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Vietnamese Language

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Overview: Vietnamese and its several dialects are spoken primarily in Vietnam and other East Asian countries, but there are large communities of Vietnamese speakers in the United States and Australia, as well. Increased travel between the Northern and Southern regions of Vietnam have led to a mixing of accents in the twentieth century, becoming more pronounced as the dialects of the country continue to evolve. It is a heavily influenced language, especially by Chinese in earlier centuries, and later by French (through colonialism) and English (through globalization).

Roots of the language: Linguists have had a lot of trouble classifying the origins of Vietnamese. It has borrowed so much from foreign languages near and far, over the course of so many centuries, that there are several superficial characteristics that might seem to tie it to one group or another. The true roots of the Vietnamese language are still obscured by the huge impact foreign languages have had on its development, and the linguistic community has yet to reach a full consensus.

Chinese has been a major influence on Vietnamese, and so on the surface it appeared to belong to the Sino-Tibetan language family. Further investigation, however, revealed unrelated roots that dated back to an earlier language tradition. It was then thought that Vietnamese was more closely related to Thai, but this too was a surface layer. It is now generally thought that Vietnamese branched from the Austro-Asiatic language family, with its closest relatives being the Khmer language of Cambodia and several minority languages in India, Bangladesh, and other areas of Southeast Asia.

Language characteristics: Vietnamese, like Chinese, is a tonal language and therefore has a large number of vowels and different ways to pronounce them. Subtly changing the tone of a vowel can change the meaning of the entire word, making the written language at times easier to understand than the spoken one. Also like Chinese, Vietnamese is what is known as an “analytic” language, which is to say that it uses separate words to define tense and gender rather than modifying root words. Both today and in the distant past, Vietnamese has often created new terms by forming compound words. These compound words can even combine native Vietnamese words with borrowings from other languages (there are a high number of Vietnamese-Chinese compounds, for instance).

Written form: The people of Vietnam originally borrowed the character set of the Chinese in order to write things, but after a while they created a variant that modified the characters to reflect their own phonetic vernacular. Educated Vietnamese have traditionally written either in Classical Chinese or using the more complicated Vietnamese variant. Latin script was then introduced to their country in the seventeenth century by Portuguese missionaries, who wanted to Romanize the Vietnamese language in order to help spread Christianity. The Vietnamese alphabet uses Latin letters as a base and modifies them to indicate non-Latin phonetic aspects.

Once present-day Vietnam became part of the French colonial empire, the Latinized script became the official written language and has remained so even after Vietnam’s independence. The institution of a Latin-based writing system proved to be a two-edged sword for the Vietnamese people; a Latinized alphabet is far easier to learn than a system of Chinese characters, enabling most of Vietnam’s population to become literate, but at the same time distancing them from their traditional literature.

Last Updated : April 21, 2015



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