Chữ Nôm (字喃, IPA: [tɕɨ̌ˀ nom], literally "Southern characters"), in earlier times also called quốc âm or chữ nam, is a logographic writing system formerly used to write the Vietnamese language. It used the standard set of classical Chinese characters to represent Sino-Vietnamese vocabulary and some native Vietnamese words, while new characters were created on the Chinese model to represent other words.
Although formal writing in Vietnam was done in literary Chinese, until the early 20th century (except for two brief interludes), chữ Nôm was widely used between the 15th and 19th centuries by Vietnam's cultured elite, including women, for popular works, many in verse. One of the best-known pieces of Vietnamese literature, The Tale of Kiều, was composed in chữ Nôm.
In the 1920s, the Latin-based Vietnamese alphabet displaced chữ Nôm as the preferred way to record Vietnamese. Although chữ Nôm is today only taught at the university level within the Vietnamese education system, the characters are still used for decorative, historic and ceremonial value and symbols of good luck. The task of preservation and study of Vietnamese texts written in Nôm (but also classical Chinese texts from Vietnam) is conducted by the Institute of Hán-Nôm Studies in Hanoi.
The Vietnamese word chữ (character) is derived from the Old Chinese word 字, meaning 'character'. The word Nôm in chữ Nôm means 'Southern', and is derived from the Middle Chinese word 南, meaning 'south'.
Chữ Nôm is the logographic writing system of the Vietnamese language. It is based on the Chinese writing system but adds a high number of new characters to make it fit the Vietnamese language.
In Vietnamese, Chinese characters are called chữ Hán (字漢 ‘Han characters’), Hán tự (漢字 ‘Han characters’), Hán văn (漢文 ‘Han characters’), or chữ nho (字儒 ‘Confucian characters’). Hán văn (漢文) also means Chinese language literature (in this case, Hán văn literally means ‘Han literature’).
The term Hán Nôm (漢喃 ‘Han and chữ Nôm characters’) in Vietnamese designates the whole body of Vietnamese premodern written materials, either written in Chinese (chữ hán) or in Vietnamese (chữ Nôm). Hán and Nôm could also be found in the same document side by side, for example, in the case of translations of books on Chinese medicine. The Buddhist history Cổ Châu Pháp Vân phật bản hạnh ngữ lục (1752) gives the story of early Buddhism in Vietnam both in Hán script and in a parallel Nôm translation. The Jesuit Girolamo Maiorica (1605–1656) had also used parallel Hán and Nôm texts.
Chinese characters were introduced to Vietnam after the Han dynasty conquered the country in 111 BC. Independence was achieved in 939, but Literary Chinese was adopted for official purposes in 1010. For most of the period up to the early 20th century, formal writing was indistinguishable from contemporaneous classical Chinese works produced in China, Korea, and Japan.
Vietnamese scholars were thus intimately familiar with Chinese writing. In order to record their native language, they applied the structural principles of Chinese characters to develop chữ Nôm. The new script was mostly used to record folk songs and for other popular literature. Vietnamese written in chữ Nôm briefly replaced Chinese for official purposes under the Hồ dynasty (1400–1407) and under the Tây Sơn (1778–1802), but in both cases this was swiftly reversed.
The use of Chinese characters to write the Vietnamese language can be traced to an inscription with the two characters "布蓋", as part of the posthumous title of Phùng Hưng, a national hero who succeeded in expelling the Chinese, albeit briefly in the late 8th century. These two characters literally mean "cloth" + "cover" in Chinese but when pronounced by the Vietnamese, the phonetic value is employed to represent vua cái ("great king"), or archaic Vietnamese bố cái ("father and mother", i.e. as respectable as one's parents). During the 10th century, the founder of the Đinh dynasty (968-979) named the country Đại Cồ Việt (大瞿越). The second character of this title is another early example of using Chinese characters to represent Vietnamese native words, although which word it represents is still debated.
The oldest surviving objects with chữ Nôm inscriptions are a stele (1209) at Bảo Ân temple containing 18 characters naming villages and people, and a stele at Hộ Thành Sơn in Ninh Bình Province (1343), listing 20 villages.
The first literary writing in Vietnamese is said to have been an incantation in verse composed in 1282 by the Minister of Justice Nguyễn Thuyên and thrown into the Red River to expel a menacing crocodile. The oldest Nom text that is still extant is the collected poetry of Emperor Trần Nhân Tông written in the 13th century.
During the seven years of the Hồ dynasty (1400–07) Classical Chinese was discouraged in favor of vernacular Vietnamese written in chữ Nôm, which became the official script. The emperor Hồ Quý Ly even ordered the translation of the Book of Documents into Nôm and pushed for reinterpretation of Confucian thoughts in his book Minh đạo. These efforts were reversed with the fall of the Hồ and Chinese conquest of 1407, lasting twenty years, during which use of the vernacular language and demotic script were suppressed.
During the Ming dynasty occupation of Vietnam, chữ Nôm printing blocks, texts and inscriptions were thoroughly destroyed; as a result the earliest surviving texts of chữ Nôm post-date the occupation.
Among the earlier works in Nôm of this era are the writings of Nguyễn Trãi (1380–1442). The corpus of Nôm writings grew over time as did more scholarly compilations of the script itself. Trịnh Thị Ngọc Trúc, consort of King Lê Thần Tông, is generally given credit for Chỉ nam ngọc âm giải nghĩa (the Explication of the Guide to Jeweled Sounds), a 24,000-character bilingual Han-to-Nom dictionary compiled between the 15th and 18th centuries, most likely in 1641 or 1761.
While almost all official writings and documents continued to be written in classical Chinese until the early 20th century, Nôm was the preferred script for literary compositions of the cultural elites. Nôm reached its golden period with the Nguyễn Dynasty in the 19th century as it became a vehicle for diverse genres, from novels to theatrical pieces, and instructional manuals. Apogees of Vietnamese literature emerged with Nguyễn Du's The Tale of Kiều and Hồ Xuân Hương's poetry. Although literacy in premodern Vietnam was limited to just 3 to 5 percent of the population, nearly every village had someone who could read Nom aloud for the benefit of other villagers. Thus these Nôm works circulated orally in the villages, making it accessible even to the illiterates.
In 1838, Jean-Louis Taberd compiled a Nom dictionary, helping with the standardization of the script. In 1867, Catholic scholar Nguyễn Trường Tộ made the bold move to petition the Emperor Tự Đức to adopt Nôm as the official script. The court failed to make a break with chu Nho but Nôm did gain some sanction as Quốc Âm, i.e. the national speech.
From the latter half of the 19th century onwards, the French colonial authorities discouraged or simply banned the use of classical Chinese, and promoted the use of the Vietnamese alphabet, which they viewed as a stepping stone toward learning French. Language reform movements in other Asian nations stimulated Vietnamese interest in the subject. Following the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, Japan was increasingly cited as a model for modernization. The Confucian education system was compared unfavorably to the Japanese system of public education. According to a polemic by writer Phan Châu Trinh, "so-called Confucian scholars" lacked knowledge of the modern world, as well as real understanding of Han literature. Their degrees showed only that they had learned how to write characters, he claimed.
The popularity of Hanoi's short-lived Tonkin Free School suggested that broad reform was possible. In 1910, the colonial school system adopted a "Franco-Vietnamese curriculum", which emphasized French and alphabetic Vietnamese. The teaching of Chinese characters was discontinued in 1917. On December 28, 1918, Emperor Khải Định declared that the traditional writing system no longer had official status. The traditional Civil Service Examination, which emphasized the command of classical Chinese, was dismantled in 1915 in Tonkin and was given for the last time at the imperial capital of Huế on January 4, 1919. The examination system, and the education system based on it, had been in effect for almost 900 years.
The decline of the Chinese script also led to the decline of chữ Nôm given that Nôm and Chinese characters are so intimately connected. During the early half of the 20th century, chữ Nôm gradually died out as quốc ngữ grew more and more standardized and popular. In an article published in 1935 by Cordier he stated that quốc ngữ is rapidly dethroning Chinese characters and is replacing chữ Nôm so that by 1935 out of one hundred literate persons 70 knew quốc ngữ, 20 knew chữ Nôm and 10 knew Chinese characters.
The syntax of nôm naturally follows Vietnamese grammar not Chinese grammar. For example, in nôm texts the Trịnh lords (1545–1787) are Chúa Trịnh (chữ Nôm: 主鄭) not as in Sino-Vietnamese Trịnh vương (chữ Hán: 鄭王). Here the character used (lord in Vietnamese, king in Chinese) is also different, but the difference in syntax is that in Vietnamese the noun "lord" precedes the name, whereas in Chinese "king" follows the name.
A similar example, in Vietnamese Truyện Kiều (傳翹, lit. "Tale of Kiều") the word "tale" precedes the name, but in Chinese syntax "tale" (truyện 傳) should follow the name Kiều. The nôm term "chữ Nôm" itself is an example of this. In Vietnamese nôm syntax the noun "script" (𡨸) precedes "Southern" (喃), whereas in chữ Hán the order is reversed and a purely Chinese chữ Hán character used instead of the locally created Chữ (chữ Hán: 喃字). Similarly with gods and heroes; the syntax of the popular name Thánh Gióng (聖容) differes from his chữ Hán name Phù Đổng Thiên Vương (扶董天王); the nôm name Mẫu Thoải (母水), has a Vietnamese syntax while her chữ Hán name Thủy cung Thánh Mẫu (水宮聖母) exhibits Chinese syntax. The official Chinese Tên chữ and vernacular Tên nôm for village names may also have different syntax as well as different characters.
Chinese poems translated into Nôm could retain more Chinese syntax and poetic forms than those translated into Korean or Japanese. Though as literature in Nôm developed it increasingly freed itself from Chinese syntax.
In chữ Nôm, each monosyllabic word of Vietnamese was represented by a character, either borrowed from Chinese or locally created. There was no development of a syllabary like Japanese kana or Korean hangul; in part due to the analytic nature of Vietnamese, similar to Chinese, as opposed to the agglutinative morphology of Japanese and Korean.
Unmodified Chinese characters were used in chữ Nôm in three different ways.
A large proportion of Vietnamese vocabulary had been borrowed from Chinese from the Tang period. Such Sino-Vietnamese vocabulary could be written with the original Chinese character for each word, for example:
To represent a native Vietnamese word, one method was to use a Chinese character for a Chinese word with a similar meaning. For example, 本 may also represent vốn ("capital, funds"). When a character would have two readings, a diacritic may be added to the character to indicate the "indigenous" reading. Thus when 本 is meant to be read as vốn, it is written as 本㆑, with a diacritic at the upper right corner. In this case the word vốn is actually an earlier Chinese loan that has become accepted as Vietnamese; William Hannas claims that all such readings are similar early loans.
Alternatively, a native Vietnamese word could be written using a Chinese character for a Chinese word with a similar sound, regardless of the meaning of the Chinese word. For example, 沒 (Early Middle Chinese /mət/) may represent the Vietnamese word một ("one").
To draw an analogy to the Japanese writing system, the first two categories are similar to the on and kun readings of Japanese kanji respectively. The third is similar to ateji, in which characters are used only for their sound value, or the Man'yōgana script that became the origin of hiragana and katakana.
In contrast to the few hundred Japanese kokuji and handful of Korean gukja, which are mostly rarely used characters for indigenous natural phenomena, Vietnamese scribes created thousands of new characters, used throughout the language.
Similar to the Chinese writing system, the most common kind of invented character in Nom is the phono-semantic compound, made by combining two characters or components, one suggesting the word's meaning and the other its approximate sound. For example,
A smaller group consists of semantic compound characters, which are composed of two Chinese characters representing words of similar meaning. For example, 𡗶 (giời or trời "sky", "heaven") is composed of 天 ("sky") and 上 ("upper").
A few characters were obtained by modifying Chinese characters related either semantically or phonetically to the word to be represented. For example,
In Korea and Japan, phonetic systems were developed so that Chinese characters could be taught to the general public. Vietnam's educated class looked down on Nom as inferior to Han, so they were not interested in doing the work required to turn Nom into a form of writing suitable for mass communication. Like Chinese, Vietnamese is a tonal language and has nearly 5,000 distinct syllables. Neither the Korean nor the Japanese writing systems indicate tones, so they cannot be accurately applied to the Vietnamese language without significant modifications to their systems.
The website chunom.org gives a frequency table of the 586 most common characters in Nom literature. According to this table, the most common 50 characters are as follows, with the modern spelling given in italics:
In 1867, the reformist Nguyễn Trường Tộ proposed a standardization of chữ Nôm (along with the abolition of classical Chinese), but the new system, what he called quốc âm Hán tự (國音漢字 lit. "Han characters with national pronunciations"), was rejected by Emperor Tự Đức. To this date, chữ Nôm has never been officially standardized. As a result, a Vietnamese word can be represented by variant Nôm characters. For example, the very word chữ ("character", "script"), a Chinese loan word, can be written as either 字 (Chinese character), 𡦂 (invented character, "compound-semantic") or 𡨸 (invented character, "semantic-phonetic"). For another example, the word béo ("fat", "greasy") can be written either as 脿 or . Both characters are invented characters with a semantic-phonetic structure, the difference being the phonetic indicator (表 vs. 報).
From 2013, Han-Nom Revival Committee of Vietnam, an internet-based organization has started its standardization work for Chữ Hán Nôm. Aiming at both chữ Nôm and Chữ Hán standardization, the Committee's "Chữ Hán Nôm Standardization Project" is designed to determine the Standard chữ Nôm among many variant Nôm characters, to confirm the usage of chữ Nôm and Chữ Hán in Pure Vietnamese words, Sino-Vietnamese words (especially Vietnamese-made Sino-Vietnamese words), and Hybrid words, as well as to determine the chữ Nôm and Chữ Hán characters in Loan words for phonetic transliteration. Till 2015, based on discussions among many specialists of Chữ Hán Nôm, around 500 frequently-used Chữ Hán Nôm are determined and published on its website.
In 1993, the Vietnamese government released an 8-bit coding standard for alphabetic Vietnamese (TCVN 5712:1993, or VSCII), as well as a 16-bit standard for Nom (TCVN 5773:1993). This group of glyphs is referred to as "V0." In 1994, the Ideographic Rapporteur Group agreed to include Nom characters as part of Unicode. A revised standard, TCVN 6909:2001, defines 9,299 glyphs. About half of these glyphs are specific to Vietnam. Nom characters not already encoded were added to Unicode Extension B. (These characters have five-digit hexadecimal codepoints. The characters that were encoded earlier have four-digit hex.)
|Code||Characters||Unicode block||Standard||Date||V Source||Sources|
|V0||2,246||Basic Block (593), A (138), B (1,515)||TCVN 5773:1993||2001||V0-3021 to V0-4927||5|
|V1||3,311||Basic Block (3,110), C (1)||TCVN 6056:1995||1999||V1-4A21 to V1-6D35||2, 5|
|V2||3,205||Basic Block (763), A (151), B (2,291)||VHN 01:1998||2001||V2-6E21 to V2-9171||2, 5|
|V3||535||Basic Block (91), A (19), B (425)||VHN 02:1998||2001||V3-3021 to V3-3644||Manuscripts|
|V4||785 (encoded)||Extension C||Defined as sources 1, 3, and 6||2009||V4-4021 to V4-4B2F||1, 3, 6|
|V04||1,028||Extension E||Unencoded V4 and V6 characters||Projected||V04-4022 to V04-583E||V4: 1, 3, 6;
V6: 4, manuscripts
|V5||~900||Proposed in 2001, but already coded||2001||None||2, 5|
|Sources: Nguyễn Quang Hồng, "Unibook Character Browser," Unicode,Inc., "Code Charts - CJK Ext. E" (N4358-A).|
Characters were extracted from the following sources:
The V2, V3, and V4 proposals were developed by a group at the Han-Nom Research Institute led by Nguyễn Quang Hồng. V4, developed in 2001, includes over 400 ideograms formerly used by the Tay people of northern Vietnam. This allows the Tay language to get its own registration code. V5 is a set of about 900 characters proposed in 2001. As these characters were already part of Unicode, the IRG concluded that they could not be edited and no Vietnamese code was added. (This is despite the fact that national codes were added retroactively for version 3.0 in 1999.) The Nom Na Group, led by Ngô Thanh Nhàn, published a set of nearly 20,000 Nom characters in 2005. This set includes both the characters proposed earlier and a large group of additional characters referred to as "V6". These are mainly Han characters from Trần Văn Kiệm's dictionary which were already assigned codepoints. Character readings were determined manually by Hồng's group, while Nhàn's group developed software for this purpose. The work of the two groups was integrated and published in 2008 as the Hán Nôm Coded Character Repertoire.
|Character||Composition||Nom reading||Han Viet||English||Codepoint||V Source||Other sources|
|吧||⿰口巴||ba||ba||[emphatic final particle]||U+5427||V0-3122||G0,J,KP,K,T|
|㤝||⿰忄充||suông||song||to become interested in||U+391D||V3-313D||G3,KP,K,T|
|𫋙||⿰虫強||càng||cường (強)||claw, pincer||U+2B2D9||V4-536F||None|
|Key: G0 = China (GB 2312); G1 = China (GB 12345); G3 = China (GB 7589); GHZ = Hanyu Da Zidian; J = Japan; KP= North Korea; K = South Korea; T = Taiwan.
Sources: Unihan Database, Vietnamese Nôm Preservation Foundation, "Code Charts - CJK Ext. E" (N4358-A). The Han-Viet readings are from Hán Việt Từ Điển.
The characters that do not exist in Chinese have Han-Viet readings that are based on the characters given in parenthesis. The common character for càng (強) contains the radical 虫 (insects). This radical is added redundantly to create 𫋙, a rare variation shown in the chart above. The character 𫡯 (giàu) is specific to the Tay people. It has been part of the Unicode standard only since version 8.0 of June 2015, so there is still very little font and input method support for it. It is a variation of 朝, the corresponding character in Vietnamese.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Chữ Nôm.|
There are a number of software tools that can produce chữ Nôm characters simply by typing Vietnamese words in quốc ngữ:
Other entry methods:
Chữ Nôm fonts include: