Whenever you learn a new language, you will live in the wonderful world where the language is spoken. In a journey of learning new things every day, we would like to introduce a series of Vietnamese lessons. The first lesson we will talk about is the Vietnamese alphabet and its history. After completing this first lesson, you will know about:
Let’s get started.
The development of the official Vietnamese writing system
The official Vietnamese writing system has been transformed significantly through different periods of its history. Its typography was strongly influenced by the current political governments in Vietnam at that time. The classical Chinese (chữ Hán) was popularly used in Vietnam during a-thousand-year ruling period of several Chinese dynasties (from 207 BC to 939 AD). Even though the classical Chinese (chữ Hán) was forced to use in Vietnam by the Chinese dynasties, the plan encountered some obstacles because the Chinese characters are represented by symbolic characters and do not express their phonology and meanings explicitly. Therefore, the Sino-Vietnamese (chữ Hán – Việt) vocabulary system was introduced by Vietnamese scholars in order to provide a correspondent set of words that have similar sounds to the classical Chinese but is pronounced on the basis of the phonology of the local Vietnamese language.
In 938 Vietnam obtained its freedom by the battle of Bach Dang River after a thousand years under the Chinese dynasties. However, the classical Chinese continued to be used in Vietnam. By the thirteenth century, some Vietnamese scholars used the standard classical Chinese to develop a new writing script, called the Southern characters (chữ Nôm) to represent the current Sino-Vietnamese vocabulary and other Vietnamese words. The Southern characters were not widely used in the country due to their complex logographic writing based on the classical Chinese system.
The early years of the seventeenth century were the most important period in the history of the official Vietnamese writing system. Some Roman Catholic missions were carried out in Vietnam under the support of the Society of Jesuit (Dòng Tên hay Hội dòng Giêsu) to preach and spread the messages of God to the country. One of their activities was to learn the Vietnamese language and create a systematic dictionary for their spoken language. The Portuguese missionaries Francisco de Pina, his two students, Gaspar d’Amaral and Antonio Barbosa and the French missionary Alexandre de Rhodes were the most important founders to the development of the official Vietnamese alphabet. The first Vietnamese-Portuguese dictionary was composed by Gaspar d’Amaral and Antonio Barbosa. Alexandre de Rhodes studied Vietnamese from Francisco de Pina and later he used Pina’s method to continue the previous work of Gaspar d’Amaral and Antonio Barbosa. He then wrote the Vietnamese-Portugese-Latin dictionary and it was published in Rome in 1961. His publication was then used as the important groundwork for the development of the official modern Vietnamese orthography (chữ Quốc ngữ).
During the French colonial empire in Vietnam (1884-1945), the French government aimed to reduce the impact of the classical Chinese as well as the Sino-Vietnamese vocabularies by accepting the usage of the Latin-based Vietnamese alphabet at schools, and in Vietnamese literature, and other documents.
The Vietnamese alphabet
In the previous section, we have reviewed the brief history of Vietnamese writing. We also see why the Vietnamese writing is quite different from its neighbor countries in the Southeast Asia. In this part, we will introduce the list of Vietnamese alphabet letters.
The Vietnamese alphabet consists of 29 letters: 12 vowels and 17 consonants.
It can be a bit surprising that there are so many vowels in Vietnamese. Actually, as in English, there are 5 vowels a, e, i, o, and u. And from these basic vowels, we can derive their extension forms by adding “diacritical marks” to the original ones as follows.
The letter A/a has two modified forms, namely Ă/ă and Â/â. The letter O/o has also two other forms Ô/ô and Ơ/ơ. The letter E/e and U/u instead have one additional form Ê/ê and Ư/ư, respectively. In addition, the letter y is considered as a vowel in the Vietnamese alphabet letter. In short, there are 12 vowels: a, ă, â, e, ê, i, o, ô, ơ, u, ư, y.
The 17 consonants in the Vietnamese alphabet are: b, c, d, đ, g, h, k, l, m, n, p, q, r, s, t, v, x.
Except the letter đ, derived from d by adding a diacritical mark, the others are similar to the English alphabet.
Alphabet and Pronunciation
In the following we show a list of 29 Vietnamese alphabet letters as well as their names used in spelling. The pronunciation of some vowels might be a little tricky for foreigners since their sounds are slightly distinguished from the base vowel (without diacritical marks). To help you with their pronunciation, in the last column, we present the most similar sound in English to each Vietnamese letter. In some cases, the sound in English is equivalent, for example, the letter a pronounced as /a/ in father. In some cases, the sound in English does not perfectly represent the one in Vietnamese. You should use this tutorial together with our video for the pronunciation in the next tutorial.
In this tutorial, we briefly review the history of Vietnamese writing. We then study the Latin-based Vietnamese alphabet consisting of 12 vowels and 17 consonants and their pronunciation.
If you have any questions about this tutorial, please feel free to write your comments below or send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. We will do our best to reply you as soon as possible. We hope you enjoy this tutorial and remember semprelearn. Always learn new things everyday.
About the author
Nguyen has studied in Italy since 2012. She is very passionate in learning Italian by exploring Italy’s rich culture, nature and local products. She finds herself fortunated to study and live in a beautiful country in the middle of the Mediterranean sea where it shares many similarities in culture with her homeland. She, therefore, launched this educational blog semprelearn.com to share her experience in studying Italian and other things.