The Vietnamese language did not achieve status as an official language until the 20th century, when the country of Vietnam gained independence from French rule.
With a past colored first by Chinese and later by French political domination, the modern Vietnamese language we know today claims a wide variety of influences that played a significant part in its development.
Classification of the Vietnamese Language
The Vietnamese language is classified as part of the Viet-Muong subfamily of the Vietic group of the Mon-Khmer family, part of the Austro-Asiatic family of languages. The Austro-Asiatic language family includes approximately 150 languages found primarily throughout Southeast Asia and India, with the Khmer, Mon, and Vietnamese languages being the most significant.
The Austro-Asiatic family, believed to be at least 3,000 years old, consists of two subfamilies, Munda and Mon-Khmer. Due to a number of disagreements and controversies regarding classification and heritage, there is still a great deal of disagreement when it comes to classifying the various Austro-Asiatic languages.
Chinese Influences on the Early Vietnamese Language
Chinese was the primary influence on the Vietnamese language for many centuries, as China dominated the area politically around the 2nd century BC. A significant amount of Vietnamese vocabulary includes loan-words from the Chinese language, notably words that convey abstract meanings.
The written Vietnamese language utilized a modified Chinese language alphabet, combining modified Chinese characters, known as Chur nom, and standard Chinese characters, known as Han tur, until the 17th century. At this time, Quoc-ngu – the Vietnamese writing system used today – was developed.
Vietnamese Writing and the Development of Quoc-ngu
The writing system used for the Vietnamese language is referred to as “Quoc-ngu,” meaning literally “national language.” Based on a modified Roman alphabet, Quoc-ngu was developed by Portuguese missionaries hoping to bring Christianity to the Vietnamese peoples in the 17th century. Various accents and signs were added in order to allow for certain tones found in the Vietnamese language that could not be conveyed with a regular Roman alphabet.
Quoc-ngu was further developed by French missionary Alexandre de Rhodes in the 17th century. Quoc-ngu initially was used primarily in Vietnamese Christian communities; however, the French administration declared it mandatory in 1910. Today, Quoc-ngu is the official writing system of Vietnam and is taught in the schools and used throughout the country.
French Colonization and the Vietnamese Language
With the French invasion of Vietnam in the late 19th century, the French language came to replace Chinese as the primary language of use for government and educational purposes in Vietnam. Vietnam remained under French rule until 1954.
During this period of French colonialism, the Vietnamese language was called “annamese,” and French served as the primary language used for administration purposes. Although French dominated the realms of government and education, the Vietnamese language was still spoken in the country.
Throughout French colonialism, a number of French words were adopted and adapted by the Vietnamese language, including “dam” (from “madam”) and “ga” (meaning train station, from the French word “gare”).
It was not until Vietnam achieved independence from France that the Vietnamese language gained official status in the country. The need for a simplified standardized writing system encouraged further development of Quon-ngu, which still serves as the official language of Vietnam.
Dialects of the Vietnamese Language: Effects of Division and Reunification
Most linguists agree on the classification of three primary Vietnamese language dialects: North, Central, and South. In addition to these three regional dialects, some linguists have also made a case for a distinct North-Central dialect. Most of these are mutually intelligible, meaning that speakers of one dialect are easily able to understand those speakers of another dialect. Exceptions may occur when it comes to other extremely rural dialects.
An interesting aspect of the division of Vietnamese dialects arises from the country’s 1954 division. With the declaration of the Geneva Accords, which divided the country into Northern and Southern Vietnam, a large number of northern Vietnamese moved south, while a smaller portion of southern Vietnamese moved north.
A similar wave of migration ensued with the reunification of Vietnam from 1975-76. The results of these migrations are still seen today, with significant numbers of southern-dialect speaking Vietnamese in the north and vice versa.
Vietnamese Language Reforms of the 1970s
By the mid-20th century, the writing system of Quoc-ngu dominated the written Vietnamese language. This system underwent significant changes in the post-independence period, from 1954 to 1974.
Thanks to these adjustments, the Quoc-ngu script now reflects a “Middle Vietnamese” dialect which combines aspects of both northern and southern dialects. In general, vowels and final consonants reflect a northern influence, while initial consonants reflect a southern influence. It is believed that this Vietnamese language is similar to the dialect spoken around the Hanoi region in the 1600s.
The Vietnamese Language Today
The Vietnamese language is spoken by more than 70 million people around the world. Vietnamese serves as the national and official language of Vietnam, where it is the mother tongue of a majority of Vietnamese and also a second language of many minority groups living in the country. It is also spoken by a number of immigrant Vietnamese populations overseas, notably in the United States.
Contemporary Vietnamese has retained many of the Chinese and French language influences which have played a role in its development throughout history. Thanks to Vietnam’s increasing contact with other countries in the 20th century, the Vietnamese language has also picked up a number of English phrases, notably “tivi,” from the English “TV.”
Vietnamese Quick Facts
Alternate Names & Spellings: Kinh, Gin, Jing, Ching, Viet, Annamese
Language Family: Austro-Asiatic, Mon-Khmer, Viet-Muong
Official Language of: Vietnam
Spoken by Approximately 70,000,000 people
Also Spoken In: United States
- Cambodian Translation
- Chinese Translation
- English Translation
- French Translation
- Hmong Translation
- Khmer Translation
- Vietnamese Translation
Learn About Other Languages
Spanish (Latin America)