The Vietnamese alphabet ( vi|Chữ Quốc Ngữ, "script of the national language") is the modern Latin writing script or writing system for the Vietnamese language
. It uses the Latin script
based on Romance languages
developed by Portuguese
The Vietnamese alphabet contains 29 letters, including one digraph
'') and nine with diacritics
, five of which are used to designate a tone
(''a'', ''à'', ''á'', ''ả'', ''ã'', and ''ạ'') and the other four used for other letters of the alphabet (''ă, â/ê/ô, ơ, ư'' ). The large number of letters with diacritics, which can stack up to twice on the same letter, e.g. "nhất" meaning "first", its origins being the Sino-Vietnamese interpretation of the Chinese character 一 (Yī) meaning "one", makes it recognizable amongst Latin scripts
Letter names and pronunciation
There are six tones
, each with a separate diacritic, which are marked in the IPA as suprasegmentals
following the phonemic value. It uses all 22 letters of the ISO basic Latin alphabet
plus 6 additional "letters" where 4 letters are with the other 3 diacritics: Ă/ă, Â/â, Ê/ê, Ô/ô, Ơ/ơ, Ư/ư and the letter Đ/đ except for F/f, J/j, W/w and Z/z. The aforementioned 4 letters are only used to write loanword
s, languages of other ethnic groups in the country based on Vietnamese phonetics to differentiate the meanings or even Vietnamese dialects, for example: dz or z for Northern Vietnamese pronunciation of "gi" in standard Vietnamese, or to distinguish the from the Vietnamese D (pronounced y/j or dz/z) and from Đ (pronounced D like in English).
* ''Pronouncing b as'' and ''p'' as is to avoid confusion in some contexts, the same for ''s'' and ''x'' , ''i'' and ''y'' .
* ''Q'', ''q'' is always followed by ''u'' in every word and phrase in Vietnamese, e.g. (trousers), (to attract), etc.
* The name for ''y'' is from the French name for the letter: (Greek I), referring to the letter's origin from the Greek letter
''. The other obsolete French pronunciations include ''e'' /ə:˧/ and ''u'' /wi˧/.
The alphabet is largely derived from Portugese
with major influence from French
, although the usage of ''gh'' and ''gi'' was borrowed from Italian
(compare , ) and that for ''c/k/qu'' from Greek and Latin (compare , , ), mirroring the English
usage of these letters (compare , , ).
The correspondence between the orthography and pronunciation is somewhat complicated. In some cases, the same letter may represent several different sounds, and different letters may represent the same sound. This is because the orthography was designed centuries ago and the spoken language has changed, as shown in the chart directly above that contrasts the difference between Middle and Modern Vietnamese.
The letters ''y'' and ''i'' are mostly equivalent, and there is no concrete rule that says when to use one or the other, except in sequences like ''ay'' and ''uy'' (i.e. tay ("arm, hand") is read while tai ("ear") is read ). There have been attempts since the late 20th century to standardize the orthography by replacing all the vowel uses of ''y'' with ''i'', the latest being a decision from the Vietnamese Ministry of Education in 1984. These efforts seem to have had limited effect. In textbooks published by Nhà Xuất bản Giáo dục ("Publishing House of Education"), ''y'' is used to represent only in Sino-Vietnamese
words that are written with one letter ''y'' alone (diacritics can still be added, as in ''ý'', ''ỷ''), at the beginning of a syllable when followed by ''ê'' (as in ''yếm'', ''yết''), after ''u'' and in the sequence ''ay''; therefore such forms as ''*lý'' and ''*kỹ'' are not "standard", though they are much preferred elsewhere. Most people and the popular media continue to use the spelling that they are most accustomed to.
The uses of the letters ''i'' and ''y'' to represent the phoneme can be categorized as "standard" (as used in textbooks published by Nhà Xuất bản Giáo dục) and "non-standard" as follows.
This "standard" set by Nhà Xuất bản Giáo dục is not definite. It is unknown why the literature books use ''Lí'' while the history books use ''Lý''.
The table below matches the vowels of Hanoi Vietnamese (written in the IPA
) and their respective orthographic symbols used in the writing system.
*The vowel is:
**usually written ''i'': = ''sĩ'' (A suffix indicating profession, similar to the English suffix ''-er'').
**sometimes written ''y'' after h, k, l, m, n, s, t, v, x: = ''Mỹ'' (America)
***It is always written ''y'' when:
::# preceded by an orthographic vowel: = ''khuyên'' 'to advise';
::# at the beginning of a word derived from Chinese (written as ''i'' otherwise): = ''yêu'' 'to love'.
*The vowel is written ''oo'' before ''c'' or ''ng'' (since ''o'' in that position represents ): = ''oóc'' 'organ (musical)'; = ''kính coong''. This generally only occurs in recent loanwords or when representing dialectal pronunciation.
*Similarly, the vowel is written ''ôô'' before ''c'' or ''ng'': = ''ôông
'' (Nghệ An
variant of ''ông'' ). But unlike ''oo'' being frequently used in onomatopoeia, transcription
s from other languages and words "borrowed" from Nghệ An/Hà Tĩnh dialects (such as ''voọc
''), ''ôô'' seems to be used solely to convey the feel of the Nghệ An/Hà Tĩnh accents. In transcriptions, ''ô'' is preferred (e.g. ''các-tông'' 'cardboard', ''ắc-coóc-đê-ông'' 'accordion').
Diphthongs and triphthongs
The glide is written:
*''u'' after (spelled ''q'' in this instance)
*''o'' in front of ''a'', ''ă'', or ''e'' except after ''q''
*''o'' following ''a'' and ''e''
*''u'' in all other cases; note that is written as ''au'' instead of *''ău'' (cf. ''ao'' ), and that is written as ''y'' after ''u''
The off-glide is written as ''i'' except after ''â'' and ''ă'', where it is written as ''y''; note that is written as ''ay'' instead of *''ăy'' (cf. ''ai'' ) .
The diphthong is written:
*''ia'' at the end of a syllable: = ''mía'' 'sugar cane'
*''iê'' before a consonant or off-glide: = ''miếng'' 'piece'; = ''xiêu'' 'to slope, slant'
:Note that the ''i'' of the diphthong changes to ''y'' after ''u'':
:*''ya'': = ''khuya'' 'late at night'
:*''yê'': = ''khuyên'' 'to advise'
:''iê'' changes to ''yê'' at the beginning of a syllable (''ia'' does not change):
:* = ''yên'' 'calm'; ''yếu 'weak, feeble'
The diphthong is written:
*''ua'' at the end of a syllable: = ''mua'' 'to buy'
*''uô'' before a consonant or off-glide: = ''muôn'' 'ten thousand'; = ''xuôi'' 'down'
The diphthong is written:
*''ưa'' at the end of a syllable: = ''mưa'' 'to rain'
*''ươ'' before a consonant or off-glide: = ''mương'' 'irrigation canal'; = ''tưới'' 'to water, irrigate, sprinkle'
Vietnamese is a tonal language
, i.e. the meaning of each word depends on the pitch (basically a specific tone
pattern) in which it is pronounced. There are six distinct tones in the standard northern dialect. In the south, there is a merging of the hỏi and ngã tones, in effect leaving five basic tones. The first one ("level tone") is not marked and the other five are indicated by diacritics applied to the vowel part of the syllable. The tone names are chosen such that the name of each tone is spoken in the tone it identifies.
*Unmarked vowels are pronounced with a level voice, in the middle of the speaking range.
*The grave accent indicates that the speaker should start somewhat low and drop slightly in tone, with the voice becoming increasingly breathy
*The hook indicates in Northern Vietnamese that the speaker should start in the middle range and fall, but in Southern Vietnamese that the speaker should start somewhat low and fall, then rise (as when asking a question in English).
*In the North, a tilde indicates that the speaker should start mid, break off (with a glottal stop
), then start again and rise like a question in tone. In the South, it is realized identically to the Hỏi tone.
*The acute accent indicates that the speaker should start mid and rise sharply in tone.
*The dot signifies in Northern Vietnamese that the speaker starts low and fall lower in tone, with the voice becoming increasingly creaky
and ending in a glottal stop
In syllables where the vowel part consists of more than one vowel (such as diphthongs and triphthongs), the placement of the tone is still a matter of debate. Generally, there are two methodologies, an "old style" and a "new style". While the "old style" emphasizes aesthetics by placing the tone mark as close as possible to the center of the word (by placing the tone mark on the last vowel if an ending consonant part exists and on the next-to-last vowel if the ending consonant doesn't exist, as in ''hóa'', ''hủy''), the "new style" emphasizes linguistic principles and tries to apply the tone mark on the main vowel (as in ''hoá'', ''huỷ''). In both styles, when one vowel already has a quality diacritic on it, the tone mark must be applied to it as well, regardless of where it appears in the syllable (thus '' thuế'' is acceptable while ''thúê'' is not). In the case of the ''ươ'' diphthong, the mark is placed on the ''ơ''. The ''u'' in ''qu'' is considered part of the consonant. Currently, the new style is usually used in textbooks published by Nhà Xuất bản Giáo dục, while most people still prefer the old style in casual uses. Among Overseas Vietnamese communities, the old style is predominant for all purposes.
In lexical ordering, differences in letters are treated as primary, differences in tone markings as secondary and differences in case as tertiary differences. (Letters include for instance A and Ă but not Ẳ. Older dictionaries also treated digraphs and trigraphs like CH and NGH as base letters.) Ordering according to primary and secondary differences proceeds syllable by syllable. According to this principle, a dictionary lists ''tuân thủ'' before ''tuần chay'' because the secondary difference in the first syllable takes precedence over the primary difference in the second syllable.
In the past, syllables in multisyllabic words were concatenated with hyphens, but this practice has died out and hyphenation is now reserved for word-borrowings from other languages. A written syllable consists of at most three parts, in the following order from left to right:
#An optional beginning consonant part
#A required vowel syllable nucleus
and the tone mark, if needed, applied above or below it
#An ending consonant part, can only be one of the following: ''c'', ''ch'', ''m'', ''n'', ''ng'', ''nh'', ''p'', ''t'', or nothing.
Since the beginning of Chinese
rules in the 111 BC, literature, government papers, scholarly works and religious scripture were all written in classical Chinese
'') while indigenous writing in chu han started around 9th century. Since the 12th century, several Vietnamese words started to be written in ', using variant Chinese characters
, each of them representing one word. The system was based on chữ Hán, but was also supplemented with Vietnamese-invented characters (', proper Nôm characters) to represent native Vietnamese words.
Creation of chữ Quốc ngữ
As early as 1620 with the work of Francisco de Pina
, Portuguese and Italian Jesuit missionaries
in Vietnam began using Latin script to transcribe the Vietnamese language as an assistance for learning the language.
The work was continued by the Avignonese Alexandre de Rhodes
. Building on previous dictionaries by Gaspar do Amaral
and Antonio Barbosa
, Rhodes compiled the ''Dictionarium Annamiticum Lusitanum et Latinum
'', a Vietnamese–Portuguese–Latin dictionary, which was later printed in Rome in 1651, using their spelling system.
These efforts led eventually to the development of the present Vietnamese alphabet. For 200 years, chữ Quốc ngữ was used within the Catholic community.
In 1910, French colonial administration
enforced chữ Quốc ngữ. The Latin alphabet then became a means to publish Vietnamese popular literature, which were disparaged as vulgar by the Chinese-educated imperial elites.
[Nguyên Tùng, "Langues, écritures et littératures au Viêt-nam", ''Aséanie, Sciences humaines en Asie du Sud-Est'', Vol. 2000/5, pp. 135-149.]
Historian Pamela A. Pears asserted that by instituting the Latin alphabet in Vietnam, the French cut the Vietnamese from their traditional Hán Nôm literature. Nowadays, although the Vietnamese majorly use chữ Quốc ngữ since the 1920s, and new Vietnamese terms for new items or words are often calqued from Hán Nôm. Some French had originally planned to replace Vietnamese with French, but this never was a serious project, given the small number of French settlers compared with the native population. The French had to reluctantly accept the use of chữ Quốc ngữ to write Vietnamese since this writing system, created by Portuguese missionaries, is based on Portuguese orthography, not French.
[ Note 3. "The French had to accept reluctantly the existence of chữ quốc ngữ. The propagation of chữ quốc ngữ in Cochinchina was, in fact, not without resistance y French authority or pro-French Vietnamese elite..Chữ quốc ngữ was created by Portuguese missionaries according to the phonemic orthography of Portuguese language. The Vietnamese could not use chữ quốc ngữ to learn French script. The French would mispronounce chữ quốc ngữ in French orthography, particularly people's names and place names. Thus, the French constantly disparaged chữ quốc ngữ because of its uselessness in helping with the propagation of French script."]
Between 1907 and 1908 the short-lived Tonkin Free School
promulgated chữ quốc ngữ and taught French language to the general population.
In 1917, the French system suppressed Vietnam's Confucian examination system
, viewed as an aristocratic system linked with the "ancient regime", thereby forcing Vietnamese elites to educate their offspring in the French language education system. Emperor Khải Định
declared the traditional writing system abolished in 1918.
While traditional nationalists favoured the Confucian examination system
and the use of chữ Hán, Vietnamese revolutionaries, progressive nationalists as well as pro-French elites viewed the French education system as a means to "liberate" the Vietnamese from old Chinese domination and the unsatisfactory "outdated" Confucian examination system, to "democratize" education and to help link Vietnamese to European philosophies.
The French colonial system then set up another educational system, teaching Vietnamese as first language using chữ quốc ngữ in primary school and then French language (taught in chữ quốc ngữ). Hundreds of thosands of textbooks for primary education began to be published in chữ quốc ngữ, with the unintentional result of turning the script into the popular medium for the expression of Vietnamese culture.
[Anderson, Benedict. 1991. ''Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism''. London: Verso. pp. 127-128.]
Late 20th century to present
Prior to 21st-century computer-assistance, the act of typesetting and printing Vietnamese has been described as a nightmare due to the number of accents/diacritics. Sassoon 1995
p. 123. Contemporary Vietnamese texts sometimes included words which have not been adapted to modern Vietnamese orthography, especially for documents written in Chinese characters. The Vietnamese language itself has been likened to a system akin to "ruby characters" elsewhere in Asia. See Vietnamese language and computers for usage on computer and on the internet.
Typing Vietnamese (computer support)
The universal character set Unicode has full support for the Latin Vietnamese writing system, although it does not have a separate segment for it. The required characters that other languages use are scattered throughout the Basic Latin, Latin-1 Supplement, Latin Extended-A and Latin Extended-B blocks; those that remain (such as the letters with more than one diacritic) are placed in the Latin Extended Additional block. An ASCII-based writing convention, Vietnamese Quoted Readable and several byte-based encodings including VSCII (TCVN), VNI, VISCII and Windows-1258 were widely used before Unicode became popular. Most new documents now exclusively use the Unicode format UTF-8.
Unicode allows the user to choose between precomposed characters and combining characters in inputting Vietnamese. Because in the past some fonts implemented combining characters in a nonstandard way (see Verdana font), most people use precomposed characters when composing Vietnamese-language documents (except on Windows where Windows-1258 used combining characters).
Most keyboards used by Vietnamese-language users do not support direct input of diacritics by default. Various free software such as Unikey that act as keyboard drivers exist. They support the most popular input methods, including Telex, VNI, VIQR and its variants.
**Ă, Â, Đ, Ê, Ô, Ơ, Ư
**"Chữ Hán", classical Chinese written in Vietnam (Han characters)
**"Chữ Nôm", former script used to write Vietnamese using Han and Nom (invented characters) words
*Coding and Input Methods:
**Telex, the oldest standard input method for the Vietnamese alphabet on electronic devices.
**VNI, another input ''and'' encoding convention for Vietnamese alphabet.
**VIQR, another standard 7-bit ''input method'' for Vietnamese alphabet.
**VISCII, another standard 8-bit ''encoding'' for Vietnamese alphabet.
**Unicode, character encoding standard for most of the world's writing systems
*Gregerson, Kenneth J. (1969). A study of Middle Vietnamese phonology. ''Bulletin de la Société des Etudes Indochinoises'', ''44'', 135–193. (Published version of the author's MA thesis, University of Washington). (Reprinted 1981, Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics).
*Healy, Dana.(2003). ''Teach Yourself Vietnamese'', Hodder Education, London.
*Nguyen, Đang Liêm. (1970). ''Vietnamese pronunciation''. PALI language texts: Southeast Asia. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
*Nguyễn, Đình-Hoà. (1955). ''Quốc-ngữ: The modern writing system in Vietnam''. Washington, D. C.: Author.
*Nguyễn, Đình-Hoà. (1996). Vietnamese. In P. T. Daniels, & W. Bright (Eds.), ''The world's writing systems'', (pp. 691–699). New York: Oxford University Press. .
*Nguyễn, Đình-Hoà. (1997). ''Vietnamese: Tiếng Việt không son phấn''. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company. .
*Pham, Andrea Hoa. (2003). ''Vietnamese tone: A new analysis.'' Outstanding dissertations in linguistics. New York: Routledge. (Published version of author's 2001 PhD dissertation, University of Florida: Hoa, Pham. ''Vietnamese tone: Tone is not pitch''). .
*Thompson, Laurence E. (1991). ''A Vietnamese reference grammar''. Seattle: University of Washington Press. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. . (Original work published 1965).
* Nguyen, A. M. (2006). ''Let's learn the Vietnamese alphabet''. Las Vegas: Viet Baby.
* Shih, Virginia Jing-yi. ''Quoc Ngu Revolution: A Weapon of Nationalism in Vietnam''. 1991.
Vietnamese Unicode FAQs
Category:Vietnamese writing systems