In this lesson, we’ll learn how to write Vietnamese by quickly learning the most fundamental and useful knowledge about Vietnamese words. The next lesson on how to speak Vietnamese would give you the other half of the picture.
The Vietnamese Alphabet
At the core of a writing system is its alphabet, the set of letters or symbols from which all words are written. For learners of Vietnamese, it’s quite fortunate that Vietnamese not only uses the same Latin-based letters (a, b, etc.), its alphabet is also closely related to the English one.
In fact, we’ll begin to learn the Vietnamese Alphabet by assuming that it is the same as the English one: a-z with 26 letters. Yes, just assume that!
What are the vowels in English? They are a, e, i, o and u, right? The good news is that they also form the basics of the set of Vietnamese vowels! The other members of the Vietnamese Alphabet may simply be considered as “variations” of the English vowels as detailed below:
Table 1: “Variations” of the English vowels
|English vowel||Addition “variations”|
Next, the magic happens: take away from the alphabet the following letters: f, j, w, z. Add the only letter đ (yes, this strange letter is the d letter with a short horizontal stroke at the middle of the vertical top).
…And that’s it. Congratulation! You’ve learned the Vietnamese Alphabet!
a, ă, â, b, c, d, đ, e, ê, g, h, i, k, l, m, n, o, ô, ơ, p, q, r, s, t, u, ư, v, x, y.
How many letters are there? It’s 26 (size of the English alphabet) – 4 (f, j, w, z) + 1 (đ) + 6 (the “variations” in the above table) = 29 letters!
So far, there are two strange things we’ve encountered: it’s the đ letter that doesn’t exist in the English alphabet and the weird symbols that come with the “variations” in the above table. The easy way to deal with this unfamiliarity is just to see them as some new letters written by putting some special marks on or over our familiar vowel letters. Later on, you can follow this tutorial to learn how to type Vietnamese words.
Vietnamese words, similar to English words, are made up of consonants and vowels. In the next section, we’ll answer the question of which letters are vowels and which are consonants in Vietnamese.
Vietnamese Vowels and Consonants
We’ve learned about the letters that are used to write all Vietnamese words. In this section, we’ll learn more about vowels and consonants in Vietnamese.
In English, there are five vowels; the rest of the alphabet are treated as consonants. In Vietnamese, all the 5 English vowels, their variations as recorded in table 1 above and the y letter are considered vowels. Thus, the complete set of 12 Vietnamese vowels are: a, ă, â, e, ê, i, y, o, ô, ơ, u, ư.
Some, but not all, vowels may combine with each other to form “vowel clusters” (or “vowel groups”) such as ư + ơ + i to form the vowel cluster ươi; a + i to form the cluster ai; e + o to form eo and so on. These vowel clusters may consist of 2 or 3 consecutive vowels: a two-vowel cluster forms a “diphthong” and a three-vowel cluster forms a “triphthong”. Contrast this with English where we don’t seem to have triphthongs.
It’s worth a quick mention that each vowel cluster has a new pronunciation which, though based on the sounds of its constituent vowels, is markedly different from mere sound concatenation.
That’s enough for vowels. Let’s now move on to consonants. How many are there? I hope you answered 17, which equals the size of our Vietnamese alphabet – the size of the set of Vietnamese vowels = 29 – 12 = 17.
Just as vowels can be strung together to form vowel groups, some consonants also combine to create “consonant clusters” (or “consonant groups”) such as gh, tr and ph. Of course, not all combinations of consonants make valid consonant clusters, just as not all vowel combinations are valid. For instance, đg is not a valid vowel cluster. Similar to the case of vowels, the sound of consonant clusters may be quite different from just chaining their single-letter consonants’ sounds. More about their pronunciations in the next lesson.
As the conclusion for this section, we’ve learned that there are 12 vowels and 17 consonants; and two or three vowels(similarly, consonants) may combine to form vowel(similarly, consonant) clusters. With this knowledge, we’ll go ahead to get the big picture: the general structure of Vietnamese words.
Vietnamese Word structure
In order to simply the wording, in this section on structure of words, we’ll use “consonant” to refer to both (single-letter) consonants and consonant clusters. Similarly, “vowel” is the umbrella name referring to either a vowel or a vowel cluster.
A Vietnamese word, which is for our purpose identified by surrounding spaces, is comprised of one optional beginning consonant, followed by a mandatory vowel, and one optional ending consonant. While the vowel is compulsory, both the beginning and ending consonant are optional. For example, the word ưu in the adjective ưu tiên(“having higher priority”) has only the vowel ưu with neither the beginning nor the ending consonants. There are also a few rules regarding which consonants can begin or end a word, and if you’re keen, a discussion on this can be found, for example, at .
Structure of Vietnamese words
Vietnamese word = 1 Optional consonant + 1 Compulsory Vowel + 1 Optional consonant
Another interesting observation from the Vietname words’ structure is that they have only one vowel! This is very different from English where each word may be has multiple vowels (e.g. the English word interesting has four non-consecutive vowels, namely: i, e, e, i). The fact that Vietnamese words only have one vowel makes them known as monosyllabic: having only one vowel in each word. This monosyllabic nature of Vietnamese words make their pronunciations rather short compared to English words.
In our last discussion below, we’ll look at a very special attribute of Vietnamese words: the accent marks.
Although there are stresses for some syllable(s) of each English word, there is absolutely no accent mark for English words, except for borrowed words. In contrast, accent marks (or more accurately diacritics) is a popular component of Vietnamese words. So you’ll find that although dai and dài share the same set of alphabet letters, they are two completely different words with different meanings: the first word means tough(for food) while the second one means long(for distance or time). We’ll see in the lesson on pronunciations that they would have similar sound due to the same letter set but with different “intonation”. This tonal feature is also a feature of Chinese. Though more limited, French also has some forms of accent marks.
There are 5 kinds of tone markers in Vietnamese: acute accent(“´”), grave(“`”), hook(” ̉ “), tilde(“~”) and dot(“.”). These 5 diacritics yield 5 different tones and together with the no-diacritic tone, we have the 6 tones in Vietnamese. For example, the word dài(“long”) carries a grave. From the letter set of “dai”, the other 5 tonal variations are: dái: acute accent, dải: hook, dãi: tilde and dại: dot.
As you could have observed in the above example, all the diacritics are written above the vowel except for the dot, which is written below the vowel (and hence its other name “dot below”). In vowel clusters that have 2 to 3 consecutive vowels such as the cluster oa in hoa, it’s practically acceptable to put the tone marks above the letter a in hoà or the letter o to produce the writing form hòa. Interested readers can find in-depth discussions on the place of the tone markers at  and .
If you want to learn how to type these accent marks, please consult the tutorial on how to type Vietnamese.
In this lesson, we’ve learned the followings about Vietnamese words:
- Vietnamese alphabet is mostly Latin-based and quite close to the English alphabet. Vowels(consonants) clusters are formed by 2 or 3 consecutive vowels(consonants).
- Vietnamese words follow the structure: 1 optional consonant/consonant cluster + 1 compulsory Vowel/Vowel Cluster + 1 optional consonant/consonant cluster.
- There are 6 Vietnamese tones: 5 of which correspond to the 5 diacritics and the no-diacritic tone.