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The Vietnamese Writing System

Modern Vietnamese is written with the Latin alphabet, known as quoc ngu (quốc ngữ) in Vietnamese. Quoc ngu consists of 29 letters. These are:

These modified letters are all considered separate letters of the alphabet. Vietnamese dictionaries follow the order a - ă - â - b - c - d - đ - e - ê - ... etc, where the extra letters follow the letter on which they are based. The order after o is: o - ô - ơ.

The combinations gh, gi, kh, ng, nh, th, and tr have also traditionally been considered separate letters with their own section in the dictionary, but this is less common nowadays.

In addition, diacritics are used to indicate the tones of Vietnamese. Tone markings are: a (no mark), à, á, , ã, and . When letters are combined with tone markings, some complex diacritics can result, such as: , , , and .

The following is a sample of Vietnamese in quoc ngu, a rather unexciting story about the increase in tourism to Laos in 2004. There are many words in this passage that are derived from Chinese, but because they are not written in Chinese characters their origin is not immediately apparent. Note that Laos has its own name in Vietnamese, like many countries in Europe and other Asian neighbours, but unlike the names of most other countries which are simply written in English.

Background of Quoc ngu

Considering that Vietnam has been an independent nation for a thousand years, quoc ngu has a surprisingly brief history. The system was developed by Portuguese Jesuit missionaries in the 17th century. The earliest extant dictionary using quoc ngu was the Dictionarium Annamiticum Lusitanum et Latinum, published by Alexandre de Rhodes in 1651. Rhodes, who was French, relied heavily on earlier Portuguese dictionaries in compiling his work.

Quoc ngu was largely neglected until the 19th century when it was taken up by the French colonial government as a means of breaking the grip of Chinese culture and fostering Western ways of thinking. Despite its colonial background, the simplicity and ease of use of quoc ngu resulted in its gradual spread, especially after it was seized on by the Vietnamese reformers in the twentieth century as a means of breaking free from Chinese tradition and spreading mass literacy. It was eventually chosen as the official Vietnamese script only in the 20th century.

Features of quoc ngu

1. Diacritics are used to represent sound distinctions not covered by the Roman or Latin alphabet. This is not unusual. Although it is used around the world, the Roman alphabet is actually inadequate to represent even the languages of Europe. Some diacritics in Vietnamese:

The letter đ (not strictly speaking a diacritic) represents an ingressive 'd' sound, which means that the breath is not exploded outwards, it is held inwards, so to speak. (The Vietnamese /b/ sound is also ingressive, which gives it a peculiar auditory impression quite different from English /b/).

ơ, and ư are the unrounded versions of o and u respectively. These unrounded vowel sounds are not found in most European languages.

For short vowels, ă represents short a while â represents short ơ.

The letters e and ê represent the distinction between [ɛ] and [e] in IPA symbols (mid-open and mid-close front unrounded vowels respectively). Similarly, o and ô represent the difference between [ɔ] and [o] (mid-open and mid-close back rounded vowels respectively). The result is a neat and regular distinction, better than that in some European languages (See this article for French and this article for German).

Since European languages do not have tones, diacritics were introduced to represent these (a, à, á, , ã, ).

While helping achieve a regular and predictable spelling, diacritics are cumbersome to write and cause problems on computers and browsers. International Roman-letter character sets (such as ASCII) are unable to accommodate all the Vietnamese forms, so special encodings had to be devised. Recently, Unicode has become the standard encoding.

2. The quoc ngu has a very obvious Western heritage, which is apparent in several ways.

The Portuguese lineage shows through in spellings such as nh (initially pronounced /ny/ as in Portuguese).

This heritage is less benign in some other cases. For instance, the sound /k/ is represented by the letters c, q, and k, depending on the environment. The letter c is used before a and o, and k before the vowels e, ê, and i. This practice dates back to Portuguese, which, like English, pronounces c as /k/ before 'a' and 'o' but /s/ before 'i', and 'e'. Portuguese is also followed in the combination qu. These complications could have been avoided by using k in all these positions.

A different quirk is seen in words like khỏe and khuy. The letters o and u are pronounced slightly differently under the influence of the following vowel. This difference in sound was picked up by Europeans learning Vietnamese and reflected in the quoc ngu. For a Vietnamese native speaker, however, the difference is trivial -- imperceptible even -- and should not really be shown in the spelling.

3. In spite of its shortcomings, the system that the missionaries created was remarkably suited to the Vietnamese language. Of particular usefulness is its ability to bridge dialects. The writing system shows not only distinctions in sound that are found in the standard Hanoi dialect but also those in other dialects. Two different letters may be pronounced identically in Hanoi but differently in other dialects. For instance:

Letter
Hanoi pronunciation
Saigon pronunciation
s
/s/
/sh/
x
/s/

 

Letter
Hanoi pronunciation
Saigon pronunciation
tr
/ch/
/tr/
ch
/ch/

 

Letter
Hanoi pronunciation
Saigon pronunciation
v
/v/
/y/
d
/z/
gi
r
/r/

Please note: Although I have used slashes (/) to enclose sounds, the symbols are not standard phonetic or phonemic symbols used by linguists.

4. One very noticeable feature of quoc ngu is its monosyllabic nature. Every syllable is written as though it were a separate word, with a space before and after. This is a throwback to the use of Chinese characters in Vietnamese (see below). Partly as a result, Vietnamese speakers tend to believe that their language is made up entirely of monosyllabic words.

To be sure, the monosyllable is an important entity in Vietnamese. Each syllable tends to have its own meaning and thus a strong identity, and is strongly felt to be a single independent unit by Vietnamese speakers. However, the Vietnamese monosyllable is not automatically a 'word' -- or at least, not a word as we would define it in English. Often, two syllables go together to form a single word, which can be identified by the way it functions grammatically in a sentence. For instance, take the sentence:

Mấy giờ máy bay sẽ hạ cánh ở sân bay Tokyo?
What time does the plane arrive at Tokyo airport?

It is clear that máy bay does not simply mean 'machine flies'; it is a single word meaning 'flying machine' or 'aeroplane' and functions as the subject of the sentence. Hạ cánh does not mean 'come-down wing' (which is the literal meaning of the two monosyllables); it is a single word that means 'to land' and functions as the verb of the sentence.

Máy bay is a 'compound word' made up of two native Vietnamese elements. Similarly, hạ cánh is a compound word made up of Sino-Vietnamese forms that have their ultimate origin in Chinese.

Vietnamese also has native polysyllabic words like bồ nông 'pelican' that cannot be broken up into anything meaningful. More recently, Vietnamese has borrowed polysyllabic words from foreign languages like French, e.g., va-li or vali ('valise' or 'suitcase').

In an earlier era many compound words were hyphenated but this practice has now been abandoned.

 

Quoc ngu was not the first system of writing used to represent the Vietnamese language. Before quoc ngu came along, two scripts existed and were in use. The first was Chinese characters, known as chu nho in Vietnamese. The second was a native adaptation of the Chinese characters known as chu nom.

CHU NHO (chữ Nho)

For much of Vietnam's history the official written language was Classical Chinese, using, of course, Chinese characters. Chinese became established as the dominant cultural medium during the millennium (111 B.C. - 938 A.D.) when Vietnam was under direct Chinese rule. Even after Vietnam gained its independence, Classical Chinese continued in use among the literati. In fact, the characters were in official use right up until the 20th century. It was only the abolition of the Chinese-style official exams in 1918, following on from China's own abolition of the exams, that finally sounded their death knell.

During the time it was the official language, Chinese had a massive influence on the Vietnamese language and literature. Even today, a huge proportion of the modern vocabulary has its origins in Chinese.

As in the case of Japanese, the original Chinese pronunciations were modified to suit local habits. In many cases the pronunciation of Chinese words appears closer to the dialects of southern China. Similarities can often be found with Cantonese, the language of nearby Guangdong province, rather than Mandarin. As a random example, the word 高級 'superior, high-class' is gāojí in Mandarin and gou3 kap7 in Cantonese. In Vietnamese, the equivalent is cao cấp. (It is interesting to speculate whether such similarities are due to closer contact with Guangdong than with the mainstream northern Chinese dialects, or whether Vietnamese simply retains older features of Chinese pronunciation, as do Korean and Japanese).

The story of Vietnamese writing does not end with Classical Chinese. Despite the overwhelming prestige of Chinese writing, the Vietnamese managed along the way to develop a system to write their own language.

CHU NOM (chữ Nôm)

The chu nom was a system developed to write Vietnamese. The actual date is not agreed but chu nom was already in existence by the mid-13th century.

Chu nom was not a completely new system of writing. It consisted of orthodox Chinese characters supplemented by a set of new characters specifically created to write Vietnamese words. Modelled on Chinese characters, these characters used many of the same principles in their construction -- for instance, the practice of combining a meaning element and a sound element to create a new character. The new characters were considerably more unwieldy and complex than the originals. They were all but incomprehensible to people from China itself and have never been accepted as part of the greater family of Chinese characters, unlike characters that were created by the Japanese.

The Vietnamese script had to deal with both native words and imported vocabulary from China. In addition, constant close contact with Chinese meant that some Chinese words were borrowed more than once, resulting in layers of Chinese vocabulary in varying degrees of naturalisation. The most highly naturalised words were accepted as Vietnamese words, as much an integral part of the Vietnamese language as the native Vietnamese vocabulary. Less naturalised words retained a stiff and bookish feel.

The main methods of representing Vietnamese in chu nom are shown below. (Note that the chu nom system was never completely standardised. There were innumerable cases where several different characters were used to write the same word, as well as cases where the same character was used to write different words.)

1. Chinese loanwords (Sino-Vietnamese): For Vietnamese words borrowed from Chinese, chu nom used the original Chinese character without change. For example:

2. Naturalised Chinese words: Some very old borrowings from Chinese came to be considered naturalised Vietnamese words. These words were generally represented by the original Chinese character, but in order to distinguish them from newer Chinese loanwords sometimes a mark was added.

3. Native Vietnamese words: For native Vietnamese words, there were essentially two methods of representation:

(i) Chinese characters were used without change to represent the pronunciation only (emptied of meaning).

Native Vietnamese Word Chu Nom Character Function
một
'one'
Sound: 沒 is pronounced mut6 in modern Cantonese and in modern Mandarin.

There is no connection between một 'one' and the meaning of 沒, which is 'to sink' or ('not have') in modern Chinese.

(ii) New characters were created, either by putting two Chinese characters together on the basis of meaning and/or sound, or by modifying existing Chinese characters. (Sometimes this meant putting together two chu nom characters.) Some chu nom characters are:

Combination of two meanings:

Native Vietnamese Word Chu Nom Character Components Function
trời
'sky, heaven'
Meaning ('heaven')
Meaning ('above')

Combination of two characters, one chosen for its meaning, one for its sound:

Native Vietnamese Word Chu Nom Character Components Function
núi
'mountain'
Meaning ('mountain')
Sound (nèi in modern Mandarin)
lửa
'fire'
Meaning ('fire')
Sound ( in modern Mandarin)
lạ
'strange'
Sound (luó in modern Mandarin)
Meaning ('strange')

Modification of existing character chosen for its sound:

Native Vietnamese Word Chu Nom Character Components Function
ấy
'that'
'clothing' minus top part Sound only ( in modern Mandarin); original meaning is irrelevant

The chu nom system of writing could only be mastered by someone who already knew Chinese characters. Its use was thus confined to the educated elite and it was regarded as secondary to Chinese characters. Although chu nom was the medium for some of Vietnam's vernacular literature, most notably the Story of Kieu, a classic 18th century work, it was unable to match the prestige of orthodox Chinese writing. It was only fleetingly successful in gaining official acceptance as Vietnam's writing system. In the end, the Vietnamese abandoned both Chinese characters and the chu nom.

Although Chinese characters have been swept into the dustbin of history, it's remarkable how much their spirit lives on, both in the Vietnamese vocabulary and, ironically, in the writing system.

In fact, the practice of representing each syllable as one 'word', which is the common practice in modern Vietnamese, is actually a throwback to the old concept that each Chinese character is equivalent to one word. For instance, 'Hanoi', which linguistically speaking is one word, is written in Vietnamese as two: Hà Nội. This follows the Chinese script, which writes 'Hanoi' with two characters: 河內 (literally, 'river' + 'inside').

Treatment of foreign words

Being written in the Roman alphabet, it is now quite easy for Vietnamese to adopt foreign words (from English, French, etc.) outright. There is no need to transform words into katakana as in Japanese, or try to find suitable-sounding characters, as in Chinese.

Neverthless, Vietnamese has a long tradition of transforming foreign words into an acceptable Vietnamese form. This can be seen in naturalised words like:

frein 'brake' phanh
film phim
café 'coffee' cà phê
carotte 'carrot' cà rốt

And there are also cases where foreign words have entered via Chinese. The word câu lạc bộ is the Vietnamese pronunciation of the Chinese word 俱樂部 (Mandarin: jùlùbù), which is the English word 'club'!

For more modern borrowings, conflicting tendencies can be seen. For instance, it is possible to find the loanword 'guitar' written ghi ta, ghi-ta, ghita, or guitar. The loanword 'video' may be written vi-đe-ô, vi-đi-ô, or video.

It is reasonable to expect that this tendency to directly use the foreign spelling will continue.

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For more information, see Links. See also the Chinese Writing System and the Japanese Writing System.

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