Việt Nam’s Alphabet: Odd Man Out

Published September 14, 2015 in Episode 21

Over the centuries and through the present day, China has had an outsized influence on Việt Nam. Not just on the economy. Some Vietnamese traditions bear resemblance to Chinese customs. You can even detect Chinese words in our spoken language. But unlike Japan or Korea whose languages borrow from  Chinese characters, the Vietnamese written language is based on Latin letters.

While getting the pronunciation of the Vietnamese tones right is a major obstacle for students of the Vietnamese language, not having to learn thousands upon thousands of characters in order to write is a relief. There are only 29 letters to learn, and they are based on the Latin alphabet.

Professor Quyên Di, who teaches Vietnamese at UCLA and California State University in Long Beach, says it didn't come from the French, despiteViệt Nam having been a French colony for several decades. He explains,

“The reason we have the Vietnamese alphabet in Việt Nam was due to the need of European catholic missionaries, especially the Portuguese, to spread their religion. The first people who introduced the alphabet with the ABC to transcribe the Vietnamese sounds, were Portuguese priests like Gaspar d’Amaral or Antoine de Barbosa. And only afterwards came Alexander de Rhodes, a French priest.”

The Vietnamese alphabet was simply modeled on the Roman alphabet, with the addition of diacritic marks for tones. Until the end of the 19th century this new script was mainly used in Catholic circles. But it proved to have one advantage over the old writing system chữ nôm, which is based on Chinese characters.

“Initially it was used to spread the religion of the Catholic priests, but afterwards it became popular as it was a lot easier to learn than chữ nôm and later further spread with the collaboration of Vietnamese scholars. And it has now become the official written language of our Vietnamese people”, Di adds.

In 1651, Alexander de Rhodes published his Dictionarium Annamiticum Lusitanum et Latinum, when the use of a Latin script for Vietnamese was already well established. And while  French colonialists used the new alphabet to break the old national and traditional culture of the Vietnamese in its colony, Cochinchina, Vietnamese people also saw it as a sign of modernity. Reformists and revolutionists quickly recognised it as an instrument to reach the mass.

But only much later was the Vietnamese alphabet named Quốc Ngữ, which literally means ‘national language’. By 1945, it was widely recognized as the de facto official script of Việt Nam.




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Sercombe, Peter G.. 2014. Language, Education and Nation building: assimilation and shift in South-East Asia. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan