When people visit Vietnam, they are surprised to discover that Vietnam does use Chinese-looking characters or scripts like in any part of Asia; Vietnam uses a Latin alphabet-based system for their writing.
A Portuguese Jesuit priest is credited as the first to transliterate the Vietnamese language into the Latin alphabet. Over time the Vietnamese have adopted this Latin alphabet as their main written form of language. The Vietnamese alphabet has 29 letters, diacritical marks, and tones.
Vietnam and the Latin Alphabet
The Vietnamese alphabet is a modern Latin writing script developed by Jesuit priests in the 17th Century for the written Vietnamese language. The Vietnamese alphabet uses a Latin script credited to be developed by the Portuguese Jesuit priest Francisco de Pina.
Francisco de Pina was born in 1585 in Guarda, Portugal. In 1605 he entered the Jesuit order. Between 1611 and 1617, he studied at St, Paul College in Macau. Studying in Macau would have helped him to understand a tonal language like Chinese. At his college, he also studied under Joao Rodrigues Tcuzu, who pioneered the transliteration of Japanese into the Latin alphabet.
In 1617 Pina arrived in Vietnam and worked in the area known today as Hoi An and Qui Nhon, the central part of Vietnam. Pina lived in Hoa An Vietnam, but his missionary work in Vietnam spread to other locations.
Pina was unique because he spoke fluent Vietnamese; he is considered the first European to speak fluent Vietnamese. He felt being fluent in Vietnamese was important for his missionary work in Vietnam.
Pina started to record the Vietnamese language into the Latin characters; it was his work of transliterating Vietnamese into the Latin alphabet, which is the basis of the Vietnamese language as we know it today.
Pina used his transliterating to teach other Jesuit priests and disciples the Vietnamese language. He was a great believer that they needed to know and understand Vietnamese for them to be successful in their missionary work in Vietnam.
One of those he taught the Vietnamese alphabet and writing system to was the French or Avignonese Jesuit missionary named Alexandre de Rhode. Rhode also deserves credit for his work with the Vietnamese writing system into the Latin alphabet.
After spending 12 years in Vietnam and mastering the Vietnamese languages, Rhodes returned to Europe. In Rome in 1651, Rhodes published a dictionary called “Dictionarium Annamiticum Lusitanum et Latinum,” or the dictionary of Vietnamese, Portuguese, and Latin languages.
This dictionary had a lasting impact on both the Vietnamese language and the pursuit of Christianity in Vietnam. This dictionary from 1651 began to help establish the Vietnamese alphabet as a Latin-based alphabet.
Gradually and over time, these Jesuit priests’ Vietnamese Latin alphabet system became Vietnam’s main alphabet. From about 111 BC to parts of the early 20th Century, Vietnamese wrote literature in the Vietnamese form of Chinese characters known as “Nôm.” In Vietnam today, very few people can still read the “Nôm” script.
The Vietnamese language used the Latin alphabet because of these Jesuit priests who came to Vietnam with the main objective to convert the Vietnamese to Christianity. Transliterating the Vietnamese language into Latin script made it easier for western priests and missionaries to learn the Vietnamese language.
The Vietnamese Alphabet
The Portuguese Jesuit Priests created the Vietnamese alphabet based on the Latin alphabet. What is so interesting about the Vietnamese alphabet is that it uses many things which are standard to a Latin alphabet.
Here are some characteristics about the Vietnamese Latin-base alphabet:
Uses 29 Letters
The Vietnamese alphabet, also known as “chữ Quốc ngữ” or script of the National language, has 29 letters (compared to 26 in the English alphabet). This Latin script is based on the romance languages script. Those who speak Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, Romanian, and Catalan may feel similarities in the Vietnamese script and their languages.
The Vietnamese language does not use the letters “f, j, w, and z” for their alphabet.
The Vietnamese alphabet has 7 letters using 4 diacritics marks. These letters are: ă, â/ê/ô, ơ/ư, đ.
A diacritic which is also known as a diacritical mark, diacritical point, diacritical sign, or accent) is a glyph or mark that is added to a letter. Diacritics are used mainly in a Latin script to change the sound values of the letters they are added to.
For example, in Vietnamese, if you have a “d,” it has a sound like “de,” but if you add a diacritic or a line through the d to the d to make it “đ” the sound, now becomes “ze.”
Has Five Tones
Vietnamese, like many Asian languages, is a tonal language. The language uses 5 additional diacritics or tone signs to designate what the tone is for the word. The examples of the tones are “à, á, ả, ã, and ạ.”
As a westerner, the hardest part I have found in learning Vietnamese is the tones. I may say something in Vietnamese – I am sure I have pronounced it correctly – but the Vietnamese will have a look of confusion on their face or sometimes just outright laugh at what I tried to say in Vietnamese.
Some of the tones are much easier to hear, such as the short tone, but others can sound or seem similar. And on top of that, the way things sound or how the tones are used can be different in different parts of Vietnam.
Here is an example in the Vietnamese language:
“Bấy nay bây bày bảy bẫy bậy“
To a westerner, all these words may look about the same, but to a Vietnamese, they are all different words that are pronounced differently. The translation of this means, “All along, you’ve set up the seven traps incorrectly.”
It is hard for most westerners to get the Vietnamese tones correct as you must hear them. I have found those who have an excellent ear and can hear a pitch do much better – I was never blessed with a great ear pitch, so I have found hearing many Vietnamese tones difficult.
In summary, the story of why Vietnamese use the Latin alphabet is hundreds of years in the making. The alphabet came from Jesuit priests who wanted to convert the Vietnamese to Christianity, and along the way, they left a Vietnamese alphabet and writing system that is still relevant today.
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