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In both Lao cuisine and Vietnamese cuisine there exists a noodle dish with a similar name. Lao ເຝີ (feu) and Vietnamese phở.

Each Wikipedia article discusses the possibility of the dish/word being related to French pot-au-feu but the articles do not even mention each other.

In looking for other sources you might find the Lao and Vietnamese dishes/words discussed but with no mention of the French.

It seems it is difficult to get to the hard etymological facts, or at least solid likely theories due to such things as folk etymology and nationalism. (The Wikipedia talk page for the Vietnamese dish has some reasonable debate while the one for the Lao dish is very unreasonable and nationalist with a mixture of some logical points, some bad linguistics, and some arguments I suspect to be based on misunderstand but don't know enough.)

The Chinese word may also play a part, via Cantonese.

So what do we actually know about any relationship between these three words?


All of the languages in question have at least one vowel which might be described as being "like a schwa". In the case of Lao and Vietnamese there seem to be many interpretations for how to map the sounds in these words into IPA. Here are all the variants I have found for the words in question, including comments from Wikipedia talk pages about the tones:

  • French feu:

    • /fø/ (Wiktionary)
  • Lao ເຝີ (feu):

    • /fə̆ː/ (SEAlang)
    • "the Lao word, feu, uses a neutral tone" (Wikipedia talk page for the Lao word)
    • /fǝ̌ǝ/ (found by Googling)
    • /fɤˆː/ (found by Googling)
  • Vietnamese phở:

    • /fɤ/ (SEAlang)
    • [fəː˧˩˧] (Wikipedia)
    • "the Vietnamese word, pho, uses a rising tone" (Wikipedia talk page for the Lao word)
    • /fə̃ː/ (found by Googling)
    • /fɤ̌/ (found by Googling)
    • /fə ̉ː/ (found by Googling)
  • 1
    Could you also transcribe the words in the International Phonetic Alphabet? – James Grossmann Sep 29 '13 at 2:31
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    SEAlang gives /fə̆ː/ for Lao and /fɤ/ for Vietnamese, Wiktionary gives /fø/ for French, Wikipedia gives [fəː˧˩˧] for Vietnamese. In the Wikipedia talk page for the Lao word it is stated "the Lao word, feu, uses a neutral tone, whereas the Vietnamese word, pho, uses a rising tone". Elsewhere via Google I can find /fǝ̌ǝ/ and /fɤˆː/ for Lao; and /fə̃ː/, /fɤ̌/, and /fə ̉ː/ for Vietnamese. – hippietrail Sep 29 '13 at 6:00
  • It would be customary on SE to add this additional information to the question via an edit. – Carsten S Jan 16 '14 at 11:35
  • @CarstenSchultz: I didn't put it in originally because I suspected the IPA would have many interpretations for these less-studied languages, and it turned out to be even worse than I expected! – hippietrail Jan 16 '14 at 13:14
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It's likely that the Laotian borrowed the Vietnamese dish. Pho originates in Northern Vietnam in either Hanoi or Namdinh. Over time Northern Vietnamese migrated South and brought the dish with them. Note that pho is the name of the noodle not the dish, similar to bun (bún), mien (miến), mi (mì). The reason pho became of the name of the dish is because it is the most popular dish using that noodle. Similar to how tet (tết), which means festival became the name of the lunar new year because it's the biggest celebration in Vietnamese culture. There can be tet trung thu (tết trung thu), tet trung nguyen (tết trung nguyên), tet doan ngo (tết đoan ngọ), tet thanh minh (tết thanh minh) etc. Similarly pho noodle is used in many dishes including pho ga, pho cuon, pho xao.

It's unlikely that Pho came from pot au feu. Pho uses similar cooking techniques to all other Vietnamese noodle soups. Vietnamese people have hundred of noodle soup dishes and pho is just one of them. It is likely thought that the use of beef is a french influence. However saying that pho came from pot au feu is a bit of a stretch. I can understand that many Francophiles who love French culture are enthusiastic about this theory. However it's very unlikely.

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  • Welcome to Linguistics SE! I think you could improve your (very good) answer if you provide some references, e.g. regarding the migration of the Northern Vietnamese towards south and/or etymology of pho as a name of the noodle -- if you have them at hand. – Ivan Kapitonov Nov 22 '15 at 13:02
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For the Vietnamese central (?) vowels you might find this discussion interesting:

http://forum.wordreference.com/showthread.php?t=2727474&highlight=vietnamese

especially Palomnik's contributions.

French 'eu' and 'u' are in fact regularly represented by ơ and ư in loanwords from French, although the French vowels are rounded and the Vietnamese are not.

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This answer does not address the source of the Vietnamese word, just the Vietnamese/Lao connection. The folk etymologies are interesting enough, why not just leave them be?

The pronunciation of the Vietnamese and Lao words are very close if not identical - /fɤ:/. The Vietnamese tone is a ‘dipping’ tone that drops and then rises, at least in citation form (Thompson’s description). The Lao tone rises from a low beginning, so it seems to be quite similar to its Vietnamese counterpart. There is no equivalent word in Thai (although you might see some version of it on the menus of restaurants serving the Vietnamese dish.) This suggests that Lao has borrowed the Vietnamese word.

I don’t see how 粉 would tie in here. It means flour or powder, and there is a final –n that doesn’t fit. There might conceivably be a connection with another word for Vietnamese rice noodles, bún (as in the dish bún cha).

While we’re on the subject of Southeast Asian noodle dishes and etymology, Thai has a dish called ขนมจีน /kʰənom tɕi:n/ which consists of boiled rice noodles, fresh vegetables and herbs, all mixed together and topped with a curry sauce. The name appears to mean “Chinese dessert”, but it was actually borrowed from the Mon word for “to boil”. The proximate source would have been Mon refugees from Burmese wars who settled in Bangkok and central Thailand during the 18th century.

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  • Back when I was investigating this I found one reference, maybe an old dictionary somewhere via Google Books that described it as a dish from the mountain area on the Lao/Vietnam border. That could be insightful or the author could've just been avoiding the nationalist issues? (He used the name of the mountains or area, which I've since forgotten.) – hippietrail Jan 16 '14 at 17:18
  • There is also a Lao dish called "khao pun" (ເຂົ້າປຸ້ນ), sometimes described as "Lao laksa". So the Lao word "pun" (ປຸ້ນ) could be related to those Chinese and/or Vietnamese words too. – hippietrail Jan 16 '14 at 17:22
  • I would say, if you want to get at some really deep cultural relationships, look at words for rice. There was an interdisciplinary conference about this at Cornell recently – ‘Rice and Language across Asia.’ The Lao (and northern Thai, historically called Lao) eat sticky rice, not long-grained rice like the central Thai. – neubau Jan 16 '14 at 17:52
  • 粉 is also used in Chinese to mean the noodles made from rice flour. – snogglethorpe Sep 4 '18 at 17:05

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