An insatiable appetite for ancient and modern tongues

Classification: Austroasiatic, Mon-Khmer, Vietic. Vietnamese is closely related to Muong, a language spoken in the highlands of northern and central Vietnam.

Overview. Vietnamese is, by far, the largest Austroasiatic language. But it is an atypical one due to its prolonged contact with Chinese. Vietnamese has been influenced deeply by it at every level (lexical, phonological, morphological and syntactical) in the course of one-thousand years in which Vietnam was part of the Chinese empire. Thus, Vietnamese is tonal and essentially monosyllabic, and its words are without inflections of any kind.

Distribution. Vietnamese is spoken in all of Vietnam but mainly in lowland areas. There are Vietnamese minorities in other countries of Southeast Asia, particularly in Cambodia and Laos. Vietnamese expatriates have chosen with preference North America though they are found in small numbers in many countries such as France, Australia, etc.

Speakers. They total 79 million people. It is the mother tongue of about 86 % of the population of Vietnam or 77.3 million. Another two million are found in neighboring countries and overseas: USA (1,300,000), Cambodia (400,000), Canada (170,000), Laos (76,000).

Status. Vietnamese is the official language of Vietnam.

Varieties. Vietnamese has two types of varieties. One stems from diglossia, i.e. two forms of the language coexist, literary and colloquial, each serving a different function. The former is reserved for public speeches and the mass media, the latter for all face-to-face communications. The other type of variation is represented by the regional dialects. In fact, most of them are part of a continuum from north to south though the main cities, like Hanoi, Hue and Ho Chi Minh City, have their own, more cosmopolitan, dialects.


Word structure: Vietnamese is mostly a monosyllabic language, though there are also disyllabic and polysyllabic words formed by compounding and reduplication. A syllable has a vocalic nucleus, with a single vowel or two vowels, which might be preceded by an initial consonant and/or followed by a final consonant. Vietnamese does not allow consonant clusters. The final consonant can only be a voiceless stop or a nasal while any consonant (except p) can be in initial position. Each syllable carries a tone.

Vowels (11): Vietnamese has a relatively complex vowel system which includes five front-central vowels and six back vowels. The former are all unrounded and the latter are divided, evenly, between rounded and unrounded. Besides, it has up to 20 diphthongs.


Consonants (24): The Vietnamese consonantal system is distinguished for having retroflex sounds and a large number of voiceless and voiced fricatives. The voiceless alveolar stop has two contrasting, aspirated and unaspirated, varieties.


Tones: Vietnamese is exceptional among Austroasiatic languages in having tones which were probably acquired due to Chinese influence. Northern, standard, Vietnamese has six tones affecting the vowel of each syllable. Besides variation in pitch, Vietnamese tones are accompanied with specific voice quality contrasts (lax, tense, glottalized).

The different tones are noted in the script by means of diacritical marks, and the name of each tone is an example of that same tone (shown in the table). Numbers between brackets indicate pitch (at the beginning and end of the tone) in a scale in which 5 is the highest and 1 the lowest level; the ˀ sign indicates glottalization.

Script and Orthography

During the prolonged Chinese domination of Vietnam most writing was in Chinese using Chinese characters. Writing in Vietnamese proper started only after the end of Chinese rule in the 10th century CE. For that purpose, was devised the so-called demotic characters or ch nôm (‘southern script’). It also used Chinese characters but now pronounced in Vietnamese. Later, in the 17th century, the Jesuits created a romanized script called ch quc-ng ‘national script’ which suffered a number of revisions until it reached the form current today. It replaced ch nôm and became the official system to write Vietnamese. It is shown below with its phonetic equivalents in the International Phonetic Alphabet.

Other sounds are represented by digraphs:

[f] by ph, [tʰ] by th, [ʈ] by tr, [c] by ch, [ʝ] by gi, [ɲ] by nh, [ŋ] by ng, [x] by kh                  


Vietnamese is an isolating language. Words are not inflected for person, number, gender, case, tense, aspect or mood. New words can be formed by compounding and reduplication.

  1. a)Nouns

  2. noun classifiers: classifiers are required when nouns are modified by a number or a demonstrative. They are independent words placed before the noun and after the numeral. There are two general classifiers (con for animates, cái for inanimate objects) which can occur with most nouns, but normally specific classifiers are used with certain groups of nouns (loosely) conceptually related, such as bộ (composite things), bức (flat rectangular objects), cặp (inseparable pairs), cuộc (collective actions, games, gatherings), cuốn (books), đám (entities composed of individual similar parts or amorphous), hòn (stones), tờ (papers, documents), trái (fruits and round objects). For example:

  1. con người: human being; con hát: actor; con mèo: cat; con chó: dog

  1. bộ bài: pack of cards; bộ máy: machine; bộ xương: skeleton; bộ râu: moustache

  1. bức màn: window shade; bức tranh: painting; bức vách: wall (of wood or mud)

  1. cặp mắt: eyes; cặp mắt kính: glasses; cặp ngà: tusks

  1. cuộc cờ: game of chess; cuộc chiến-tranh: war; cuộc cách-mạng: revolution

  1. cuốn sách: book; cuốn chuyện: novel; cuốn tự-vị: dictionary

  1. đám cỏ: field; đám ma: funeral procession; đám mây: cloud; đám rừng: jungle

  1. hòn đá: stone; hòn dảo: island; hòn kim cương: diamond

  1. tờ báo: newspaper; tờ giấy: sheet of paper; tờ giao kèo: contract

  1. trái cam: orange; trái dưa: melon; trái bôm: bomb; trái tim: heart; trái đất: the earth

  1. number: plural is marked by the particles những or các, preceding the noun.

  1. possession: is indicated by the marker của, preceding the noun or pronoun. When possession is evident, simple apposition may be enough.

  1. b)Pronouns

For the second person there is a variety of pronouns and kinship terms marking degrees of politeness and familiarity, like ông (for males, grandfather), (for older women, grandmother), (for younger women, paternal aunt), anh (elder brother), ch (elder sister), etc. Plurals are made with the pronominal marker chúng. Demonstratives distinguish near and distant: này (‘this, these’), nọ (‘that, those’).

In southern dialects, kinship terms followed by the demonstrative ấy (‘that, those’) function as third person pronouns, e.g. ổng (‘he’), ảnh (‘he’), bả (‘she’), cổ (‘she’), chỉ (‘she’).

  1. c)Verbs

As the verb is not marked in any way, particles are used to give a temporal and aspectual dimension: đã (past tense marker/completion), sẽ (future marker), sắp (imminent future), chưa (not yet), rồi (perfective marker), đang (progressive marker), đều (togetherness).

Negation is expressed using the negative marker không before the verb. To negate with emphasis, chẳng and chả might be used. For example:

  1. ông ấy không đến                    ông ấy chẳng đến

  2. he       not   coming                         he     not    coming (emphatic)

A passive sense is expressed by the particles b or được.

  1. d) Word Formation

It is achieved mainly by compounding while reduplication can increase or decrease intensity.

  1. Compounding

  1. Classifiers can be compounded with adjectives or verbs to form nouns:

  2. cái (classifier) + đẹp (beautiful) →  cái đẹp (beauty)

  3. cuộc (classifier) + đình-công (to be on strike) →  cuộc đình-công (a strike)

  1. Two nouns combined may produce a different one:

  2. nước (water) + đá (stone) →  nước-đá (ice)

  3. xe (vehicle) + lửa (fire) → xe-lửa (train)

  4. bàn (table) + ghế (chair) → bàn-ghế (furniture)

  1. A verb compounded with a noun can create a new noun:

  2. học (to study) + trò (child) →  học-trò (pupil)

  3. thành (become) + phần (part) → thành-phần (component)

  1. Reduplication

  2. sạch (clean)  →  sạch sạch (be rather clean)

  3. nói (to talk) →  nói nói (keep talking and talking)

  1. e) Word Order

Due to the lack of inflections, word order is crucial. It is Subject-Verb-Object. The subject normally precedes its verb while the direct object normally follows it and precedes the indirect object.

The noun phrase consists of a head-noun which may be followed by other noun, or a pronoun, a place-noun, an adjective, or demonstrative.

  1. phòng khách

  2. room   guest

  3. noun + noun

  4. guest room

  1. ngón giữa

  2. finger middle

  3. noun + place noun

  4. middle finger  

  1. tht sống

  2. meat raw

  3. noun + adjective

  4. raw meat

  1. cô này

  2. lady this

  3. noun + demonstrative

  4. this lady

Numerals and demonstratives often require a classifier. When a classifier is used the usual order is: numeral-classifier-noun and classifier-noun  demonstrative:

  1. ba  tờ  giấy

  2. three CL  paper

  3. three sheets of paper

  1. con bò ấy

  2. CL cow that

  3. that cow

The verb phrase consists of a head-verb that may be followed by one or two noun phrases (NP):

  1. gửi tiền         cho bố

  2. send money  to his father

  3. verb NP 1(OD) NP 2  (OI)

The head-verb may be also followed by a second verb, a place-noun, a numeral, an adjective or an adverb of manner:

  1. ngủ ngồi

  2. sleep sit

  3. verb + verb

  4. fall asleep on one's chair

  1. về nhất

  2. finish first

  3. verb + numeral

  4. finish first

  1. bôi   bẩn

  2. spread dirty

  3. verb + adjective

  4. smear

Complements of time, location, cause, etc, may be added to the subject and predicate. The subject can be dropped. Sentences tend to have known information at the beginning and new information at the end. A noun phrase can be highlighted by placing it at the beginning of the sentence.


The majority of Vietnamese content words are of Chinese origin while function words (i. e. those that play a grammatical role) are native. There are also French loanwords but in much smaller proportion.

Basic Vocabulary

Key Literary Works (for simplicity, author's names and titles are without diacritics)

early 15th c.    Quoc Am Thi Tap (Collected Poems in the National Language). Nguyen Trai

  1. Nguyen Trai, besides writing in Chinese as was the norm in his time, composed a number of poems in Vietnamese employing the chu nom script after retiring from court life. This collection of 254 poems expresses his disenchantment with politics and his preference for the quiet pleasures of the countryside.

  1. 16th c.    Bach Van Quoc Ngu Thi Tap (White Clouds Poetry Collection in the National

  2. Language). Nguyen Bihn Khiem

  3. Like Nguyen Trai, Nguyen Bihn Kiem abandoned an administrative career for a rural life. His poems speak of the vanity of worldly affairs and of the joys provided by the contemplation of nature. Besides, he criticizes corrupt officials who take advantage of the common people.

  1. late 18th c.    Cun Oan Ngam Khuc (A Concubine’s Complaint). Nguyen Gia Thieu

  2. A plaintive poem composed in the ngam style (a lament to be recited in a low voice),  that tells about a royal concubine rejected by the king, after a brief period of favor, and forced to live in isolation. Inspired by Buddhism, the author derides worldly aspirations and expresses his displeasure with the political system of his epoch.

  1. c. 1800    Chin Phu Ngam (Lament of a Soldier’s Wife). Phan Huy Ich

  2. A moving anti-war poem written firstly in Chinese that was translated into Vietnamese and adapted by several authors. The best-known version is that of Phan Huy Ich. Written also in the ngam style, it is the lament of a wife for her husband sent to war.

  1. c. 1815    Truyen Kieu (The Tale of Kieu). Nguyen Du

  2. Nguyen Du transformed a Chinese novel from the Ming period into Vietnamese poetry resorting to a simple meter of alternating six and eight lines. This long poem recounts the suffering life of Thuy Kieu, a beautiful and learned young woman, who to save her father and younger brother from prison, has to sold herself into marriage and, after being cheated, into prostitution. On the one hand, the author explores the idea of karmic retribution for past sins, and on the other shows the cruelty and injustice of early 19th century society. This work has become the most popular of Vietnamese literature and a sort of national epic.

  1. 1938    Buoc Duong Cung (Impasse). Nguyen Cong Hoan

  2. Relates the misadventures of a northern peasant, victim of the machinations of a landlord who tries to take his land, and of the abuses of the judicial system. A passive character in the beginning, he becomes in his struggle more assertive and lucid.

  1. 1939    Tat Den (When the Light's Put Out). Ngo Tat To

  2. A realist novel exposing the evils of the French taxation system in the colonial period, implemented with the aid of corrupt local officials who don't have scruples in exploiting the peasants in the most shameful way.

  1. 1987    Tuong Ve Hū (The General Retires and other Stories). Nguyen Huy Thiep

  2. A collection of short stories depicting contemporaneous Vietnamese society. "The General Retires" is about the grief of an old general who, after many years in the battlefield, comes back to civil society and feels alienated by its emptiness. The other stories tell about childhood, the lives of Vietnamese peasants, the world of fishermen…

  1. 1991    Tieu Thuyet Vo De (Novel Without a Name). Duong Thu Huong

  2. A former volunteer in the North Vietnamese army and one of only three survivors of her brigade, Duon Thu Huonh started to challenge the orthodox view of the Vietnam War in 1988 with the novel "Paradise of the Blind". In "Novel Without a Name", the protagonist is a twenty-eight-year-old chief of battalion who has spent ten years fighting in the jungle witnessing the loss of his and his soldiers' ideals. They become indifferent to violence and their only concern is to satisfy their basic needs.

  1. 1991    Than Phan Cua Tinh Yeu (The Sorrow of War). Bao Ninh

  2. This novel, also written by a survivor of the Vietnamese war, tells about the disenchantment of a former soldier with postwar society and his difficulty in adjusting to it.

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati                                                                               

Further Reading

  1. -A Vietnamese Grammar. L. C. Thompson. University of Washington Press (1965).

  2. -Vietnamese. Nguyen Dình-Hoà. John Benjamins (1997).

  3. -'Vietnamese'. Nguyen Dình-Hoà. In The World’s Major Languages, 677-692. B. Comrie (ed). Routledge (2009).

  4. -'Vietnamese'. J. Edmondson. In Concise Encyclopedia of Languages of the World, 1149-1153. K. Brown & S. Ogilvie (eds). Elsevier (2009).

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