Updated May 1, 2001

Sound System in Vietnamese (1/4)

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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The Vietnamese language is mainly spoken in current Vietnam, and its speakers accounts for 87% of Vietnam's population, which was reported to have 75 millions in 1995 (Grimes 1996). In addition, over two millions of Vietnamese speakers live overseas, such as in France, USA, Great Britain, Australia, and Japan (Nguyen 1997:1). Moreover, recently over ten thousands of Vietnamese speakers have immigrated to Taiwan because of marriage with Taiwanese people. In addition to marriage between Taiwanese and Vietnamese, it is reported that Taiwanese investment is among the three largest foreign investments in Vietnam. Thus, learning Vietnamese for marriage, business, or tourism purposes has became a substantial attraction for the Taiwanese. However, only a few Vietnamese textbooks have been published in Taiwan, and most of them are not of high quality. In this paper, the sound system in Vietnamese is described in order to assist the Taiwanese learners of Vietnamese for efficient learning.

1.                  Introduction

Vietnam is a country with a rich diversity of ethnicities, including such language groups as Mon-Khmer (94% of total population), Kadai (3.7%; also called Daic or Tai-Kadai), Miao-Yao (1.1%), Austronesian (0.8%), Tibeto-Burman, and Han (Grimes 1996). It is reported that there are 54 official ethnic groups, 86 living languages, and 1 extinct language (Grimes 1996). Among the ethnic groups, Viet () or Kinh () is the majority, and it accounts for 87% of Vietnam's total population (Dang 2000:1). The mother tongue of Viet is the so-called Vietnamese language. The Viet people mainly live in the deltas of the Red River and the Mekong River, and the coastal plains of central Vietnam. The other ethnic groups mostly reside in mountain areas stretching from north to south, and their areas cover around two-third of the whole country (Pham 1997:67). Recently, Nung Ven and Xapho (or Laghuu), two languages in North Vietnam were discovered and reported by Edmondsonís research team.

The classification of the Vietnamese language has been disputed for a long time. However, at present it is widely believed that Vietnamese belongs to the Mon-Khmer language family, which is spoken throughout much of Southeast Asia, primarily in Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia, but also in Thailand, Burma, the Malay Peninsula, and the Nicobar Islands in the Andaman Sea (Ruhlen 1987:148). At present, there are about 156 Mon-Khmer languages (Grimes 1996). Among the Mon-Khmer languages, Vietnamese is the largest and the most well known.

        The Vietnamese language is known to its native speakers as , and formerly known as Annamese or Annamite. Vietnamese is currently the official language of Vietnam. Vietnamese is a isolating language, that is, one in which the words are invariable, and syntactic relationships are shown by word order, just as in the cases of Taiwanese and Chinese. Traditionally, Vietnamese was regarded as monosyllabic because most of Vietnamese words consist of single syllables. However, recent statistical studies have shown that there is a clear tendency toward poly-syllabic in modern Vietnamese (Nguyen 1997:35). In addition, Vietnamese is a tonal language. In modern Vietnamese, it consists of six tones, in which different tones distinguish different lexical meanings of words. Tone sandhi in Vietnamese is neither substantial nor as rich as in Taiwanese.  

        Various foreign influences have been brought to the development of the Vietnamese language because of the contacts in the past between the Vietnamese and other peoples. Among them, the Chinese is probably the strongest and most lasting one (Nguyen 1971:153). Vietnam had been under the direct domination of China during the period from 111 B.C. to 938 A.D. Although the Vietnamese established their own independent monarchy in 939 A.D., Vietnamese had to recognize the suzerainty of the Chinese Empire through the late nineteenth century (SarDesai 1992:19). In other words, Chinaís influence on Vietnam was never extinguished even thought Vietnam had achieved monarchical status. Culturally and linguistically, the substantial influences of the Chinese on the Vietnamese are the adoptions of Han characters, Confucianism, Buddhism, and civil service examination system. Consequently, the Chinese classics such as the Four Books (四書), and the Five Jing (五經) became the textbooks and orthodoxy for Vietnamese scholars and officials. Because of the great linguistic influence on Vietnamese, Vietnamese used to be regarded as a member of Sino-Tibetan language family, to which the Chinese language belongs.

        Han characters and Han writing were first employed in the writing system of Vietnam when Vietnam was under Chinaís direct domination. Later on a domestic script , which has similar structure as Han characters, is documented in the tenth century. Romanized writing system was introduced to Vietnam by missionaries in the seventeen century, and it eventually became the official writing system in 1945 when Ho Chi Minh declared the birth of the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam. Since then, romanized has reached national status, and is taught through the national education system. It was reported that the literacy rate in Vietnam is somewhere between 78% and 88% (Grimes 1996). Nowadays, most Vietnamese people read and write in romanized Vietnamese. Only a few professionals in Han Nom studies still have knowledge of Han characters and Chu Nom.

        The modern Vietnamese language is based on the dialect spoken in Vietnamís capital city of Hanoi. Traditionally, Vietnamese dialects were divided by Henri Maspero (1912) into two main groups: 1) the Haut-Annam group, which comprises numerous local dialects of the small villages stretching from the north of Nghe-an province to the south of Tha-thien province. 2) Tonkinese-Cochinchinese, which covers all the remaining territory (Thompson 1987:78). Generally speaking, Vietnamese dialects form a continuum from north to south, and each of them somewhat different from a neighboring dialect on either side. Hanoi, Hue, and Saigon, which are respectively located in north, central, and south parts, represent three major notable dialects in Vietnam (Nguyen 1997:10). From now on, Vietnamese in this paper refers to the standard Hanoi dialect unless specified.


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