VIETNAM TRAVEL

 

Language

Language in Vietnam - Vietnamese - Pronouns - Hill tribe Language

VIETNAMESE

The Vietnamese language (Kink) is a fusion of Mon-Khmer, Tai and Chinese elements. Vietnamese derived a significant percentage of its basic words from the nontonal Mon-Khmer languages. From the Tai languages came certain grammatical elements and tonality. Chinese gave Vietnamese most of its literary, technical and govern-mental vocabulary, as well as its traditional writing system.
The following list of words and phrases will help get you started. If you'd like a more comprehensive guide to the language, pick up a copy of Vietnam Travel Guide's pocket-sized Vietnamese Phrasebook. The variation in vocabulary between the Vietnamese of the north and that of the south is indicated in this chapter by (N) and (S) respectively.
WRITTEN VIETNAMESE
For centuries, the Vietnamese language was written in standard Chinese characters (chữ nho). Around the 13th century, the Vietnamese devised their own writing system called chữ nôm (or just nôm), which was created by combining two Chinese words or by using single Chinese characters for their phonetic value. Both writing systems were in use until the 20th century - official business and scholarship was conducted in chữ nho, while chữ nôm was used for popular literature. The Latin-based quốc ngữ script, widely used since WWI, was developed in the 17th century by Alexandre de Rhodes (see the boxed text, right). Quốc ngữ served to undermine the position of Mandarin officials, whose power was based

ALEXANDRE DE RHODES
One of the most illustrious of the early mis sionaries was the brilliant French Jesuit scholar Alexandre de Rhodes (1591-1660). De Rhodes first preached in Vietnamese only six months after arriving in the country in 1627, and he is most recognised for his work in devising quốc ngữ the Latin-based phonetic alphabet in which Vietnamese is written to this day. By replacing Chinese characters with quốc ngữ, de Rhodes facilitated the propagation of the gospel to a wide audience.
Over the course of his long career, de Rhodes travelled back and forth between Hanoi, Macau, Rome and Paris, seeking sup port and funding for his missionary activities and battling both Portuguese colonial opposition and the intractable Vatican bureaucracy. In 1645 he was sentenced to death for illegally entering Vietnam to proselytise, but was expelled instead; two of the priests with him were beheaded. For his contributions, de Rhodes gained the highest respect from the Vietnamese (in the south, anyway), who called him cha Caắ (father). A memorial statue of de Rhodes stands in central Saigon on traditional scholarship in chữ nho and chữ nôm, scripts that were largely inaccessible to the masses. The Vietnamese treat every syllable as an independent word, so 'Saigon’ is spelt 'Sai Gon' and 'Vietnam' is written as 'Viet Nam’. Foreigners aren't too comfortable with this system - we prefer to read 'London' rather than 'Lon Don'. This leads to the notion that Vietnamese is a 'monosyllabic language', where every syllable represents an independent word. This idea appears to hark back to the Chinese writing system, where every syllable is represented by an inde-pendent character and each character is treated as a meaningful word in its own right. In reality, Vietnamese appears to be polysyllabic, like English. However, writing systems do influence people's perceptions of their own language, so the Vietnamese themselves will insist that their language is monosyllabic - it's a debate probably not worth pursuing.

PRONUNCIATION
Most of the names of the letters of the quốc ngữ alphabet are pronounced like the letters of the French alphabet. Dictionaries are alphabetised as in English except that each vowel/tone combination is treated as a different letter. Most of the consonants of the Romanised Vietnamese alphabet are pronounced more or less as they are in English with a few exceptions. Vietnamese doesn't use the English letters ‘f’, 'j' , ‘w’,and ‘z’. To help you make sense of what is (for non-Vietnamese) a very tricky writing system, the words and phrases in this language guide include pronunciations that use a written form more familiar to English speakers. The same symbols as quốc ngữ are used for marking the tones.
For example, Vietnamese d and gi- are represented with 'z', đ with 'd', ph- with ‘f’, x with 's', -ng with 'm’, -nh with 'ny' etc. 'phantom', 'but', 'mother', 'rice seedling', 'tomb' or 'horse'.
The six tones of spoken Vietnamese are represented by five diacritical marks in the written language (the first tone is left unmarked). These should not be confused with the four other diacritical marks that are used to indicate special consonants and vowels.
The following examples show the six different tone representations:

ma (ghost): middle of the vocal range
(which): begins low & falls lower
mả (tomb): begins low, dips and then rises to higher pitch
(horse): begins high, dips slightly, then rises sharply
mạ (rice seedling): begins low, falls to a lower level, then stops
(mother): begins high and rises sharply

TONES
The hardest part of studying Vietnamese for Westerners is learning to differentiate between the tones. There are six tones in spoken Vietnamese. Thus, every syllable in Vietnamese can be pronounced six different ways. For example, depending on the tones, the word ma can be read to mean
GRAMMAR
Vietnamese grammar is fairly straightforward, with a wide variety of possible sentence structures. Nouns have no masculine, feminine or plural forms and verbs have only one form regardless of gender, person or tense. Instead, tool words and classifiers are used to show a word's relationship to its neighbours. Per example, in the expression con mèo (của) tôi (my cat), con is the classifier, mèo is the noun, của means 'of/belong to' (and can be omitted), and tôi is the personal pronoun 'I'.
PROPER NAMES
Most Vietnamese names consist of a family name, a middle name and a given name, in that order. Thus, if Henry David Thoreau had been Vietnamese, he would have been named Thoreau David Henry and would have been addressed as Mr Henry - people are called by their given name, but to do this without using the title Mr, Mrs or Miss is considered as expressing either great intimacy or arrogance of the sort a superior would use with his or her inferior. In Vietnamese, Mr is Ông if the man is of your grandparents' generation, Bac if he is of your parents' age, Chú if he is younger than your parents and Anh if he is in his teens or early 20s. Mrs is Bà if the woman is of your grandparents' age and Bac if she is of your parents' generation or younger. Miss is Chi or Em unless the woman is very young, in which case Cô might be more appropriate. Other titles of respect are Thay (Buddhist monk or male teacher), Ba (Buddhist nun), Cha (Catholic priest) and Co (Catholic nun). There are 300 or so family names in use in Vietnam, the most common of which is Nguyen (which is pronounced something like 'nwee-en'). About half of all Vietnamese have the surname Nguyen! When women marry, they usually (but not always) take their husband's family name. The middle name may be purely ornamental, may indicate the sex of its bearer or may be used by all the male members of a given family. A person's given name is carefully chosen to form a harmonious and meaningful ensemble with their family and middle names and with the names of other family members.