A Brief Guide To The Vietnamese Language And Culture

More than 90 million people around the world are native speakers of Vietnamese, the language of Vietnam. It's also widely used in neighboring Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia, the sixth most-spoken language in Australia, and it is also officially recognized as a minority language in the Czech Republic. 

In this blog, we'll look at the origin of the Vietnamese language, the Chinese and French influence on the evolution of the language, as well as the Vietnamese writing system and its near future. Around 86% of Vietnam's population natively speak Vietnamese. That leaves 14% who are part of the country's 54 other recognized ethnic groups with their own separate languages.

Vietnamese is the only official language in the country of Vietnam. It is the first or second language for many ethnic minorities in Vietnam, as some mountain tribes also speak their language. Vietnamese is within the 20 most spoken languages in the world, spoken by 80 million people worldwide. It is part of the Austro-Asiatic family and has Chinese, as well as French influence. It used to be written with Chinese characters, but these days, it is written with a Latin alphabet with diacritics for the tone and some extra vowels. The letters of F, J, W, and Z are used only to write foreign words. There are three major dialects of the language that can be classified geographically: north (Hanoi), south (Ho-Chi-Minh-City), central (Hue).i

Vietnamese is a tonal language and is linked to Thai, from Thailand, and Khmer, the official language of Cambodia. Alongside Vietnamese, Chinese, Khmer, and also Cham are the foreign tongues most spoken as a first language in Vietnam. 

In the big cities and tourist areas of the south, it is not too difficult to communicate in English because Vietnam has become a place of interest for travelers from all over the globe. Due to huge demand, the state has set up programs to improve English-language classes in many schools. However, if you decide to go to smaller cities or villages, you should try to know a little Vietnamese. Even if your counterpart knows English, he or she will be delighted if you can say simple Vietnamese language basics like 'chào (hello)' or 'cảm ơn (thank you).' If you need further assistance, be sure to check out our language translation services!

The origin and history of the Vietnamese language in brief

Also known as Annamese, Vietnamese is part of the enormous Austro-Asiatic language family. That means it comes from the same roots as Khmer in Cambodia and several other languages spoken by minorities in the surrounding regions. But it, like the nation from which it arises, has a long and complicated history. The language has six official periods - Pre-Vietnamese, Proto-Vietnamese, Archaic Vietnamese, Ancient Vietnamese, Middle Vietnamese, and Modern Vietnamese.

By way of illustrating age, the whole millennium (from the 2nd to the 10th centuries AD) during which the Han Dynasty of China ruled Vietnam took place before the "ancient" form of the language developed. No doubt, a thousand years of Chinese rule had a huge and lasting influence on the tongue. But, weirdly, not in the manner you might think. Archaic Vietnamese and everything after it indeed rely on a considerable amount of Chinese vocabulary and grammar. However, these were adopted so that they were adapted to fit Vietnamese, not the other way around.

Today, it's estimated that almost 50-70% of Vietnamese vocabulary arises from Chinese. But most of these loanwords have been changed in a way that some experts have labeled as being "Vietnamised." From the 11th to the 17th century, Vietnam was a free country, but it was virtually continuously in a state of civil war.

French influence on the Vietnamese language during colonial times

France defeated Vietnam and converted it into a province in the late 19th century. It wasn't until after World War II that following a short term of Japanese rule in the 1940s, the nation recovered something of its previous freedom. This liberation was earned through serial conflicts against outside powers.

During its period of control from 1884 to 1945, the French influence on the Vietnamese language was immense. It became the language of government and was formally taught in classes. French influence on Modern Vietnamese is not as high as that of Chinese. But, in much the very way as occurred with Chinese throughout Han rule almost a thousand years earlier, parts of the French lexicon became part of the language. Again, Vietnamese mostly succeeded in adopting and "Vietnamise" terms from French rather than move towards being more like it.

You can most fully see the influences of various languages in some quarters of modern Vietnamese vocabulary:

Chinese: science, medicine, government, and spirituality

French: cooking and fashion, as well as several words relating to infrastructure

English: terms relating to the latest technology

Only after the country got freedom from France that Modern Vietnamese, with its Chinese and French influence building on a linguistic history of several thousand years, was finally recognized as the official language in Vietnam.

The Vietnamese writing system and its creation

Once, there wasn't a Vietnamese writing system. It wasn't until the era of Chinese rule when the use of Chinese characters was imposed that the language gained a written equivalent. The problem was, Chinese characters alone didn't do a perfect job of relaying what was being said.

By bringing in characters that had been invented or altered locally, a hybrid system was developed. Called chu nom ("Southern Characters"), this orthography started to be used by 1200AD. Though, simultaneously, the language used in administration and scholarly circles remained Classical Chinese or chu nho. These two writing systems were in use side by side until the 19th century.

In the 17th century, a Jesuit missionary called Alexandre de Rhodes built on the work of his Portuguese missionary predecessors to create chu quoc ngu, now known as "national script." This writing style, essentially a Romanised version of Vietnamese with diacritics, had the advantage of being far more comfortable to learn than chu nom. Thus, the national script has entirely replaced the previous two writing systems by the early 20th century. If you need help with language translation from the Vietnamese language, do check out our service!

The future prospects of the Vietnamese language

The Vietnamese language has managed to survive the turbulent history of Vietnam. The language wouldn't be recognizable without adopting and altering vast sections of Chinese, parts of French, and a new writing system based on the Roman alphabet. Rather than being weakened by these, it seems to have made them it's own. But, soon, it might be facing a new challenge - English.

The influence of English has long been noticeable in Vietnam. The country's ties with and opposition to America in the mid-20th century were perhaps its first foot in the door. However, it is modern technology – the vocabulary required to use it and its spread – which have led to English gaining a foothold. It's not uncommon for many younger Vietnamese people to pepper their conversation with English words, even to the detriment of sentence structure. 

The fashion has found its way into broadcasting, to the dismay of many. In reply, the Vietnamese state has started supporting extensive education of the official language in academies. Various organizations have begun campaigns to instruct young people about both its roots and Vietnamese culture. Many Western universities also now offer Vietnamese language courses to help people learn Vietnamese language!

Thank you for reading this blog. I hope it gave you insight into the Vietnamese language and culture! We post great blogs like this regularly, so be sure to visit us soon! If you need a Vietnamese translator, our service is the best choice!

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