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Vietnamese language

Vietnamese (Vietnamese "Tiếng Việt"), a tonal language, is the national and official language of Vietnam. It is the mother tongue of 87% of Vietnam's population, in addition to about two million Vietnamese emigrants, including a significant number of Vietnamese Americans. Although it contains many vocabulary borrowings from Chinese and was originally written using Chinese characters, it is considered by linguists to be one of the Austroasiatic languages, of which it has the most speakers (the second language being the Khmer language).

Table of contents
1 Written language
2 Dialects
3 Phonology
4 Example Text
5 External links

Written language

Presently, the written language uses a Roman character set called quốc ngữ (national language). It was introduced in the 17th century by a French Jesuit missionary named Alexandre de Rhodes (1591-1660), based on works of earlier Portuguese missionaries. With the occupation of the French in the 19th century, it became popular and by the late 20th century virtually all writings were done in quốc ngữ.

Previous to French occupation, the first two Vietnamese writing systems were based on Chinese script:

The authentic Chinese writing, chữ nho, was in more common usage, whereas chữ nm was used by members of the educated elite (one needs to be able to read chữ nho in order to read chữ nm). Both scripts have fallen out of common usage in modern Vietnam, and chữ nm is near-extinct.

The six tones in Vietnamese are:

ASCII SymbolASCII NameUnicode NameDescriptionSample Unicode Vowel (e)
 NgangNgangno tone (flat)e
~Nga~Ngãdipping (but not as low)
.Na(.ngNặnglow, glottal

Tone markers are written above the vowel they affect, with the exception of Nặng, where the dot goes below the vowel. For example, the common family name Nguyễn begins with SAMPA /N/ (this sound is difficult for native English speakers to place at the beginning of a word), and is followed by something approximated by the English word "win". The ~ indicates a dipping tone; start somewhat low, go down in pitch, then rise to the end of the word.

Like English or any other languages on earth, Vietnamese, originally a monosyllabic language, as demonstrated by its rich tonal system and syllabic diphthongs and triphthongs meant to differentiate one-syllable words, has long become a polysyllabic language, as clearly evidenced with the presence of more than half of its multi-syllabic and compound words in its overall bountiful vocabulary stock.


There are various mutually intelligible dialects (as intelligible as the dialects of English found in the United States), the main three being:

{| border=1 ! Modern name !! Locality name !! Old name |------------------------------------------------ | Northern Vietnamese || Hanoi dialect|| Tonkinese |------------------------------------------------ | Central Vietnamese || Hu dialect || High Annamese |------------------------------------------------ | Southern Vietnamese ||Saigon dialect|| Cochinchinese |}

These dialects differ slightly in tone, although the Hu dialect is somewhat more different than others. The current standard pronunciation and spellings are based on the dialect of an educated Hanoi speaker.


Consonants need to be SAMPA-ized; adapted from pgdudda's website



Stopsp/bt/d, [th]*t[ty]k 
Nasalsmn ñN 
Liquids l    
* /th/ is an unvoiced, aspirated alveolar stop


Rounding is contrastive for non-low back vowels.

i M, u
e 7, o

Example Text

This text is from the first six lines of Kim Vn Kiều, an epic poem by the celebrated poet Nguyễn Du (1765-1820). It was originally written in Nm (titled 金雲翹), and is widely taught in Vietnam today.

Trăm năm trong ci người ta,
Chữ ti chữ mệnh kho l ght nhau.
Trải qua một cuộc bể du,
Những điều trng thấy m đau đớn lng.
Lạ g bỉ sắc tư phong,
Trời xanh quen thi m hồng đnh ghen.

English translation

Four score and two tens, within that short span of human life,
Talent and Destiny are poised in bitter conflict.
Oceans turn to mulberry fields: a desolate scene!
More gifts, less chance, such is the law of Nature
And the blue sky is known to be jealous of rosy cheeks.

External links