Issue 6 |

Kinh of my heart: The story of Vietnamese orthography

by on February 19, 2016

If you’ve ever had the pleasure of trying to decipher something written in Vietnamese, you might soon come to realise that while it may look familiar at first glance, it begins to descend into incomprehensibility the more you look at it. Amidst the usual Bs and Hs, other strange letters pop out. The Ds seem to have extra lines in them, the Os have little tendrils snaking out of one side and the As are balancing bowls on their heads. After an hour of trying to make sense of the script, you give up and decide to treat yourself to some piping hot pho. You ask the nice Vietnamese lady for a bowl, and she looks at you quizzically. You repeat yourself, saying the word “pho” louder. The lady finally says “ah, you want phở!” She scoops you a generous helping. You scurry away and resolve never to eat delicious Vietnamese food again until you’ve mastered the vagaries of the Vietnamese writing system.

Vietnam through the centuries: Chinese influence

To understand why Vietnamese is written in a way that seems peculiar to Western eyes, we must delve into the rich social and linguistic history of Vietnam and its relationship with the world at large. The Vietnamese people first inhabited a land called Van Lang, located in the north-eastern corner of the Indochinese peninsula. Through the centuries, they slowly expanded and consolidated their territorial gains, such that modern day Vietnam stretches from the capital Hanoi in the north, to Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon, in the south. Their language, Vietnamese, is a language of the Austroasiatic family, related to the Khmer spoken in neighbouring Cambodia, though it is the only one in the language family to be tonal (that is, changing your pitch when you say a word often alters its meaning). Some linguists have postulated that Vietnamese developed a tonal language system due to contact with the Chinese languages, spoken by its giant neighbour to the north, and indeed, such interaction is a recurrent theme in Vietnam’s history.

By virtue of it sharing a border with China, Vietnam was long dominated by its historically powerful neighbour for multiple periods until the 15th century AD. As a result of these, well, intense cultural relations, Vietnamese has been very much influenced by classical Chinese civilisation, the most evident being its writing system prior to colonisation. Vietnamese was originally written with a Chinese-based script called Chữ Nôm. Chữ Nôm could often take years to master due to there being thousands of logographs or characters which had to be memorised. Additionally, these Chinese-derived characters were modified to express letters and tones which did not exist in Chinese; for example, Vietnamese has six tones, while Middle Chinese had four.

As a result of the complexity of Chữ Nôm, only a small percentage of the population was literate—mostly the elite who were able to afford Confucian tutors who were masters of the arts and writing. This situation continued on for quite some time, until the 16th century, when peculiar pale-skinned people started coming to Vietnam, bringing with them new ideas on governance, thinking, and religion.

The coming of the Người Nước Ngoài: The age of colonialism

European contact with Vietnam seems to have previously taken place only sporadically, with Marco Polo making one of the few recorded European stopovers in 1292. This, however, changed with the advent of the European Age of Exploration in the 16th century, when Portuguese navigators crossed the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa and established permanent contact with other parts of the world. Indeed, the Portuguese were the first to arrive in what is now Hoi An in Central Vietnam in 1535, where their attempts to set up a trading post did not come to pass, followed shortly after by the Dutch, and subsequently, the French.

With the Europeans came Christianity, and there was intense missionary activity to try to convert the Vietnamese from Confucianism to this new European religion. Amidst all the zeal and fervour, a French Jesuit missionary named Alexandre de Rhodes developed Quốc Ngữ from 1624 to 1644, a script based on the Latin alphabet that incorporated earlier attempts by Portuguese missionaries to create a writing system that would allow the whole Vietnamese population to read the Bible and thus to understand the good news of Jesus Christ, as opposed to translating the Bible into Chữ Nôm, which could only be read by a few. Quốc Ngữ gradually gained popularity and completely supplanted Chữ Nôm as the French solidified their empire in Indochina. This situation continues today, with the literacy rate of Vietnamese reaching 90%[i].

So close yet so far: Interesting aspects of the Vietnamese alphabet

Quốc Ngữ is the way it is because it was developed by Europeans (Portuguese, French, and Italian), who brought the idiosyncrasies of their own writing systems into the Vietnamese alphabet. This was compounded by the fact that there existed numerous phonemes (or discrete units of pronunciation) in Vietnamese that were alien to European languages. A few of these interesting phonemes are explained further below.


Not an airy N, the English approximation of this consonant is found in the “ny” in the word “canyon”. This consonant is represented as “nh” in Portuguese, and found its way into Quốc Ngữ as well. An example of a Vietnamese word that contains this is “Kinh”, which is what the Vietnamese call themselves. Due to dialectal differences between north and south Vietnam, the word is pronounced “King” in the Hanoi dialect (which is the standard variety of Vietnamese).


This is pronounced similar to the “ch” in “church”, and was an approximation of what the Europeans thought the consonant sounded like when transposed on the Latin alphabet (maybe hearing aids were in short supply).


You may think that this is pronounced like the “d” in dog but you couldn’t be more wrong. This consonant was pronounced similar to the “th” in “though” and “this” in the Vietnamese that was spoken in the 17th century, where D was the closest Portuguese approximation. Due to changes in the Vietnamese language through the years, this is currently pronounced like the “z” in “zoo” in the Hanoi dialect.


This interesting consonant is how the “d” in “dog” is represented in Vietnamese. Congratulations, you now know how to pronounce the consonants in the name Ngô Đình Diệm (good luck to you on the vowels though).

One bowl of Phở please!

You now have a better understanding of the Vietnamese alphabet, a fascinating writing system that also encapsulates Vietnam’s modern history within itself. There however remain some lingering issues with regard to its use. While the ease of reading Quốc Ngữ has certainly brought a lot of benefit to Vietnam as a whole, some have argued that the Vietnamese have now been cut off from their cultural and linguistic heritage as the vast bulk of it is in Chữ Nôm which is functionally incomprehensible to them. These issues will continue to be in play as Vietnam progresses as a country, and finds its place in the world. With these thoughts swimming in your head as you tuck in to your delicious bowl of Phở, you look to the Vietnamese lady, and smile wistfully to yourself. Maybe tomorrow you’ll chop a baguette and make some bánh mì.


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