Vietnamese Language: an Introduction


The Vietnamese Language (in Vietnamese: Tiếng Việt, or Tieng Viet without accent marks) has existed for millenia but only in spoken form for most of the earlier periods. The writing system used in Vietnam was classical Chinese (~9th → 13th Century), Chữ Nôm (13th → 17th) and Romanized script (17th → Present) [1], [2].

Geographical Distribution

The Vietnamese Language is currently used by more than 86 million Vietnamese in Vietnam and approximately 4 million Overseas Vietnamese, most notably in:[3]

  • The United States: 1.8 million
  • Cambodia: 600 thousand
  • France: 250 thousand
  • Australia: 160 thousand
  • Taiwan: 120 – 200 thousand
  • Canada, Laos: 150 thousand
  • And others such as Russia and South Korea

Main Features of Vietnamese

The following are the most notable characteristics of Vietnamese Language, especially when compared to English:

  • The Vietnamese Alphabet is closely related to the English Alphabet, but with additional letters such as ă or ơ. Learn more about Vietnamese Alphabet.
  • Vietnamese Language is a tonal language: its words are written with diacritics, or accent marks. The same underlying letters with different diacritics produce different words: different in both pronuncation and meaning. For example, the word ma means ghosts while the word means mother. Vietnamese has 6 tones.
  • Vietnamese Language is monosyllabic, i.e., having only one syllable (vowel) per word, like many other Southeast Asian Languages. Contrast this with English when words have many syllables. For example, the word beautiful has 3 syllables. To learn more about Vietnamese word structure, please refer to this article.
  • Vietnamese Language has many loan words from Chinese and French. The reason is that Vietnam was many times and for long periods under Chinese domination during the previous millennium, and was a French colony for almost a hundred year (1985 – 1954). Examples of words transliterated from French are sơ mi (from French word chemise, meaning shirt), búp bê (from French word poupée, meaning doll) [4].

To learn more about Vietnamese, start here for Grammar or here for Vocabulary.

Vietnamese Language Dialects

There are 3 main dialects of Vietnamese Language:

  • the Northern Dialect (represented by Hanoi, the capital)
  • the Central Dialect (represented by Hue, the former capital during feudalism)
  • the Southern Dialect (represented by Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), the most dynamic city in Vietnam)

There is one very important note: these 3 dialects are mutually intelligible by all Vietnamese. They differ mainly in pronunciation of certain alphabet letters and in a few word usages. These 3 dialects don’t differ at the scale of Chinese dialects such as Mandarin and Cantonese or Hokkien.

Below are the major differences in pronunciation among the 3 Vietnamese dialects:

  • Northern Dialect: considered the standard of Vietnamese pronunciation, having clear distinction in pronunciation of different tones.
  • Central Dialect: noted by its heaviness due to the emphasis on low tones.
  • Southern Dialect: normally do not distinguish between the asking tone (hook) and the tumbling tone (tilde); also pronounce certain consonants differently.

Vietnamese Writing System

The Vietnamse Writing System has passed through the following 3 transformational stages so far:

Before the 13th century

The Vietnamese Language then only existed in the spoken form. The writing was classical Chinese, whose indigenous name was Chữ Nho, since Vietnam was many times under Chinese domination during the 1st to the 15th century.

From the 13th to the 17th century

Invention of Chữ Nôm, which is based largely on Chinese characters but with phonetic elements to make it more suitable to the tones of the Vietnamese Language at that current stage (in spoken form). It was also interesting that Chữ Nôm was actually unintelligible to the Chinese people. Chữ Nôm was in widespread use during this period, especially for poetry and literature with the masterpiece The Tale of Kieu, written by Nguyễn Du, which is still being taught in Vietnamese schools up until now. While receiving widespread adoption, Chữ Nôm was not the official langauge of Vietnam during this period; the official writing script was still classical Chinese.

From the 17th century to present

The collective effort of Catholic missionaries to romanize Vietnamese Language has successfully produced the Romanized writing system called Quốc Ngữ, meaning National Language. The achievement was commonly attributed to the French missionary Alexandre de Rhodes [5]. The initial introduction of Quốc Ngữ was not very successful and the script only received more adoption in the 19th century as the French colonical government pushed the language to replace the Chinese-style Chữ Nôm [6]. And at the beginning of the 20th century that was Quốc Ngữ made the official language by the French colonial government. Minor changes to Quốc Ngữ were made up until 1975. To learn more, please consult this lesson on how to write Vietnamese.

If you have questions related to this post, please comment below.

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3 years ago

Could you recommend a good introductory book on Vietnamese? Basically I want to get a fairly thorough overview of the fundamentals and grammar (without lots of fluff, word lists, exercises, or any of that).. Thanks for any help! 🙂

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