Believe it or not, this is not my first encounter with Vietnamese. I tried to learn some basic greetings and words in 11th grade and my friend, who was from Vietnam, said it was “cool” but it would be “hard.” My friend was absolutely right. No wonder I hesitated before making this post.
Vietnamese is spoken by 82 million people in its place of origin. The language is also used around the world by an additional four million as a first language in many Vietnamese communities and homes, most prominently in large cities like those in the United States. That’s not bad after 1,000 years of existence.
Around 200 BC, Vietnam was a separate state ruled under dynasties, like its neighbor China. In 207 BC, the state was captured by a Chinese general and remained under China’s rule for nearly a millennium. Vietnam would not gain full autonomy until 938 when a Vietnamese commander named Ngô Quyền defeated Chinese forces. Eventually Vietnam went through a period of growth in the Lê Dynasty of the 1500 with Emperor Lê Thánh Tông and would continue to grow, expanding into modern-day Cambodia. At this time, Portuguese missionaries who visited the region were the first to write down the sounds of Vietnamese in a Roman alphabet, which would lead to the modern alphabet used today called Quốc Ngữ. Despite this, Vietnamese (at least those who were literate) used a writing system called Chữ Nho, which were essentially characters borrowed from Chinese.
By around the late-1800s, France colonized Vietnam, imposing its Western influences on the region such as promulgating Christianity to natives. The influences of the language is still evident today as Vietnamese has loan words from French. France’s influence would continue until World War II, when Japan invaded Vietnam. After the end of the war, the power struggle for Vietnam would occur between French and Vietnamese loyalists and the communist-backed Việt Minh, until 1954, when the country was politically split into North and South Vietnam. Conflict would continue for the following years, leading to the tragic intervention of the United States in 1963. After the Vietnam War finally ended, the country went through a period of brutal Communist rule before shifting to capitalist reforms in the 1980s. Since then, Vietnam’s economy has grown rapidly and the population is almost universally literate.
The Vietnamese alphabet (Quốc Ngữ) has 12 vowels and 17 consonants:
a – a as in bat
ă – a as in bat, but said quickly
â – u as in “huh” but said quickly
b – b as in bad, but a stronger “buh”; constrain throat before saying it
c – c as in cat
d – z as in zebra for Northern dialect; y as in yes for Southern dialect
đ – d as in end; constrain throat before saying it
e – e as in bet
ê – a as in made
g – j as in jam
h – h as in hot
i – e as in see
k – k as in kite
l – l as in love
m – m as in mom
n – n as in new
o – o as in long
ô – o as in boat
ơ/ö – o as in good
p – p as in pat
q – q as in quail
r – z as in zebra for Northern dialect; r as in urge for Southern dialect
s – s as in sail for Northern dialect; sh as in shame for Southern dialect
t – t as in tee
u – u as in mule
ư/u* – ew as in mew
v – v as in vase for Northern dialect; j as in juice for Southern dialect
x – s as in said
y – e as in me
Because Vietnamese is a tonal language like Chinese, this means there are diacritics or accent marks on top of the vowels. These indicate the stress level of the vowel.
unmarked – vowel is pronounced completely flat
´ – acute accent – vowel is pronounced high and rises high
` – grave accent – vowel is pronounced low and drops a little low
· – dot below – vowel is pronounced low and drops completely lower
̉- hook – vowel is pronounced low, dips and then rises high like a question
~ – tilde – vowel is pronounced high, dips and then rises high like a question
I used the Vietnamese vowel “a” an example and gave the approximate sounds an American English speaker could identify with:
a – unmarked – ah
á – acute – ahUH
à – grave – ahhhhuh (like a refreshed “ahh” after coming home from work)
ạ – dot – ahh (pronounced low)
ả – hook – ah – AH
ã – tilde – AH – AH
This video provides a very excellent example of how the vowels are pronounced. At 1:47, the speaker pronounces the tones:
FIRST IMPRESSIONS: Can you say, “hard” in Vietnamese? I think the ultimate hurdle is trying to memorize and recite the alphabet in my mind. Some of the consonants are similar, but I have always had trouble with tonal languages. For this reason, Vietnamese sounds like Chinese to me, except … spicer? I suppose that’s the right word.
Whatever happens, at least I will have an edge the next time I try to read the menu at Louisville’s Annie’s Cafe.