Vietnamese Language History and Use

An introduction to the history of spoken and written Vietnamese language.

Where Vietnamese Language is Spoken

Vietnamese is the official language of Vietnam. In addition to Vietnamese speakers living in Vietnam, a significant number of people speak Vietnamese overseas, notably in the United States. It is also spoken in France, and to a lesser extent in Canada, Australia, Senegal, and Cote d'Ivoire. Vietnamese is also widely used as a second language by many of the mountain-dwelling ethnic minorities in Vietnam, and in neighboring countries like Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand.

Vietnamese is one of approximately 150 languages belonging to the Austro Asiatic family of languages.

Within the Austro-Asiatic family, three major branches are generally recognized. Viet-Muong (or Annam-Muong) includes Vietnamese and its sister language Muong (spoken in the Midlands). While Vietnamese and its sister language Muong form a group on their own, some scholars favor the inclusion of Vietnamese within the Mon-Khmer group.

Vietnamese Language Dialects

Vietnamese is spoken in three dialects, corresponding to the three main regions of Vietnam: Northern Vietnamese (Hanoi), Central Vietnamese (Hue ), and Southern Vietnamese (Ho Chi Minh City). The Northern dialect forms the basis of the standard language and is the prestige dialect. The dialects differ mainly in terms of pronunciation and to a limited extent in terms of the vocabulary. These dialect differences do not impede intelligibility among speakers of the different dialects, however.

Written Vietnamese Language

While adopting many elements of the Chinese language, the Vietnamese people changed many Chinese words, gradually creating Han-Viet (Chinese-Vietnamese) which incorporated purely Vietnamese words. "Vietnamization" not only applied to the Chinese language, but also to French and other language groups, creating a diverse vocabulary for the Vietnamese language, according to the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism.

Vietnamese was first written using modified Chinese characters when Vietnam was a province of China, from the second century BC until the tenth century. During the medieval period, from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries, Buddhist scholars and priests developed a writing system based on Chinese characters. This script, called chu nom, used combinations or digraphs of Chinese characters; one component gave the meaning and the other component signaled the pronunciation.

In the mid-seventeenth century, the Roman script modified by diacritics to mark tones and certain vowels was introduced by Catholic missionaries. By the end of the nineteenth century, the French administration encouraged the use of chu quoc nom by all segments of society. Three Vietnamese reformers, Nguyen Truong to, Truong Vinh Ky and Huynh Tinh Cua worked to spread the use of the Roman script. They campaigned for the use of chu quoc ngu by the press, advocated sending students to France to study, collected and translated chu nom literature into chu quoc ngu, and compiled a modern Vietnamese dictionary.

Vietnamese Language Tones and Speech Patterns

Vietnamese is a tone language; that is, the meaning of words and sentences is affected by the pitch with which they are spoken. The tones in Vietnamese are mid-level, low falling, high rising, low, rising after an initial dip, high broken and low broken. "Broken" tones are spoken in a glottalized manner.

There is no inflection in Vietnamese so nouns and verbs are not marked for things such as subject agreement and tense or number, grammatical gender, and case. Nouns are marked by special classifiers. There are classifiers that mark inanimate objects, animate objects, vehicles, books, people, and important people, for example.

Reduplication and compounding are common phenomena. In a reduplicated form, the entire word may be repeated or just a portion of it. Reduplication may indicate plural, extension, or repetition of a state or intensity. Names of birds, insects, plants, and fruits are often reduplicated, too.

Sentences in Vietnamese have subject-verb-object word order. Because there is so little inflection, the language depends on strict word order to convey meaning.

Based in part on Language Materials Project, Creative Commons licensed article.