Introduction to the Vietnamese language

Vietnamese is the language spoken by some 77 million people inside and outside Vietnam.

Origin of the Vietnamese Language

The origin of the Vietnamese language is the subject of debate among linguists. It is usually put in a language family by itself along with Muong, a language spoken by a group of highlanders in North Viet Nam.

Although it is evident that Vietnamese did not have its origins in Chinese, the influence of China has always been strong in Viet Nam, and thousands of Chinese words have been incorporated into the Vietnamese language. Many of these words reflect the nature of the northern influence throughout the early period of Chinese domination. Chinese philosophic, literary, religious, governmental and military terms are found in great numbers in Vietnamese, although the pronunciation has changed and their relationship to Chinese is not always clearly discernable.

The Six Tones and Their Phonetic Symbols

Vietnamese is basically a monosyllabic language having six tones, which give the language a sing-song effect. A word can be repeated with any one of six tones to indicate six different meanings. For example, the word ma has six different meanings according to the tone which the word carries: phantom, ghost; cheek; but, which, who; tomb; horse; young rice seedling.

There are several mutually intelligible dialects in Vietnamese, the boundaries of which were defined by Henri Maspero in 1943. The Haft Anna group includes both the speech of the Tonkinese of the Red River delta and of North Anna, and the speech of the southern Cochinchinese, prevalent from Tourane to the Mekong delta. The second group includes the dialects of the coastal areas between Tourane and Vinh.

Contemporary Vietnamese sometimes make a different, subjective distinction between northern , central and southern dialects. The northern speech, according to this characterization, is marked by sharpness, or choppiness , with greater attention to the precise distinction of tones. The southern speech, in addition to certain uniform differences from northern speech in the pronunciation of consonants, does not distinguish between the hoi and nga tones; and, it is felt by some to sound more laconic and musical. The speech of the Center, on the other hand, is often described as being heavy because of its emphasis on low tones.

Concerning the tones in the Vietnamese language, it has been suggested by some authors that Vietnamese was originally basically a polysyllabic language. The polysyllabic words were later simplified by way of contraction due to the influence of the languages of continental Asia - most particularly, Chinese, which is essentially a monosyllabic language. Thus, some words which were polysyllabic in the 17th century have now become monosyllables by way of contraction.

Three Systems of Writing

Chu Nho . Vietnamese was first written using the Chinese writing system called chu nho . Beginning sometime around the 9th century, following the period of Chinese domination, all government and official transactions, education, correspondence and Literature used the Chinese characters. This chu nho system was still used by scholars until a few decades ago, and in fact, Vietnamese still request the services of scholars skilled in chu nho for lettering the banners and placards which are traditionally found at weddings, funerals, and festivals.

Chu nom . Vietnamese writers, however, desired a language of their own in which to transcribe their national history and literature. Gradually, a new writing system known as chu nom - vulgar or demotic script - was evolved. Nguyen Thuyen, a poet of the 13th century, is believed to be - if not the inventor - the man responsible for spreading and popularizing chu nom . In this system, Chinese characters were borrow-ed and altered; they resembled Chinese characters, but were often unintelligible to the Chinese themselves. In chu nom , two Chinese characters were usually combined, one of which indicated the meaning of the Vietnamese word, while the other indicated pronunciation. The chu nom system, however, was extremely cumbersome and was used only in literature and non-official documents; chu nom was never accorded recognition as the official language.

Quoc Ngu . Around the 17th century, Catholic missionaries developed a Romanized script to represent the quoc ngu or national language in order to translate prayer books and catechisms.

According to Professors Huard and Durand, the use of the Latin alphabet to record languages using Chinese characters was prob-ably tried for the first time in 1548 by Yajiro, a Japanese who became converted to the Catholic faith and was thereafter baptized by Saint Francis-Xavier. Shortly there-after, missionaries taught Catholicism to Japanese living in Faifoo, Central Viet Nam using the Japanese language with romanized books (romaji) published by the Japanese Jesuit Press. It was only a short jump from that to the attempt to romanize the Vietnamese language. Thus, on the pattern of theromaji, the quoc ngu was created.

Although an international and collective undertaking, the quoc ngu is generally said to have been invented by Alexandre deRhodes, a French Jesuit missionary whose Portuguese-Latin-Vietnamese dictionary was published in 1651. Monsignor Pigneau deBehaine (18th century) and Monsignor Taberd (1838) later continued the works of Alexandre de Rhodes.

While the romanization received only a reserved welcome in China and Japan, it obtained an extraordinary success in Viet Nam. It gave the country an unequaled tool of cultural and intellectual development.

However, the beginnings of quoc ngu met with difficulties. For a long time, it remained the exclusive instrument of Catholic priests, and the masses continued to ignore the new system of writing. The knowledge of the traditional system of writing was essential for anyone who wanted to present himself for the triennial examinations. Thus,

quoc ngu was adopted and officially be-came popular only when Viet Nam was under French domination (1864-1945). In effect, French authorities popularized quoc ngu with the objective of eliminating the Chinese-type quoc nom characters, and thereby simplifying problems of publication and drawing Viet Nam closer to Western practices.

At the beginning of the present century, Nguyen Truong To, a great Vietnamese re-former, presented to the Royal Court a petition requesting the adoption of the quoc ngu as the official writing. His request was not accepted because scholars of the time were reluctant to abandon the older traditions.

But, the most popular writers of North Viet Nam followed the example set by their colleagues in South Viet Nam by writing in quoc ngu without waiting for the decision of the Royal Court. This movement on behalf of quoc ngu soon reached considerable proportions, especially when the famous letter of Phan Boi Chau was published. In this letter, the well-known nationalist revolutionary Phan Boi Chau, who was living in Tokyo at the time, stressed the need for education. The patriotic sentiments of the vietnamese people - especially the youth -were stirred.

In 1906, the French administration set up the Council for Improvement of Education, which ordered the study of quoc ngu As a secondary subject in schools. In 1908, the Royal Court of Hue created the Ministry of Education, having the task of applying the new school curriculum in quoc ngu . At last, from 1915 to 1919, a series of decrees was promulgated which abolished triennial literary examinations for the recruitment of governmental officials. In North Viet Nam, the last triennial examinations in Chinese characters was organized in 1915, and the last one in Central Viet Nam's Imperial city of Hue was held in 1919. From then on, quoc ngu became the accepted form of popular national writing, bringing to an end the use of Chinese-type chu nom characters.

The secular prestige of the Chinese characters did not disappear until long after the adoption of quoc ngu , however; and its decline occurred first in the South, where Chinese classical influence was less pronounced, and Western influence was greater.

The romanized writing has permitted the art of printing to develop and innumerable printing houses have been established in Viet Nam. Moreover, since the country became independent in 1945, the progress of the press has exceeded the most optimistic predictions. Daily newspapers and magazines of all persuasions continue to compete for the attention of a large and eager reading public.