The Vietnamese Language
While there are many languages in Vietnam, Vietnamese is by far the most commonly used and is the official language of the country. It is the native language of the Kinh people, which is the largest ethnic group in Vietnam.
- There are about 75 million native speakers of Vietnamese around the world.
- The current script for Vietnamese was developed by a French Jesuit missionary.
- Vietnamese has six tones.
- There is a significant difference in accent and pronunciation between southern Vietnamese and northern Vietnamese.
- Before the Romanization of Vietnamese, the people used the Chinese script.
- There are many Chinese loan words in Vietnamese.
The Vietnamese Language Outside Vietnam
Due to Vietnamese emigration, Vietnamese language can also be found in other parts of Southeast Asia, East Asia, North America, Australia, and Western Europe. In fact, it is recognized as a minority language in the Czech Republic, and is the 6th most spoken language in the USA with more than 1.5 million speakers.
History of the Vietnamese Script
There is a long history of involvement of Chinese people in Vietnam. From 207 BC to 939 AD, Vietnam was ruled by different Chinese dynasties. Hence, Vietnam at the time used the classical Chinese script known as chữ Nho.
This was later replaced by a script still based on Chinese characters known as chữ Nôm, and then later replaced by the Romanized script Quốc Ngữ developed by Alexandre de Rhodes, a French Jesuit Missionary.
The Chinese script chữ Nho, also known as chữ Hán started to be used in the 9th century when all government and official documents were written using it.
Even after Vietnam became independent from the Chinese in 1939, the chữ Nho script was still widely used. However, the Vietnamese wanted to develop their own writing system, which became the chữ Nôm script.
Now, chữ Nho is mainly used on calligraphic banners for special occasions such as New Year celebrations.
The use of the chữ Nôm script was well established by the 11th century. The script uses Chinese characters to form Vietnamese phonics. For example, the Chinese character天 (means heaven), and 上 (means above), are combined to make the character 𡗶 (Nôm), which means sky.
This script is very complicated to learn and was reserved for the elite who could afford to learn it. Today only a few dozen Vietnamese people around the world can read this script.
The Romanization of the Vietnamese script started in the 17th century by Catholic missionaries, who wanted to spread Catholicism to the Vietnamese, including the lower classes. The chữ Nôm was only accessible to elite people who could afford to learn it, as it was very difficult to learn.
Alexandre de Rhodes was a French Jesuit missionary credited with laying down the groundwork for the Romanized writing system later known as Quốc Ngữ. It was said that he learnt the Vietnamese language at an astonishing speed and mastered it in six months.
With this new system, it became possible for a person to learn to read and write Vietnamese in a few weeks instead of years.
The Quốc Ngữ became the official writing system during French colonial rule and has been used until now as the standard script for Vietnamese. Thanks to this system, reading and writing Vietnamese has become much more straightforward and accessible than in the past.
However this is not to say that Vietnamese is an easy language to learn for foreigners.
Vietnamese from a Foreigner’s Perspective
In fact, Vietnamese is notoriously difficult for foreigners. The grammar and spelling are not as complicated as English, but the pronunciation is difficult.
If you think that the Chinese tonal system with four tones is confusing, then the Vietnamese tonal system takes confusion to a new level. Vietnamese has six basic tones. But this also depends on the region, for in southern Vietnam there are just five tones.
Vietnamese phonetics is very different from English, which is why native English speakers tend to find it difficult to pronounce and distinguish certain sounds. You may have noticed it works the other way as well. Native speakers of Vietnamese find it generally more difficult than other Asians to pronounce English words.
The Vietnamese alphabet has diacritic marks. Some indicate the tones, while others represent accents, which are variations in pronunciation. Hence some words have two marks on them, for example, Việt Nam. The sign on top of the e is not a tone mark, but an accent mark.
In the Vietnamese alphabet, certain vowels have accent variations, for example: A–Ă–Â. These diacritic marks make a big difference in pronunciation.
Due to its history, there are many loan words in Vietnamese, especially from Chinese. Hence knowing some Chinese might be an advantage. There are also loan words from French.
Having said all this, we would still encourage you to learn a few phrases of Vietnamese. During your visit with Asia Highlights, your tour guide can help you learn a few essential phrases.
While it is not an easy language to pronounce, it is possible and has been successfully done by many foreigners. Knowing a few basic phrases will definitely help you get along with the locals. As they say, “Language is the key to the heart of a people”.
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