"Eating alone is painful" : an interdisciplinary and ethnographically inspired sociolinguistic investigation into Vietnamese mealtime ritual invitations : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Linguistics at Massey University, Auckland, New Zealand
Invitations are a commonplace part of language ritual at meals in Vietnamese culture. They are verbal and non-verbal signals extended around everyday meals and interpreted as offers or invitations for food and/or company at meals. These invitations form communal and familial bonds and serve as a means to maintain hierarchical order. However, the commonly-held misperceptions of these invitations include them being explicitly verbalised, occurring only at meal-starts, and being specific to regions and people groups. Previous studies discussed the language of invitations from a narrow linguistic perspective which led to limited understandings of their nature and of how contextual and social factors govern their usage. My research examines linguistic and cultural perceptions and usage of Vietnamese mealtime ritual invitations (VMRIs) by about 350 native speakers of Vietnamese in New Zealand and Vietnam. My study draws on 18 months of ethnographic fieldwork data, including participant observations, informal talks, diaries, video-recordings, and interviews. This is an interdisciplinary study drawing upon theoretical ideas from Sociolinguistics and Cultural Anthropology to analyse and interpret the data.
The main findings are from two perspectives. From a linguistic perspective, VMRIs exhibit several features. Firstly, their linguistic variants are diverse. Secondly, particular linguistic features can express formality, politeness, hierarchical respect, and communicative conventions. Thirdly, key sociocultural variables (age, gender, familiarity, perception, and socio-family status) appear to influence usage. From an anthropological perspective, VMRIs are daily-life ritual practices manifesting the value of food in Vietnamese socio-cultural and historical context of food insecurity, the significance of family meals and meal manners, and the role of women.
This study on Vietnamese mealtime ritual invitations expands the conceptual boundaries of invitations as multiplex discourses by showing how context (food and family meals) and other factors (status, familiarity, age, gender, and perception) generate and constrain language use. It also highlights the interrelationship between language and behaviour, the ritual practice of familial bonding during mealtimes, and the role of women in Vietnamese society. The findings emphasise the importance not only of taking account of speakers and hearers’ identities and discursive contexts when interpreting contextual language use but also of identifying those contexts.