behind
    The eye and the head
    Are one meter apart.)
    Answer: The human leg. (18)

    Xương sườn xương sống
    Nuốt trộng người ta
    Nuốt vô nhả ra
    Người ta còn sống.
    (It has rib bones and back bones.
    It swallows human beings whole, then spits them out alive.)
    Answer: A house.

    III. The three-word lines. This poetic pattern, having three words to a line, may be seen as a variant of the noi loi form above, the difference being that the last word of each line rhymes with the first, not the second, word of the following line.

    The rhyme pattern is presented as follows:

    __ __ a_
    a_
     __ b_
    b_
     __ c_
    c_
     __ __

    Example:

    Một mẹ nằm
    Trăm con bước.
    (The mother lies down
    A hundred children step over her.)
    Answer: A threshold.

    Vừa bằng cái vung
    Vùng xuống ao
    Ðào không thấy
    Lấy không được.
    (About the size of the lid of a pot
    It jumps down into a pond
    One can neither dig it up
    Nor take hold of it.)
    Answer: The moon reflected in a pond.

    There is an extra word in the first line, which is a slight variation. 

    In written poetry, the three-word and four-word line patterns are less commonly seen than is the five-word line pattern. However, these forms can easily be found in other genres of folk literature.

    Proverbial sayings:

    Ðói ăn rau
    Ðau uống thuốc.

    Vào mồng ba
    Ra mồng bẩy
    Rẫy mồng tám.

    Có chí làm quan
    Có gan làm giàu.

    Nursery rhymes:

    Lạy trời mưa xuống
    Lấy nước tôi uống
    Lấy ruộng tôi cầy
    Lấy đầy bát cơm
    Lấy rơm đun bếp.

    Folk song's lyrics:

    Quả cau nho nhỏ
    Cái vỏ vân vân
    Nay anh học gần
    Mai anh học xa.

    There are a small number of riddles of four seven-word lines, a verse form adopted from the serene formal beauty of T'ang poetry, which is prevalent in Vietnamese written poetry, both classical and modern. These riddles follow the rigid rules that govern the rhyme and rhythm in this form. As such, they naturally do not exhibit the carefree and easy flow of folk poetry, and undoubtedly were created by learned scholars, not by the common folk. Perhaps for this reason, they are not as popularly known as riddles composed in the three verse forms discussed above.

    Indeed, in terms of form, most Vietnamese riddles can be grouped by those three popular versification patterns which are found in both oral and written poetry. This factor allows us to agree with Maung Than Sein and Alan Dundes that "the textural or stylistic features of specimens of a folklorist genre cannot always be used to define that genre". The exception, in the case of Vietnamese riddles, has to do with the opening and closing formulae. In printed collections, either in the original Vietnamese or in French and English translation, the introductory and closing formulae of the riddle are left out. This is probalby due to the fact that the formulae are not inherent in the wording of a riddle, but are more or less optional as the titles of the collections already inform of the genre. In actual practice, however, the riddling game as an entertainment is rendered orally, and always begins with the formula " Ðố X…" (I challenge you, X). Then comes the main text of a riddle, followed by the closing formula "Là cái gì?" (What is it?). After the first riddle is solved, the next riddle may or may not be re-introduced by the opening formula, but commonly the closing formula is stated, and thus the opening clause is implied. These formulae are not found in any other form of folk poetry.

    It is suggested, therefore, that in some specific language communities, as in the case of Vietnam, some particular stylistic feature may serve to distinguish the riddle from other genres of folk poetry.


    Notes:

    1. Archer Taylor, English Riddles from Oral Tradition, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1951.
    2. Ibid., p. 6.

    3. Ibid., p. 7.

    4. William R. Bascom, "Literary Style in Yoruba Riddle," JAF, 62:243 (Jan.-March, 1949), pp. 1-16.

    5. Charles T. Scott, Persian and Arabic Riddles: a Language-Centered Approach to Genre Definition. Bloomington: Indiana University, 1965.

    6. Donn V. Hart, Riddles in Filipino Folklore: An Anthropological Analysis. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1964.

    7. Maung Than Sein and Alan Dundes, "Twenty-three Riddles from Central Burma," JAF, 77:303 (Jan.-March, 1964), pp. 69-75.

    8. Thanh Lang, Khởi Thảo Văn Học Sử Việt Nam -- Văn Chương Bình Dân (A survey of the history of Vietnamese Literature -- Folk Literature). Saigon: Văn Hợi, 1957.

    9. Nguyen Dinh Hoa, "Vietnamese Riddles," Asian Culture, 2:1 (Saigon, Jan-March, 1960), pp. 107-127.

    10. Archer Taylor, English Riddles, p. 337. The reported Chinese riddle, No. 908.1, is very similar: "Two pieces of bamboo drive ducks through a narrow door."

    11. Taylor, ibid., p. 463. In the headnote to 1105-1106, Taylors reports that the manner of description, which notes the paradox that water or coconut milk hangs in the air, is known in West Indian tradition.

    12. The tea cups are small in comparison to the tea pot, just like children when compared to their mother. Pouring tea from the pot is here compared to dividing the mother's property among the cups. Relative to that point, the cups are no longer together, but given to different tea drinkers.

    13. This is a pretended obscene riddle, whose obscene description refers to a tame object. A similar riddle, though not obscene, is reported by Archer Taylor, p. 328, No. 872: "The red man tickles the black man all the time."

    14. Taylor, op. cit., pp. 386-388, reports several riddles comparing the eyes to two brothers: 1003-1004 "Brothers are close, but cannot see each other."; and 1003-1004.3 from Indonesia, comparing the eyes to two rooms: "Two rooms which a tongue of land separates."

    15. Taylor, ibid., p. 406. This riddle is mentioned in the headnote to number 1024. "Mother and Countless children". Vietnamese have a tendency to exaggerate size and number in order to emphasize a point, in this case alluding to the countlessness of astral bodies. Literally "eighty thousand (time) thousand" may have been a corrupted reference to the number 84,000 in Buddhist terminology which conveys the idea of limitless number.

    16. Taylor, ibid., p. 593. The Nandi riddle for a wild banana, "There lives by the river a woman who has many garments" can be seen as a parallel to this Vietnamese riddle.

    17. Cow-leather coat here suggests the color and thickness of a crab shell.

    18. The trunk refers to the shin, the belly to the calf. The pun lies in the two words: "mắt" (eye) is the first part of the compound word "mắt cá" referring to the ankle, while "đầu" (head) is the first part the compound word "đầu gối" referring to the knee. The distance between the knee and the ankle, of a Vietnamese of average height, is about a Vietnamese meter or about 30 cm.


    (Los Angeles, September 2001)

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