The Vietnamese Language

Vietnamese is the official language of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. It is the first language of Vietnamese people and a second language of some ethic minorities in Vietnam. It is also spoken by overseas Vietnamese people.

Vietnamese is a language in the Vietic group, Mon-Khmer branch and Austroasiatic language family. Vietnamese is an analytical language, and its grammar relies heavily on word order and sentence structure.

During the period from the 1st-2nd and 9th – 10th centuries Vietnam was ruled by the Chinese; proto-Vietic was influenced and borrowed much vocabulary from Han, Tai-Kadai and Nam-Dao languages and then became ancient Vietic, a monosyllabic language.

From the 10th to 14th century, with the end of Chinese domination Vietnam established an independent feudal regime. As the result of Vietic being used as a mother-tongue by common people and Han being used as an official language, Sino-Vietnamese (Han-Viet) words were formed by borrowing from Han. This particular means of borrowing was different across the regions, which split Vietic into two parts. These parts are said to be the Vietnamese and Muong languages as known today. Although almost 50% of words were borrowed from Han but most of them were changed so Vietnamese did not lose its own characteristic. For example, Chinese has 4 different tones but Vietnamese has 6 - mid level, low falling, high rising, mid dipping-rising, high breaking-rising, low falling constricted.

A character called “Chu Nom” was said to be created by some Vietnamese Confucian scholars to record Vietnamese spoken sentences based on Han (Chinese) characters. It is known as the first obsolete script for recording the Vietnamese language. Research suggests it was created as a complete writing system around the 11th century. It was then used more during the 13th – 18th centuries and nourished Nom literature and Nguyen Du’s Tale of Kieu.

From 16th century, missionaries from the West entered Vietnam and used Latin characters to record Vietnamese words and invented the modern Vietnamese script. Alexandre de Rhodes was the first person who printed the books in Quoc Ngu, which marked its first appearance.

Under French colonisation (19th century), French was taught at school instead of chu Nom. The French authorities also banned the use of classical Chinese (Han), leading to the decline of chu Nom since it is similar to Han. During the early half of the 20th century, it gradually died out whereas Quoc ngu grew more and more standardized and popular because it was simpler and easier to remember. At the same time, Vietnamese adopted many French terms into its lexicon, e.g. ga from gare [French] – train station, pho mat from fromage [French] – cheese or bup be from poupee [French] – doll.

However, the current Vietnamese scripts have been changed compared to the scripts at Alexandre de Rhodes’s time. For instance, the words beginning with tr nowadays are tl or bl .The person who received credit for creating the current Vietnamese scriptswas Pierre-Joseph Pigneaux de Behaine with his Annam-Latin dictionary.

The alphabet of chu Quoc Ngu has 27 Latin letters, with 6 tones. It replaced French, Han and Nom because it records Vietnamese phonetics in a simple and scientific way. After The Geneva Accords (1954), the North-South division caused the development of Vietnamese to differ regionally. While the North imported some spoken Chinese words, the South imported some English/American words into everyday language. Since re-unification (1975) Vietnamese has been more standardised.

Presently, there are a total of over 80 million people that speak Vietnamese which includes about 73 million native Vietnamese. The rest is made up of and some ethic minorities in Vietnam, over 1 million people in USA and over 100,000 people in Canada and Australia. Vietnamese is also used in UK and some European countries and other Asian countries.

There are various mutually intelligible spoken dialects of Vietnamese, with three main dialects being: Northern (including Hanoi), Central (including Hue) and Southern (including Saigon). The Hanoi dialect is accepted as the standard. The central dialect is markedly different from the others due to its local vocabulary. Although all dialects use the same spelling and written language, they have the different tones and consonant in a given word.