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Vietnamese Language Travel Guide

Around 59 million individuals in the world today speak the Vietnamese language. Other than the natives of Vietnam, a large number of people speak the language in the US, France, in Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal, Australia and Canada. Vietnamese is also used widely as the second language of several ethnic minorities living in the mountains of neighboring countries such as Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. Vietnamese belongs to the language group called Austro Asiatic that has 150 other languages. Before 3000 years, the communities of Tay and Mon Khmer people merged in the Deltas of Ma River and Red River. The two groups also developed Viet-Muong, a shared language that had been composed of two dialects. The Lowlanders spoke a dialect that was known as City dialect. In the mountains and Midlands, the people spoke the dialect known as Highlanders.

Around 60% of the modern words in Vietnamese originated from Chinese. Several basic words such as terms for geography had been adopted from Mon Khmer monotonal languages. The tonality was inspired by Tai. Every syllable in Vietnamese has one from the six tones that changes the word’s meaning completely. The syllables also have up to three of the 11 different vowel sounds. Vietnamese is a very complex language that also has a complex history.


The Chinese

In the year 111 AD, the Tonkin Delta was annexed by the Chinese as Giao Chi. In order to assimilate lowland locals, the Chinese introduced an administrative system of Chinese style that was ruled by governors. Schools teaching Chinese characters were opened and during the 1000 years that the Chinese ruled, Han had been the written official language. During the time, the spoken language developed. City dialect then became the common language and the Highlanders dialect then developed into what is today known as Muong language. By 10th century, the Viets got their independence and they established the Dai Viet nation. The language split between Muong and Viet had been complete by then.


Over the next ten centuries of independence, the imperial court of Vietnam and the ruling classes followed Chinese culture and practices. Academic literature and exams for Civil service were in Chinese characters. However, the spoken language continued to be Vietnamese. A paradox rose here since the script that was approved by imperial court wasn’t utilized for transcribing their national language. The locals adapted the Chinese characters to a script of their known known as chữ nôm, which was a half ideographic and half phonetic writing system. As per the annals, the first poet who wrote using chữ nôm had been Han Thuyen in the 13th century. The Chinese characters continued to be used for the Tang Dynasty literary prose and poetry for several more years.


During the 17th and the 18th centuries, the poets used chữ nôm for writing some of the famous and well known literary classics of Vietnam such as Kim Van Kieu written by Nguyen Du as well as Chinh Phu Ngam, which was a lyrical poem that had been translated by Doan Thi Diem from Chinese. Although several poems had been written in chữ nôm, all other texts continued to be written using Han characters. Mandarin class, in fact, held popular and national culture with such force that chữ nôm had to be banned officially at one point. Because no uniformity had been established at the time for transcribing the language with the chữ nôm style, the authors continued to develop rules of their own. Because of this, there were too many literature interpretations dating back to that time.


The Loanwords

Because of the constant contact between China and Vietnam, Vietnamese continued to borrow several Han words. Many of the loanwords today have been adapted to Vietnam in such a way that only a few people know that they are Chinese origin. For example, Mùa (season), chợ (market), Hàng (goods/merchandise) and Tiền (money). Sino Vietnamese was the second group of terms that was adapted in Vietnamese between 5th to the 7th century in Tang Era. These words are fully Vietnamized and can be mixed with the Han words while speaking.


The Influence of Europe on Vietnam

The script based on Roman that is currently used in Vietnam is from the seventeenth century. Spanish, Portuguese and French catholic missionaries were helped by the Vietnamese preachers to develop a new system for writing in order to spread the gospel. The person who was responsible for developing the present day Roman inspired national language script was Alexandre De Rhodes. He had been a Jesuit French missionary who arrived in Vietnam in the year 1627. Within 6 months of arrival, he was preaching in very fluent Vietnamese. While developing this script, he and the other missionaries had to face two major challenges.


Because there are six tones in Vietnamese, diacritical marks had to be added. Also, every monosyllabic word had to be separately transcribed. This was different from the polysyllabic and ideographic transcription of the script. Initially, this new script was opposed by Confucian scholars. This new script was simple and easy to learn and therefore the scholars were soon undermined. Their own writing style had been in Han characters. Later on, a few new nationalists also did not support the new script saying that it was created by the imperialists. However, the common masses quickly adapted the new script since the older one had been very difficult for them to learn. Therefore, the intellectuals quickly used this new script to fight against the colonialism.

At the beginning of 20th century, the new written script greatly helped contact between the western and Vietnamese cultures. After Vietnam’s independence from France, the local government recognized quoc ngu as Vietnam’s official written language system. Another movement for advocating Vietnamized words was also launched by Uncle Ho along with efforts to eradicate illiteracy. Like any other living language, even the Vietnamese language will continue to grow and evolve as it absorbs words from different cultures.

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