Vietnamese language

From Academic Kids

Vietnamese (Tiếng Việt)
Spoken in: Vietnam, USA, Cambodia, France, and various others
Region: Southeast Asia
Total speakers: 67 to 73 million native
80 million total
Ranking: 17
Genetic classification: Austroasiatic
Official status
Official language of: Vietnam
Regulated by: -
Language codes
ISO 639-1vi
ISO 639-2vie
See also: LanguageList of languages

Vietnamese (Vietnamese: tiếng Việt, less commonly tiếng Việt Nam or Việt ngữ), formerly known as Annamite, is the national and official language of Vietnam. It is the mother tongue of the Vietnamese people (người Việt or người Kinh), who constitute between 77% and 86% of Vietnam's population and of about two million overseas Vietnamese, including a significant number of Vietnamese Americans. It is also spoken as a second language by some minorities of Vietnam. Although it contains much vocabulary borrowed 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 by a significant margin (three to four times the number of speakers of the other languages combined). The predominant Vietnamese writing system in use today is an adapted version of the Latin alphabet, though the Chu Nom system, adapted from Chinese characters, was also formerly employed.



Vietnamese is part of the Viet-Muong grouping of the Mon-Khmer branch of the Austroasiatic language family, a family that also includes Khmer, spoken in Cambodia, as well as various tribal and regional languages, such as the Munda languages, spoken in northeastern India, and others in southern China. It has been proposed that the Austroasiatic family is a part of the hypothetical Austric superfamily (with Austronesian, Hmong-Mien and Tai-Kadai language families, among others). The Austric family is generally not accepted by most specialists.


It seems likely that in the distant past Vietnamese shared more characteristics common to other languages in the Austroasiatic family, such as an inflectional morphology and a richer set of consonant clusters, which have subsequently disappeared from the language. However, Vietnamese appears to have been heavily influenced by its location in the Southeast Asian Sprachbund—with the result that it has acquired or converged toward characteristics such as isolating morphology and tonogenesis. These characteristics, which may or may not have been part of proto-Austroasiatic, nonetheless have become part of many of the philologically unrelated languages of Southeast Asia—for example, Thai (one of the Tai-Kadai languages), Tsat (a member of the Malayo-Polynesian group within Austronesian), and Vietnamese each developed tones as a phonemic feature, although their respective ancestral languages were not originally tonal.

The ancestor of the Vietnamese language was originally based in the area of the Red River in what is now northern Vietnam, and during the subsequent expansion of the Vietnamese language and people into what is now central and southern Vietnam (through conquest of the ancient nation of Champa and the Khmer people of the Mekong delta in the vicinity of present-day Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnamese was linguistically influenced primarily by Indic and Malayo-Polynesian languages at first, until Chinese came to predominate politically toward the middle of the first millennium C.E.

With the rise of Chinese political dominance came radical importation of Chinese vocabulary and grammatical influence. As Chinese was, for a prolonged period, the only medium of literature and government, as well as the primary language of the ruling class in Vietnam, much of the Vietnamese lexicon in all realms consists of Hn Việt (Sino-Vietnamese) words. In fact, as the vernacular language of Vietnam gradually grew in prestige toward the beginning of the second millennium, the Vietnamese language was written using Chinese characters (see Chu Nom) adapted to write Vietnamese, in a similar pattern as used in Japan (see kanji), Korea and other countries in the Chinese cultural sphere. The Nm writing reached its zenith in the 18th century when many Vietnamese writers and poets composed their works in Chữ Nm, most notably Nguyễn Du and Hồ Xun Hương (dubbed "the Queen of Nm poetry").

As contact with the West grew, the Quốc Ngữ system of Romanized writing was developed in the 17th century by Portuguese and other Europeans involved in proselytizing and trade in Vietnam. When France invaded Vietnam in the late 19th century, French gradually replaced Chinese as the official language in education and government. Vietnamese adopted many French terms, such as đầm (dame), ga (train station), and va-li (valise). In addition, many Sino-Vietnamese terms were devised for Western ideas imported through the French. However, the Romanized script did not come to predominate until the beginning of the 20th century, when education became widespread and a simpler writing system was found more expedient for teaching and communication with the general population.

Geographic distribution

According to the Ethnologue, Vietnamese is also spoken in Australia, Cambodia, Canada, China, Cte d'Ivoire, Finland, France, Germany, Laos, Martinique, Netherlands, New Caledonia, Norway, Philippines, Senegal, Thailand, United Kingdom, USA, and Vanuatu.

Official status

Vietnamese is the official language of Vietnam.


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

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 and pronunciation, although the Hu dialect is more markedly different from the others due to its local vocabulary. The hỏi and ngã tones are more distinct in the northern than in the southern dialect. As the capital is in Hanoi, the standard spelling of words is based on the Hanoi dialect.


For a more detailed description of the Vietnamese sound system (including IPA phonetic notation), see Vietnamese phonology.


Like other southeast Asian languages, Vietnamese has a comparatively large number of vowels (nguyn m) (English also has a large vowel inventory). Below is a vowel chart of the Hanoi variety (i.e., other regions of Viet Nam may have different vowel inventories).

  Front Central Back
High i ư u
Mid-Low e ơ / o
Low   a / ă  

All vowels are unrounded except for u, , and o. Vowels and ă are pronounced very short, much shorter than the other vowels. Therefore, ơ and are basically pronounced the same except that ơ is long while is short — the same applies to the low vowels a (long) and ă (short).

The correspondence between the orthography and pronunciation is rather complicated. For example, the vowel i is also often written as y.

In addition to single vowels (or monophthongs), Vietnamese has diphthongs (m đi). Three diphthongs consist of a vowel plus . These are i (spelled ia or i), u (spelled ua or u), and ư (spelled ưa or ươ). The other diphthongs consist of a vowel plus semivowel. There are two of these semivowels: y and w. Vietnamese has many diphthongs of this type. Furthermore, these semivowels may also follow the first three diphthongs (i, u, ư ) resulting in triphthongs.


Vietnamese vowels are all pronounced with an inherent tone (thanh or thanh điệu). Tones differ in

  • pitch
  • length
  • contour melody
  • intensity
  • glottality (with or without accompanying constricted vocal cords)

Tone is indicated by diacritics written above or below the vowel (most of the tone diacritics appear above the vowel, however, the nặng tone dot diacritic goes below the vowel). The six tones in the northern varieties (including Hanoi) are:

Name Description Diacritic Example ASCII notation
ngang   'level' high level (no mark) ma  'ghost'  
huyền   'hanging' low falling ` m  'but' `
sắc   'sharp' high rising m  'cheek, mother (southern)' /
ng   'tumbling' creaking-rising m  'horse (Sino-Vietnamese), code' ~
hỏi   'asking' dipping-rising  ̛ mả  'tomb, grave'  ?
nặng   'heavy' constricted  ̣ mạ  'rice seedling' .


The consonants (phụ m) of the Hanoi variety are listed below in orthography.

Note that some consonant sounds are written with only one letter (like the voiceless bilabial stop - p), other consonant sounds are written with a two-letter digraph (like the aspirated alveolar stop - th), and others are written with more than one letter or digraph (like the palatal stop - ch or tr).

Labiodental Alveolar   Palatal     Velar     Glottal  
Stop Voiceless unaspirated p   t ch/tr c/k/q  
Voiceless aspirated     th      
Voiced implosive b   đ      
Nasal   m   n nh ng  
Fricative Voiceless   ph x/s   kh h
Voiced   v d/r   g  
Approximant Central u/w     i/y    
Lateral     l      

The consonants of the Ho Chi Minh City variety are slightly different from Hanoi (and other northern regions). For instance, tr and ch represent the same sound in the Hanoi variety, but in Ho Chi Minh City (and other central and southern regions) tr and ch represent different consonant sounds.

Labiodental Alveolar Retroflex   Palatal     Velar     Glottal  
Stop Voiceless unaspirated p   t tr ch c/k/q  
Voiceless aspirated     th        
Voiced implosive b   đ        
Nasal   m   n   nh ng  
Fricative Voiceless   ph x s   kh h
Voiced       r   g  
Approximant Central u/w       i/y    
Lateral     l        


Vietnamese, like many languages in southeast Asia, is an analytic (or isolating) language. As such its grammar highly relies on word order and sentence structure rather than morphology (word changes through inflection). While most European languages would use morphology to express tense Vietnamese uses grammatical particles or syntactic constructions.

Vietnamese is often erroneously considered to be a "monosyllabic" language. It is true that Vietnamese has many words that consist of only one syllable; however, most words are indeed multi-syllabic.

Vietnamese syntax conforms to the Subject Verb Object word order.


Past tense is indicated by adding the particle đ, present progressive tense by the particle đang, and future tense is indicated by the particle sẽ.

Topic comment structure

The topic-comment structure is an important sentence type in Vietnamese. Therefore Vietnamese has often been claimed to be a topic-prominent language (Thompson 1991). As an example the sentence "ti đọc sch ny rồi" can be transformed into the following topic prominent equivalent.

Sch ny th ti đọc rồi.
book this (TOPICMARKER) I read already
I already read this book.


Although it is not usually required, the plural may be indicated by particles like những, cc, chng.


Vietnamese extensively uses a system of classifiers to indicate word classes of nouns. Among the most common classifiers are:

  • ci : used for most inanimate objects;
  • con: usually for animals, but can be used to describe some inanimate objects (con dao = knife, con đường = street, con vt = screw)
  • bi: used for compositions like songs, drawings, poems, essays, etc.
  • cy: used for stick-like objects (plants, guns, canes, etc.)
  • chiếc: objects that are worn or moved by people (chairs, cars, ear rings, ships, shirts, shoes)
  • ta: buildings
  • quả/tri: used for globular objects (the Earth, fruits)
  • quyển/cuốn: used for book-like objects (books, journals, etc.)
  • tờ: sheets and other thin objects made of paper (newspaper, paper, calendar etc.)
  • việc: an event or an ongoing process

The classifier ci has a special role in that it can extend all other classifiers, e.g. ci con, ci chiếc.


Vietnamese pronouns are more accurately forms of address. Its concept is different than in European languages, so its forms of address don't neatly fall into the grammatical person classifications created by European grammarians. For example, the same word can be used as a first-, second-, or third-person pronoun, depending on the speaker and the audience. The sentence:

ng đi về nh.
Grandfather go return home.

can be translated as:

  • I (your grandfather) go home.
  • You (old man/my grandfather) go home.
  • He (the old man) goes home.

The most common forms of address are kinship terms, which might differ slightly in different regions. Most of them were inherited from Chinese, but have acquired the additional grammatical function of being pronouns over the years. When addressing an audience, the speaker must carefully assess the social relationship between him/her and the audience, difference in age, and sex of the audience to choose an appropriate form of address. The following are some kinship terms of address that can be used in the second-person sense (you). They all can also be used in the first-person sense (I), but if they're not marked by (S) the usage is limited to the literal meaning:

  • ng: grandfather, used as a term of respect for a man senior to the speaker and who is late middle age or older
  • B: grandmother, used as a term of respect for a (usually married) woman senior to the speaker and who is late middle age or older
  • C: father's sister, used to address a younger woman or a woman as old as one's father.
  • Ch: father's younger brother, used to address a younger man or a man slightly younger than one's father.
  • Bc: father's older brother, used to address a man slightly older than one's father.
  • Anh: older brother, for a slightly older man, or for the man in a romantic relationship. (S)
  • Chị: older sister, for a slightly older woman. (S)
  • Em: younger sibling, for a slightly younger person, or for the woman in a romantic relationship. (S)

Other pronouns in use for the most part conform to the European idea of grammatical person. Some are even gender-neutral and relationship-neutral:

  • Ti: I, (literally servant)
  • Hắn: pejorative he
  • ng ta/ng ấy: he (see above)
  • B ta/B ấy: she (see above)
  • C ta/C ấy: she (see above)
  • Anh ta/Anh ấy: he (see above)
  • Họ: they
  • N: it (also he or she, when referring to a subordinate)
  • Chng ta: we (including audience)
  • Chng ti: formal I, we (excluding audience)
  • Chng n: they (pejorative)
  • Bả: colloquial, she
  • My: you singular (to subordinates)
  • Qu vị: you (formal)
  • Bạn: friend, you


Reduplication (từ ly) is found abundantly in Vietnamese. They are formed by repeating a part of a word to form new words, altering the meaning of the original word. Its effect is to sometimes either increase or decrease the intensity of the adjective, and is often used as a literary device (like alliteration) in poetry and other compositions, as well as in everyday speech.

Examples of reduplication increasing intensity:

  • đau → đau điếng: hurt → hurt like hell
  • mạnh → mạnh mẽ: strong → very strong
  • rực → rực rỡ: flaring → blazing

Examples of reduplication decreasing intensity:

  • nhẹ → nh nhẹ: soft → soft (less)
  • xinh → xinh xinh: pretty → cute
  • đỏ → đo đỏ: red → somewhat red
  • xanh → xanh xanh: blue/green → somewhat blue/green

A type of assimilation known as tonal harmony is involved in Vietnamese reduplication.


As a result of a thousand years of Chinese domination, much of Vietnamese vocabulary relating to science and politics are derived from Chinese. As much as 70% of the vocabulary have Chinese roots, although many compound words are Sino-Vietnamese, composed of native Vietnamese words combined with the Chinese borrowings. Reduplication is a regular part of the language that usually denotes intensity. One can usually distinguish between a native Vietnamese word and a Chinese borrowing if it can be reduplicated or its meaning doesn't change when the tone is shifted. As a result of French colonization, Vietnamese has many loan words borrowed from the French language. Recently many words are borrowed from English, for example tivi for TV, phng for font. Sometimes these borrowings are literally translated into Vietnamese (phần mềm for software, lit. soft part).

Writing system

Presently, the written language uses the Vietnamese alphabet (quốc ngữ or "national script", literally "national language", from Chinese term 國語), based on the Latin alphabet. Originally a Romanization of Vietnamese, it was codified in the 17th century by a French Jesuit missionary named Alexandre de Rhodes (1591-1660), based on works of earlier Portuguese missionaries (Gaspar de Amaral and Antoine de Barbosa). The use of the script was gradually extended from its initial domain in Christian writing to become more popular among the (non-Christian) public. Following the occupation of the French in the 19th century, the script became official and required for all public documents in 1910 by issue of a decree by the French Rsident Suprieur of the protectorate of Tonkin. By the late 20th century virtually all writings were done in quốc ngữ.

Changes in the script were made by French scholars and administrators and by conferences held after independence during 1954-1974. The script now reflects a so-called Middle Vietnamese dialect which has vowels and final consonants most similar to northern dialects and initial consonants most similar to southern dialects. (Nguyễn 1996). This Middle Vietnamese is presumably close to the Hanoi variety as spoken sometime after 1600 but before the present.

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

  • the standard ideographic Chinese character set called chữ nho (scholar's characters, 字儒): used to write Literary Chinese
  • a complicated variant form known as chữ nm (southern/vernacular characters, 字喃) with characters not found in the Chinese character set; this system was better adapted to the unique phonetic aspects of Vietnamese which differed from Chinese

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.

Computer support

Unicode contains all characters that are necessary to write Vietnamese. There are also a number of codepages designed for representing Vietnamese texts, such as VISCII or CP1258.

Where ASCII must be used, Vietnamese is often typed using the VIQR convention.


This text is from the first six lines of Truyện Kiều, a poem by the celebrated poet Nguyễn Du, 阮攸 (1765-1820), often considered the most significant work of Vietnamese literature. 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.

Original Chu Nom version

Missing image

The 224 first verses (in Vietnamese) ( (to see the next verses: click on cu 225 - 416 etc.)

(Literal) English translation

A hundred years in this life span on earth
talent and destiny are apt to feud.
You must go through an event in which the sea becomes mulberry fields [bể-du]
and watch such things as make you sick at heart.
Is it strange that who is rich in this is poor in that?
Blue Heavens wont to strike rosy cheeks from spite.

See Also

External Links

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Reference & Suggested Reading


  • Emeneau, M. B. (1951). Studies in Vietnamese (Annamese) grammar. University of California publications in linguistics, (Vol. 8). Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Healy, Dana. (2004). Teach yourself Vietnamese. Teach yourself. Chicago: McGraw-Hill. ISBN 0-0714-3432-1
  • Hoang, Thinh; Nguyen, Xuan Thu; Trinh, Quynh-Tram; Nguyen, Xuan Thu. (2000). Vietnamese phrasebook, (3rd ed.). Hawthorn, Vic.: Lonely Planet. ISBN 0-8644-2661-5
  • Lm, L-duc; Emeneau, M. B.; & Steinen, Diether von den. (1944). An Annamese reader. Berkeley: University of California, Berkeley.
  • Moore, John. (1994). Colloquial Vietnamese: A complete language course. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-4150-9205-1; ISBN 0-4151-5537-1 (w/ CD); ISBN 0-4150-9207-8 (w/ cassettes);
  • Nguyễn, Đnh-Ho. (1967). Read Vietnamese: A graded course in written Vietnamese. Rutland, VT: C.E. Tuttle.

Reference & linguistics

  • Dương, Quảng-Hm. (1941). Việt-nam văn-học sử-yếu [Outline history of Vietnamese literature]. Saigon: Bộ Quốc gia Gio dục.
  • Emeneau, M. B. (1947). Homonyms and puns in Annamese. Language, 23 (3), 239-244.
  • Emeneau, M. B. (1951). Studies in Vietnamese (Annamese) grammar. University of California publications in linguistics (Vol. 8). Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Gregerson, Kenneth J. (1969). A study of Middle Vietnamese phonology. Bulletin de la Socit des Etudes Indochinoises, 44, 135-193.
  • Han, Mieko S. (1966). Vietnamese vowels. Studies in the phonology of Asian languages IV. Los Angeles: Acoustic Phonetics Research Laboratory, University of Southern California.
  • Hashimoto, Mantaro. (1978). The current state of Sino-Vietnamese studies. Journal of Chinese Linguistics, 6, 1-26.
  • Haudricourt, Andr-Georges. (1949). Origine des particularits de l'alphabet vietnamien. Dn Việt-Nam, 3, 61-68.
  • Nguyen, Đang Lim. (1970). Vietnamese pronunciation. PALI language texts: Southeast Asia. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 0-8702-2462-X
  • Nguyễn, Đnh-Ho. (1955). Quốc-ngữ: The modern writing system in Vietnam. Washington, D. C.: Author.
  • Nguyễn, Đnh-Ho. (1986). Alexandre de Rhodes' dictionary. Papers in Linguistics, 19, 1-18.
  • Nguyễn, Đnh-Ho. (1990). Graphemic borrowing from Chinese: The case of chữ nm, Vietnam's demotic script. Bulletin of the Institute of History and Philology, Academia Sinica, 61, 383-432.
  • Nguyễn, Đnh-Ho. (1995). NTC's Vietnamese-English dictionary (updated ed.). NTC language dictionaries. Lincolnwood, IL: NTC Pub. Press. ISBN 0-8442-8356-8; ISBN 0-8442-8357-6
  • Nguyễn, Đnh-Ho. (1996). Vietnamese. In P. T. Daniels, & W. Bright (Eds.), The world's writing systems, (pp. 691-699). New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-507993-0.
  • Nguyễn, Đnh-Ho. (1997). Vietnamese: Tiếng Việt khng son phấn. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company. ISBN 1-55619-733-0.
  • Pham, Hoa. (2002). Gender in addressing and self-reference in Vietnamese: Variation and change. In M. Hellinger & H. Bumann (Eds.), Gender across languages: The linguistic representation of women and men (Vol. 2, pp. 281-312). IMPACT: Studies in language society (No. 10). John Benjamins.
  • Rhodes, Alexandre de. (1991). Từ điển Annam-Lusitan-Latinh [original: Dictionarium Annamiticum Lusitanum et Latinum]. (L. Thanh, X. V. Hong, & Q. C. Đỗ, Trans.). Hanoi: Khoa họ X hội. (Original work published 1651).
  • Thompson, Laurence E. (1959). Saigon phonemics. Language, 35 (3), 454-476.
  • Thompson, Laurence E. (1991). A Vietnamese reference grammar. Seattle: University of Washington Press. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 0-8248-1117-8. (Original work published 1965).
  • Thompson, Laurence E. (1965). Nuclear models in Vietnamese immediate-constituent analysis. Language, 41 (4), 610-618.
  • Thompson, Laurence E. (1967). The history of Vietnamese finals. Language, 43 (1), 362-371.
  • Uỷ ban Khoa học X hội Việt Nam. (1983). Ngữ-php tiếng Việt [Vietnamese grammar]. Hanoi: Khoa học X hộВиетнамски език

de:Vietnamesische Sprache es:Idioma vietnamita eo:Vjetnama lingvo fr:Vietnamien ga:Vtneaimis ms:Bahasa Vietnam zh-min-nan:Oa̍t-lâm-gí nl:Vietnamees id:Bahasa Vietnam ja:ベトナム語 no:Vietnamesisk sprk nn:Vietnamesisk pl:Język wietnamski pt:Lngua vietnamita ro:Limba vietnameză fi:Vietnamin kieli sv:Vietnamesiska th:ภาษาเวียดนาม vi:Tiếng Việt zh:越南语


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