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Summary Article: VIETNAMESE
from Dictionary of Languages
55,000,000 SPEAKERS


Now generally agreed to be one of the aus-troasiatic languages, Vietnamese is so different from its relatives that quite contradictory views on its origin have been expressed. It is the official language of Vietnam.

In recent centuries the cultural centre had been the old royal city of Hue, capital of Annam. The language has therefore sometimes been called Annamese or Annamite. Vietnam, the ‘Viet country’, is an inclusive term covering also the southern region of Cochinchina and the northern region of Tonkin. Vietnamese is the majority language in all three.

For over two thousand years Chinese culture has exerted a pervasive influence on that of Vietnam. According to traditional history, China ruled the kingdom of Annam, which included Tonkin, from the 2nd century BC until 968, when Dinh Bo Lanh established himself as an independent monarch. Over the following centuries Vietnamese rule extended southwards, where the kingdoms of Champa (see CHAM) and Funan had once held sway.

Roman Catholic missionaries were involved in Vietnam from the 17th century, in competition with Buddhism, Confucianism and the still-prominent survivals of local religion. Their great contribution to its culture was the quoc ngu script, a special version of the Latin alphabet suited to the sounds and especially the tones of Vietnamese. Until the early 20th century this coexisted with nom, the Vietnamese adaptation of Chinese script: but it was encouraged by the French administration, it promoted the spread of literacy and thus of new political ideas, and it is now universally used.

Of Vietnamese literature before the 19th century a great deal is ‘Sino-Vietnamese’ – not only dependent on Chinese models but written in more or less pure Chinese. This includes the history Dai Viet su ky ‘Records of Great Viet’, compiled in the 13th century and revised later. Here the succession of Vietnamese emperors is traced back to 2879 BC. Literature in true Vietnamese, still full of Chinese words but closer to its real time and place, is rich in poetry and legend. The greatest work of Vietnamese literature is Kim Van Kieu, the ‘Tale of Kieu’, a verse romance by Nguyen-Du (1765–1820).

Until the French conquest, which began in 1862, printing in Vietnam was by means of woodblocks. Western-style printing in quoc ngu was introduced at once and a newspaper press developed in the next decades. French, Japanese and American domination ended in thirty years of war, culminating in the reunification of independent Vietnam in 1975.

The standard dialect of Vietnamese, represented in the script, is that of Hanoi. This has six tones: thus the script, too, differentiates between six tones, though speakers in most of Vietnam recognise only five. As can be seen from the box, tones are essential in Vietnamese in distinguishing the meaning of otherwise identical words.

Chinese words now make up as much as 60 per cent of the vocabulary of written Vietnamese. Many of these loans arrived before the 10th century, as is evident when their Vietnamese pronunciation is compared with modern Chinese – though the logic is obscured by the fact that Chinese in Vietnam has, in any case, continued to be pronounced in the medieval way. This local form of medieval Chinese, known as Han, is traditionally the language of learning of Vietnam.

The six tones of Vietnamese





mid falling

ma ‘ghost


high rising

má ‘mother


low falling

mà ‘but



mỐ ‘tomb


high rising glottalised

mã ‘horse


low glottalised

ma ‘rice seedling

Example from Nguyen Dinh-Hoa, ‘Vietnamese’ in International encyclopedia of linguistics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992)

Nom and quoc-ngu

Han was naturally written in Chinese script. Nom is the name for Chinese script as applied to Vietnamese, with added characters and character compounds to denote native Vietnamese words. For several centuries, since 1285 at the latest, this was the usual way of writing the language.

The romanisation of Vietnamese was devised by French Catholic missionaries in the 17th century. This specially developed Latin script or quoc ngu, with its double diacritics, existed in parallel with nom for three centuries, and eventually, under French colonial rule, triumphed. It is now the only standard orthography for Vietnamese. In 1993 Ho Chi Minh City University closed its only course in Han and the nom script: teachers, examiners and interested students had become impossible to find.

The Vietnamese alphabet is shown in the box. Tone marks are not included because they are ignored in the alphabetical order.

Dictionary of Languages © 1998 + 2004

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