Modern written Vietnamese
By Sonny Nguyen

More than once, I have been asked to write my name in "real Vietnamese" and not in "English". Most Americans expect the written Vietnamese to look like the Chinese characters, or the written Korean, or the Japanese Hira-gana and Kata-gana. My "English" name is actually written in the modern romanized Vietnamese - the Japanese equivalent is Romaji - without the diacritical marks above, under or by the side of the vowels.

In the long history of Vietnam, different forms of written languages have been adopted: chu Nho, chu Nom, and now chu Quoc Ngu.

Chu Nho was borrowed directly from the Chinese, just like the use of Latin in Europe. Chu Nho can be literally translated as "the script used by Confucius --Nho GiŠo: Confucianism." Chu Nho had been the official written language in Vietnam until the French domination (19th century)

Chu Nom: Han Thuyen, a famous Vietnamese poet in the 13th century is believed to be the inventor of this form of writing. Chu Nom borrowed Chinese characters but altered them to phonetically represent the spoken Vietnamese. Usually two Chinese characters were combined; the unaltered one represented the meaning, the altered character showed how the word was pronounced in Vietnamese. It is a cumbersome process so Chu Nom can be literally translated as "vulgar." The development of Chu Nom satisfied the historical urge of the Vietnamese to have their own written language, and to neutralize or to erase the 1,000 years of Chinese domination. Outstanding masterpieces of the Vietnamese literature had been written in Chu Nom: "Chinh Phu Ngam" (Ballad of a Warrior's Wife) by Doan Thi Diem, "Cung Oan Ngam Khuc" (Elegy of an Odalisque) by Nguyen Gia Thieu, and "Kim Van Kieu" by Nguyen Du (1765-1820).

In Japan Hira-gana and Kata-gana have been developed under similar cultural environment. Unlike chu Nom that did not get the support from Vietnamese Kings, Hira-gana and Kata-gana evolved into the Japanese written languages replacing Chinese character.

The introduction of Christianity into Vietnam (17th century) and the French domination in the 19th century facilitated the emergence of a new form of written Vietnamese: the romanized Quoc Ngu.

1- The development of Quoc Ngu:

Around the 16th and 17th centuries, Catholic priests developed romanized scripts for different Asian languages in order to translate prayers and catechism for their missionary works. In 1548, a Japanese convert Yajiro began the romanization of the Japanese language. In Hoi An (Faifoo) there was a small community of Japanese merchants and the Catholic priests used the romanized Japanese catechism to teach the Bible to that community. It was a short jump from "romaji" to romanize the Vietnamese language; thus the Vietnamese Quoc Ngu was created. Although the romanized Vietnamese was the result of international and collective undertaking, Father Alexendre de Rhodes, a French Jesuit priest, has been widely considered as the inventor of Quoc Ngu when he published the Portuguese-Latin-Vietnamese dictionary in 1651.

While the romanization of the written languages received only a reserved welcome in China and in Japan, Quoc Ngu became an extraordinary success in Vietnam. It ultimately replaces both chu Nho and Chu Nom. It has served as catalyst for the revolutionary nationalist movements to overthrow the French domination. Quoc Ngu evolves into the driving forces for social, cultural and political revolutions in Vietnam in the 20th century.

2- THE ROLE OF QUOC NGU IN MODERN HISTORY OF VIETNAM

After nearly 3 decades of war, the French colonialist completely conquered Vietnam in 1884. Under the French domination, Quoc ngu had been taught as an "elective language" in VIETNAM besides French since 1906. Divide to conquer, the French split VIETNAM into three separated states. They directly ruled Cochinchina (South Vietnam) as a colony; Annam (Central Vietnam) remained as an autonomous kingdom under the Nguyen dynasty while Tonkin (North Vietnam) became a French protectorate.

In 1908, the Royal Court in Hue created the Ministry of Education to implement the Quoc ngucurriculum in public schools. Not until 1919, did the Royal Court recognize Quoc ngu as the official national written language. (the literal translation of quoc ngu is national language)

The Vietnamese revolutionaries also considered Quoc ngu as a powerful vehicle to erase illiteracy, to educate the mass, and to fight the French in the cultural front. In 1906, Phan Boi Chau -a distinguished scholar and revolutionary in exile in Japan- sent a clandestine manifesto to Vietnam urging the Vietnamese people to develop an universal education system using Quoc Ngu. The popular national literacy campaign was actually a nationalist political movement in disguise. Private schools had been opened teaching Quoc Ngu. The most famous one was Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc in Hanoi. The French closed the school a few years later under the suspicion that the students learned more about revolutionary ideas than conventional knowledge.

Graduates from Catholic schools were the first Vietnamese scholars who laid the foundation for Quoc Ngu; the most well known were Petrus Truong Vinh Ky and Paulus Huynh Tinh Cua. They converted Vietnamese masterpieces from chu Nho and chu Nom to Quoc Ngu. They also translated a vast amount of French literary works into Quoc Ngu. Paulus Cua composed the first Vietnamese dictionary in Quoc Ngu. Other scholars expanded and refined Quoc ngu into a practical and effective written language. Researches in linguistics, phonetics, grammar, sciences, and books in literature and history had been published in abundance. Quoc ngu is easy to learn; an average adult can learn to read and write in a few months.

In the early 20th century, ideologies of the French 1789 revolution was introduced to the Vietnamese at the same time with French romanticism and logic through translated publications. Vietnamese writers also published a large amount of novels and books exploring all aspects of the Vietnamese culture and society. Patriotic themes were disguised under love stories, folklore researches or historical novels to avoid French censorship.

The world wide events of that era and their ramification had been quickly communicated to the Vietnamese mass through Quoc Ngu: the victory of Japan over the Russian fleet in 1905, the nationalist Chinese revolution in 1911, and the Bolshevik revolution in Russia in 1917. The modern printing technology of that era had facilitated the publishing of newspapers and magazines, as well as underground revolutionary literature.

At the end of WW 2, Quoc ngu was resourceful and well proven to support the Vietnamese curriculum from grade school to college level. The term Quoc ngu is now seldom used, it is now "tieng Viet" (the Vietnamese language.). When Vietnam was divided in two by the 1954 Geneva Agreement, Quoc ngu was the official language in both North Vietnam and in South Vietnam.

3- TECHNICALITIES OF QUOC NGU

The refined Quoc ngu alphabets are quite different from the first romanized alphabets used by the Catholic priests in early 18th century. Quoc ngu now have 27 consonants and 12 vowels. The 27 consonants are: b, c, ch, d (equivalent to the English Z), «, g, gh, gi, h, k, kh, l, m, n, ng, ngh, nh, ph (equivalent to F), q, r, s, t, th, tr, v and x. The 12 vowels are a, e, i, o, u, y and these derivatives a(, a^, e^, o^, o+, u+.

The spoken Vietnamese is monosyllabic with six different tones. Five diacritical marks differentiate these tones:

flat toneno mark
high rising' (sac)
low falling` (huyen)
falling-rising, constricted? (hoi)
high-rising broken~ (nga)
low-falling, short constricted. (nang)

Many Vietnamese words are almost identical except for the marks mentioned above. These marks are essential for the written Vietnamese because the words are pronounced differently, and have different meanings.
For example:


maghost
ma'mother (southern accent) or cheek
ma`who, which, that, whom
ma?tomb
ma~horse or appearance
ma.young rice seeding, or mother (central)

The Vietnamese grammar is simple and straightforward. The words are invariable. Special marker words preceding the nouns express plurality. Special markers also specify genders of the noun, tenses of the verbs and the relationship of subject and object in a sentence. Simple sentences in Vietnamese are built in the order: SUBJECT-VERB-OBJECT. Sometimes the subject or the verb is omitted when the context of the phrase or the paragraph imply them. Verbs are not conjugated, pronouns and adjectives are not declined and grammatical distinctions are achieved through changes in words order.

There is a large amount of compound words formed by the linkage of two words that are connected by a hyphen. Based on this observation, some linguistics maintain that the Vietnamese language comes from an ancient polysyllabic root.

Another important feature in the written Vietnamese is the system personal pronouns. They indicate the subject/object relationship and reflect an unique cultural tradition in the Vietnamese culture.

CONCLUSION

Since the Vietnamese intelligentsia threw away the brush and learned how to handle the iron tip pen in 1920 (Tu Xuong), Quoc ngu has played a vital role in the social, cultural and political revolution in Vietnam. Quoc ngu rose from the disgraceful "elective language" under the French domination to be the venerable national language of Vietnam.

The refined and systematized written Vietnamese is not yet a perfect written language. But Quoc ngu has fulfilled its historical mission in the 20th century.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Viet Nam Van Hoa Su Cuong by Dao Duy Anh
Publisher : Bon Phuong, Saigon, 1951

Viet Nam Van Hoc Su Yeu by Duong Quang Ham
Publisher : Nha Hoc Chinh Dong Phap, Ha Noi, 1942
Viet Nam Su Luoc by Tran Trong Kim
Publisher : Tan Viet, Saigon, 1948

Vietnamese-English Dictionary By Nguyen Dinh Hoa
Publisher:Charles E.Tuttle, Tokyo, 1966