is the official language of Vietnam and is spoken throughout
the country, albeit with variations of dialect. English
is the second language, superseding Russian, which was dropped
after the USSR collapsed. Some French is spoken, mainly
by older people in the south.
of Vietnam’s fifty-four ethnic groups speak their own language,
and some K’mer is spoken in the Mekong Delta close to the
career opportunities in tourism and international trade have
been a stimulus for young people to become fluent in Japanese,
Chinese or Western European languages.
ancient oral tradition with a recent written form
The spoken Vietnamese language has its origins in Asiatic
and Sino-Tibetian languages, but for centuries Chinese characters
was the only written language. In the latter part of the last
millennium, demotic Vietnamese
script appeared but its development was superseded by
today’s Romanised script. Originally developed by a Jesuit
missionary in the 17th century and used by the Church and
the colonialists, it was only adopted as the national script
at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Although Chinese characters
have been swept into the dustbin of history, it's remarkable
how much their spirit lives on, both in the Vietnamese vocabulary
and, ironically, in the writing system.
In fact, the practice of representing
each syllable as one 'word', which is the common practice
in modern Vietnamese, is actually a throwback to the old concept
that each Chinese character is equivalent to one word. For
instance, 'Hanoi', which is spoken as one word, is written
in Vietnamese as Ha Noi.
crucial importance of the tones
Vietnamese is a monosyllabic language that uses variations
of pitch, called ‘tones’, to differentiate between several
meanings of the same word. There are five tones, identified
in the written form by tone markers. To complicate things
further, apart from those familiar to English-speakers, there
are an additional six vowels identified in the written form
by diacritics, three diphthongs and ten consonant clusters,
each with different pronunciation.
In English, differences in pitch are used to convey different
implications or emphasis – a rising tone at the end of a sentence
indicates a question or a surprised reaction. A falling tone
shows disappointment or suspicion. In Vietnamese, a change
of pitch changes the meaning of the word. As the pitch variation
is almost imperceptible to the untutored ear, the opportunities
for confusion (and acute embarrassment!) are legion. As many
foreign diplomats and dignitaries anxious to make an initial
impression by attempting a few words of their hosts’ tongue
have learned to their cost, Vietnamese is not an easy language!
English speakers have grown used to hearing mangled versions
of their language spoken by people from all over the world.
As a result, they can usually guess what is being said despite
poor pronunciation. As Vietnamese is only spoken in Vietnam,
most people here have no experience of hearing it mispronounced.
For a visitor, even the slightest mistake with a tone can
turn a carefully-crafted sentence into gobbledegook.
good try pays dividends
Nevertheless, for visitors it’s worth taking the time to learn
a few common phrases from the back of your guidebook. Even
being able to pronounce xin chao (‘hello’, pronounced ‘sin
chow’ with a falling tone on the second word) and cam on (‘thank
you’, pronounced ‘kam uhn’ with the last syllable drawn out)
will please Vietnamese people.
tourism has made the presence of foreigners less unusual,
foreign languages less of a mystery, and English more widespread,
so language difficulties are a diminishing problem.