Updated May 1, 2001

Sound System in Vietnamese (2/4)

越南話e語音系統 紹介

Oatlamoe e Giim He-thong Siau-kai

By Taiffalo

1. Introduction

2. Vietnamese phonology

    2.1 Consonants

    2.2 Vowels

    2.3 Tones


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2.                  Vietnamese phonology

In this section, three major systems of sounds, consonants, vowels, and tones in the Hanoi speech of Vietnamese will be examined.

The syllables of Vietnamese are similar to those in Taiwanese and Chinese, and they can be generalized as (C1)V(C2) with a distinctive tone on V(C2), as follows:





Final (rhyme)




Figure 1. Syllabic structure in Vietnamese.

2.1     Consonants

There are 19 consonants in the Hanoi dialect of Vietnamese. These consonants were listed in Table 1 in IPA format. These consonants were represented slightly different in Vietnamese orthography. In addition to the 19 consonants, other dialects may contain retroflex consonants /tr/, /S/, and /Z/ (Nguyen 1997:20).


Table 1. Vietnamese consonants of Hanoi dialect.


Glottal stop /?/ was not included in the consonant system of Table 1 . However, according to Thompson (1987:21), glottal stop could be recognized as a phoneme. The voicing of [b] and [d] are predictable allophones of /p/ and /t/ respectively, following initial /?/ (Thompson 1987:21). For example, [b] occurs in initial only, and [p] in final only. However, Nguyen (1997:20) have pointed out that /p/ nowadays can also occurs at the beginning of several loanwords from French, such as pin ‘battery,’ and po-ke ‘poker.’ Anyway, brief descriptions (based on Thompson 1987) of these 19 consonants will be given in the next paragraphs for readers’ better understanding of the consonant system in Vietnamese.

Fortis stops

Fortis stops in Vietnamese are voiceless /p t c k /, and voiced /b d/. They are characterized by relatively strong articulation. They are exceedingly fortis when they are at the beginning of syllables. On the other hand, at the end of syllables they are about midway between the extremes of fortis and lenis. Voiceless stops can occur in initial or final positions, but voiced stops occur only initially. When voiceless stops occur in final positions, they are unreleased. Vietnamese examples of the fortis stops are provided below (tone marks in the following examples are omitted).

/p/    bilabial voiceless stop.

        e.g. pin ‘battery’

           tiep ‘welcome’

/b/    bilabial voiced stop, preglottalized and often imploded. This sound is similar to /b/ in Taiwanese, but not exactly the same; it is “much more larynx lowering” in Vietnamese (Edmondson 2000, personal conversation). /b/ in Vietnamese is always preceded by glottal stop, which is seldom released before the beginning of the /b/, with the result of that a partial vacuum is created between the throat and the lips; when the lip closure is released this vacuum is often still strong enough so that a little air is sucked in at the lips, giving the sound its characteristic strangeness to non-native ears (Thompson 1987:24).

        e.g. biet ‘know’

           ba ‘three’

/t/     apical voiceless stop.

        e.g. tien ‘money’

           mot ‘one’

/d/        apicoalveolar voiced stop, preglottalized and often imploded.

        e.g. di ‘g’

           dep ‘beautiful’

/c/        laminoalveolar stop. This phoneme can occurs both in initial and finial. It might sound strange to the Taiwanese and Mandarin Chinese speakers when /c/ occurs in the final.

        e.g. cho ‘give’

            chet ‘to die’

ich ‘be useful’

            sach ‘be clean’

/k/    voiceless dorsovelar stop.

        It is sharply released when occurs in the initial.

        e.g. kia ‘over there’

           keu ‘call’

        When occurs in the final position after u and [w], it is unreleased with simultaneous strong rounding (and often closure or near closure) of the lips (Thompsom 1987:25).

        e.g. luc ‘instance’

           hoc [haáwk] or [haopƒk ][1] ‘to study’ or ‘to learn’

        When occurs in final position after vowels other than i, ê, u, ô, and o, it is plain unreleased.

        e.g. nuo,c ‘water’

           cac [kak|] ‘plural maker’

Lenis oral consonants

Lenis oral consonants in Vietnamese are /f v th l s z x Ä h/. They are less articulated than the fortis stops. They occur only in initial position.

/f/     voiceless labiodental spirant.

        e.g. Phat ‘Buddha’

           pho, ‘noodle soup’

/v/    voiced labiodental spirant.

        e.g. viec ‘affair,’ ‘work’

           ve 'return'

/th/    voiceless apicodental stop with aspirated release.

        e.g. thi ‘exam’

           thua ‘to lose’

/l/     voiced lateral.

        e.g. linh ‘soldier’

           leo ‘to climb’

/s/     voiceless laminodental spirant.

        e.g. xin ‘to ask for’

           so ‘number’

           sach ‘book’

/z/     voiced laminodental spirant.

        e.g. gi [zi] ‘what’

       ra [za] ‘go out’

/x/    voiceless dorsovelar spirant. This sound is very likely to be perceived by Taiwanese speakers as aspirated /kh/.

        e.g. khi ‘when’

           kho ‘be difficult’

/Ä/    voiced fricative dorsovelar oral consonant. This sound is very likely to be perceived by Taiwanese speakers as /g/. Although /g/ and /Ä/ are very similar, there is a difference, i.e. /Ä/ is fricative but /g/ is not.

        e.g. gap ‘to meet’

           goi ‘to call’

/h/    voiceless glottal spirant.

        e.g. hieu ‘to understand’

           hoi ‘to ask’


Nasal consonants in Vietnamese are /m n ø N/. They are fully voiced and about midway in relation to the extremes of lenis and fortis. Those in final position after short vocalics are more fortis than others. They all occur both initially and finally.

/m/   labial nasal.

        e.g. My ‘America’

           tim ‘to look for’

/n/    postdental apical nasal.

        e.g. nam ‘year’

           ho,n ‘be more’

           nen ‘be fitting’

/ø/        laminoalveolar nasal. Though /ø/ does not exist as a phoneme in Taiwanese, this sound is similar to ng of ngiau () in Taiwanese.

        e.g. nho, ‘to remember’

           nha ‘house’

           benh ‘to defend’

           nhanh ‘be fast’

/N/    dorsovelar nasal. When it occurs in the final, it comes simultaneously with strong rounding (and often closure or near closure) of the lips. Only after u, and [w] if occurs in the final position.

        e.g. nghi ‘to rest’

           ngu ‘sleep’

dung ‘be correct’

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[1] Hoc is transcribed as [haopƒk ] by Dr. Edmondson (2000, personal conversation).