Monday, December 10, 2012

Language Profile: Vietnamese

This week, we're taking a look at Vietnamese. It's the official language of Vietnam and boasts over 68.6 million native speakers, which is fairly impressive given the relatively small geographic area in which it is spoken! It is also the most spoken member of the Austro-Asiatic language family.

Although Vietnamese has been spoken for hundreds of years, it was not an official language until the 20th century. For many centuries, Classical Chinese was spoken in what is now Vietnam. In the 13th century, a writing system called Chữ Nôm was developed for use in literature. This logographic writing system used characters borrowed from Chinese, as well as invented characters that were often modified Chinese characters used to represent Vietnamese words. This script is rarely used in the present day, though the occasional scholar or elderly person may know how to read it.


The Mã Pí Lèng mountain pass.

Nowadays, the Vietnamese alphabet is used to write the language. It's a Latin-based script that is based on the Portuguese alphabet. How do the Portuguese figure into all this? Well, in the 16th century, some Christian missionaries from Portugal arrived in Vietnam to try to gain new followers. These missionaries, like many others at the time, decided that the best way to do so would be to write the Bible in the native language. In order to make it easier on themselves, they decided to transcribe the Vietnamese language into Latin script, with diacritics used to denote different tones. After a period of French colonialism ended with Vietnam's independence, Vietnamese became the official language of the area for the first time.


The Presidential Palace of Vietnam in Hanoi, which was built
during their period of French colonization.

The switch from the logographic system to the mostly phonetic Latin-based script did wonders for the literacy rates in Vietnam. A majority of Vietnamese people couldn't read or write before the 20th century, but since the widespread adoption of the Vietnamese alphabet, almost all are literate. This is mainly due to the amount of education required... it can take years to learn and memorize all the characters in 
Chữ Nôm, whereas learning the Vietnamese alphabet is much simpler. However, there are some that argue that the Vietnamese people have been separated from their traditional literature now that the vast majority of them do not know how to read the Chữ Nôm characters.

Not surprisingly given its history, about 60 percent of Vietnamese words have Chinese roots. The language also contains many loanwords from French such as cà phê (from the French café), as well as English words like TV due to the influence of Western culture. You might also be interested to know it is often easy to distinguish Vietnamese from other languages due to its frequent use of diacritics...  it's not uncommon to find more than one diacritic on a letter!


Ho Chi Minh City Hall

There are also a couple of language games played by Vietnamese speakers. The most common is called nói lái, which involves switching the order of syllables and tones to produce a new word or phrase. Sometimes the results have a different meaning, and sometimes they just produce amusing nonsense. Another popular language game involves adding a random syllable such as "la" to words and then rearranging syllables. This game is mainly used by children in the same way that Pig Latin is used by young English speakers, as a "secret" language to avoid being understood by those pesky adults who won't go away. Sounds fun to us!