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Number of Speakers: Approximately 59 million

Key Dialects: Northern Vietnamese (Tonkinese), Central Vietnamese (High Annamese), Southern Vietnamese (Cochinchinese)

Geographical Center: Vietnam

Vietnamese is spoken mainly along the coastal plains, river deltas, and adjacent highlands of the eastern portion of the Indo-Chinese Peninsula. The 59 million people who speak Vietnamese (Grimes 1992) live mainly in Vietnam and the adjacent countries of Southeast Asia. Vietnamese is the official language of Vietnam. As a result of economic and cultural development, particularly in the north, Vietnamese is also widely used as a second language by many of the mountain-dwelling ethnic minorities and in neighboring countries like Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand where a significant Vietnamese population exists.

A significant number of Vietnamese speakers lives overseas, notably in the United States (600,000) France (10,000), and to a lesser extent in Canada, Australia, Senegal, and Cote d'Ivoire (Grimes 1992).

Vietnamese is one of approximately 150 languages belonging to the Austro Asiatic family of languages. The question of the classification of Vietnamese is still being debated (Earle 1975). The Austro-Asiatic family itself is a sub-group of the contested Austric phylum (Ruhlen 1991).

Within the Austro-Asiatic family, three major branches are generally recognized. The first is Munda, which includes the Santali and Mundari languages of northeastern India. The second is Mon-Khmer, which includes Mon (spoken in Burma and Thailand) and Khmer (spoken in Cambodia or Kampuchea) and over a hundred other little known languages. The third is Viet-Muong (or Annam-Muong), which includes Vietnamese and its sister language Muong (spoken in the Midlands). While Vietnamese and its sister language Muong form a group on their own, some scholars favor the inclusion of Vietnamese within the Mon-Khmer group.

Three major dialectal variations are generally recognized within Vietnamese. The names of these dialect divisions correspond to the former colonial administrative divisions, namely Tonkin, Annam, and Cochin-China (Earle 1975). These colonial terms have increasingly fallen from favor, however. Among Vietnamese, and in recent literature, the terms Northern, Central, and Southern Vietnamese are used. Alternately, the dialects are identified by the names of the major geographical/metropolitan area where each dialect is spoken. Thus, we have Hanoi (Northern Vietnamese) dialect, Hue (Central Vietnamese) dialect, and Saigon (Southern Vietnamese) dialect. The Northern dialect forms the basis of the standard language and is the prestige dialect. The dialects differ mainly in terms of pronunciation and to a limited extent in terms of the vocabulary. These dialect differences do not impede intelligibility among speakers of the different dialects, however.

Vietnamese was written using modified Chinese characters from the second century BC until the tenth century, when Vietnam was a province of China . During the medieval period, from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries, Buddhist scholars and priests developed a writing system based on Chinese characters. This script, called chu nom, used combinations or digraphs of Chinese characters; one component gave the meaning and the other component signaled the pronunciation.

In the mid-seventeenth century, the Roman script modified by diacritics to mark tones and certain vowels was introduced by Catholic missionaries. The orthographic conventions developed were influenced by Portuguese, Italian, Spanish, and French. This writing system, called chu quoc ngu, was not widely used outside of the Catholic church until the end of the nineteenth century, when the French administration encouraged the use of chu quoc nom by all segments of society. Three Vietnamese reformers, Nguyen Truong to, Truong Vinh Ky and Huynh Tinh Cua worked to spread the use of the Roman script. They campaigned for the use of chu quoc ngu by the press, advocated sending students to France to study, collected and translated chu nom literature into chu quoc ngu, and compiled a modern Vietnamese dictionary.

Vietnamese is a tone language; that is, the meaning of words and sentences is affected by the pitch with which they are spoken. The tones in Vietnamese are mid-level, low falling, high rising, low, rising after an initial dip, high broken and low broken. "Broken" tones are spoken in a glottalized manner.

There is no inflection in Vietnamese so nouns and verbs are not marked for things such as subject agreement and tense or number, grammatical gender, and case. Nouns are marked by special classifiers. There are classifiers that mark inanimate objects, animate objects, vehicles, books, people, and important people, for example.

Reduplication and compounding are common phenomena. In a reduplicated form, the entire word may be repeated or just a portion of it. Reduplication may indicate plural, extension, or repetition of a state or intensity. Names of birds, insects, plants, and fruits are often reduplicated, too.

Sentences in Vietnamese have subject-verb-object word order. Because there is so little inflection, the language depends on strict word order to convey meaning.

Vietnamese is the official language of Vietnam and is used in the entire educational system. Science and technology teaching in schools is carried out in Vietnamese at all levels, including higher education.

There is a range of publishing in Vietnamese. Newspapers aided in the unification of the North and South Vietnamese culture and the standardization of the language. Inside Vietnam, there has been an active campaign to preserve the clarity and the purity of the Vietnamese language. New terms are constantly developed to keep abreast of scientific and technological inventions.

The history of the Vietnamese language and the general history of Vietnam and its people are closely knit. Vietnam was under Chinese rule for many centuries. Thus there is a significant Chinese influence on Vietnamese. The most important linguistic influence was that of classical Chinese Chu Han, used in Vietnam as the official language during the thousands of years of Chinese imperial rule. Even after national independence was gained, the Vietnamese continued to use Chu Han as the official language.

After the revolution that saw the end of the French colonial regime, a movement developed advocating the study of national languages and the development of national culture. Vietnamese was made the official language of the Republic of Vietnam. Thereafter, Vietnamese had to be used in all official business, including education and the media.

Bright, W., ed. 1992. International Encyclopedia of Linguistics. New York: Oxford University Press.

Crystal, D. 1987. The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Language. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Durand, M. M., and Nguyen Tran Huan. 1985. An Introduction to Vietnamese Literature. New York: Columbia University Press.

Grimes, B. F., ed. 1992. Ethnologue: Languages of the World. Dallas, Texas: Summer Institute of Linguistics.

Le Van Ly, M. 1948. Le Parler Vietnamien: Essai d'une grammaire Vietnamienne. Paris: Imprimerie--Edition Huong-Anh.

Linguistic Society of America. 1992. Directory of Programs in Linguistics in the United States and Canada. Washington, DC.

Nguyen Dang Liem. 1970. Vietnamese Pronunciation. Honolulu, Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press.

Nguyen Khac Vien and Huu Ngoc. 1982. Vietnamese Literature: Historical Background and Texts. Hanoi, Vietnam: Foreign Languages Publishing House.

Nguyen Phu Phong. 1975. Le Vietnamien Fondamental. Paris: Editions Klincksieck.

Ruhlen, M. 1987. A Guide to the World's Languages, Vol. 1: Classification. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Thompson, L. C. 1965. A Vietnamese Grammar. Seattle, Washington: University of Washington Press.

Voegelin, C. F. and F. M. Voegelin. 1977. Classification and Index of the World's Languages. New York: Elsevier North Holland.

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