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About Vietnamese (tiếng việt)

By Tom Thompson

For many years Vietnamese was not a language of any interest to me. During the Vietnam War, known in Vietnam as the Resistance War Against America, I was at a youthful age subject to the U.S. military draft. I was determined, however, that, if drafted, I would flee to Canada or Sweden.

But I was not drafted, so I was able to go to Vietnam as a private citizen, even before the country’s reunification in April of 1975, when I wrote guest editorials against the Vietnam War for the Baltimore Sun, an American newspaper. I was startled during my first trip by how few Americans in Vietnam knew any of the language, or, for that matter, much of anything about Vietnam's history and culture. Ignorance seemed to drive too much of U.S. policy toward Vietnam. More recently, in 2010, again as a private citizen, I visited Vietnam for several weeks after a crash course in Vietnamese. I went not just to Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh (Ho Chi Min City), but also to the Cambodia border area in Cu Chi District, then to Quảng Ngãi Province, and once in Hanoi to Hải Phòng. My interest in Vietnam and in the Vietnamese language has increased since that trip.

Spoken today by around 90 million people, Vietnamese is a fusion of Mon-Khmer, Thai, and Chinese elements. Linguists have had a difficult time classifying the exact origins of Vietnamese. It has borrowed the languages of occupation from a series of imperial invasions, Chinese, French, and American.

One of its attractive features for a Westerner is its Romanized script, known as quốc ngữ, or ‘national language.’ Until the 19th century, two writing systems based on Chinese characters were used in Vietnam. In fact, Vietnam was under Chinese domination for nearly a millennium, from 111 B.C. to A.D. 39, from 45 to 544, and from 609 to 939.

The origin of the Romanized script is with Portuguese and French missionaries in the 17th century. Under French colonial rule, French superseded Chinese. But the Romanized script did not predominate until the beginning of the 20th century, when education became more widespread and a simpler writing system was found to be more expedient for teaching and broad communication.

It’s not that Vietnamese is easy to learn. Some excellent visuals of the Vietnamese alphabet and pronunciation are at omniglot.com/writing/vietnamese.htm. Maybe 30% to 60% of the lexical stock has naturalized word borrowings from China. As a result of French occupation, Vietnamese has many words borrowed from French. And the Romanization includes diacritics to indicate tones, which differ in length, variation in pitch, pitch intensity, and phonation. But these should not be confused with other diacritical marks that are used to indicate special consonants and vowels, what a friend of mine calls a “pile-up” of a seeming morass of dots, squiggles, and other marks.

The vast majority of words in Vietnamese are one syllable long, and they tend not to change form much for verb cases, tenses, or grammatical agreement. Adjectives come after the noun (like French). But nouns have no masculine, feminine, or plural forms. What’s more of a challenge, as I’ve already suggested, is that six different tones in Vietnamese (Five in Southern and Central Vietnam) are part of the lexical identity of a given word. The tone changes and the meaning of the syllable changes!

But, wait, there’s more! Linguists call Vietnamese a “syllable-timed language,” meaning that all of the syllables use the same amount of time to say. English is “stress-timed;” syllables lengthen and reduce according to whether or not they are stressed. This makes the Vietnamese language sound musical, even staccato. Those tones also include variable glottal settings. The untrained ear will hear “glottalized,” or “creaky,” or “breathy.” Vietnamese has three regional dialects, all mutually intelligible: Hanoi in the North, Ho Chi Minh in the South, and Huế in the center are the distinctions.

It’s possible to hear some variation in speech from region to region. There are plenty of linguists who have commented that southern speech sounds more laconic and musical. In the north there’s a seeming choppiness to speech with an emphasis on precision with the tones. In the city of Huế the accent seems to emphasize low tones.

Because of the war-related diaspora, there are many Vietnamese speakers in the U.S. So it’s not surprising that my most successful language learning lessons have been mostly social ones, both talking and eating as food is such an integral part of Vietnamese culture. After years of effort, I’m not going to win any prizes for Vietnamese language proficiency. I’m grateful for the time-honored Vietnamese proverb “Tìm hiểu để ăn trước khi học nói,” that people should ‘learn to eat before learning to speak’.

Tom Thompson writes often on foreign language topics. He lives in Washington, D.C.

Information about Vietnamese | Chữ-nôm script | Phrases | Colours | Numbers | Tower of Babel | Learning materials

About the writer

Tom Thompson writes often on foreign language topics. He lives in Washington, D.C.

Aritcles by Tom Thompson

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