The Vietnamese Language
Vietnamese is the native language spoken by approximately 85% of the population of Vietnam or about 75 million people. It is also spoken by around three million Vietnamese expatriates. Besides those for whom it is the mother tongue, it is used as a second language by the remaining 15% of the population of Vietnam most of whom are ethnic minorities and have developed an internal language amongst their small group or tribe. Vietnamese is also spoken at least in a basic, rudimentary form by many of the people in the surrounding countries.
In the United States, the Vietnamese speaking community numbers as many as one million and Vietnamese currently stands as the third most spoken language in the state of Texas. It is also the fifth most spoken language in California, takes fourth place in both Louisiana and Arkansas, and seventh place on a national level. Vietnamese also has quite a large number of native speakers in Australia, Canada, France, the United Kingdom, and Germany, mainly due to the large number of Vietnamese immigrants in these countries.
A part of the Austroasiatic family of languages, Vietnamese has much of its vocabulary borrowed from Cantonese, from which it derives its origins. Like both Japanese and Korean, it was originally written with the Chinese system of writing making use of Chinese characters although, also like Japanese and Korean, it has since developed its own. Many Vietnamese words used to describe intangible ideas are similar if not identical to the Cantonese words for these same concepts. There is also much French influence in the Vietnamese language due to the French colonial rule over the country of Vietnam for many years, Today’s Vietnamese writing system is a mutated form of our regular Latin alphabet with a few added letters and intonations.
Vietnamese is quite similar to Khmer, the language spoken in Cambodia, and the two are currently classified in the same Austroasiatic language family and considered to be closely related. Vietnamese is also similar to many of the dialects found in India, especially eastern India which has a close border to the South East Asian Peninsula. Other similar dialects include those found across southern China and many local dialects inside Vietnam itself.
Although it was developed thousands of years ago and spoken by the Vietnamese people for thousands of years, Vietnamese was not even used as the official language of administration in Vietnam until the previous century. This was due to the repeated conquest and colonization of Vietnam by foreign entities. During the reign of Chinese dynasties, written classical Chinese was used as the official language of Vietnam. The Vietnamese language was used only in Vietnamese literature and poetry during this period. After Chinese influence faded, the French began their colonial era which lasted for many years. Finally, when the French granted Vietnam its independence, Vietnamese became the official language of Vietnam.
Today, Vietnamese is taught officially in both public and private schools as well as universities and colleges across Vietnam. It is the official language of both administration and business.
The History of Vietnamese
Originally beginning in what is now North Vietnam, in the area adjacent to the Red River, Vietnamese expanded south and east through the conquest of various ancient tribes by the Vietnamese people. The Vietnamese were able to subdue both the Khmer people of what is now Cambodia and an ancient people known as the Champa to whom they spread their language and culture.
In the second century B.C., the Chinese became the predominant political figures in the region of the world where today’s Vietnam lies. During this era, Chinese grammar and vocabulary began to radically influence Vietnamese. Chinese was spoken by the entire upper and ruling class of the region and was considered the language of the intellectuals. Even much later on when the popularity of actual Vietnamese began to rise, the language was still written using figures that were originally Chinese, whether the traditional Chinese characters still used in China today, or an adapted set of characters which, modified and changed over time, eventually became the official written language of Vietnam.
After prolonged contact with Western powers, namely the French, a Romanized system of writing began to emerge. This was promoted by merchants and missionaries in Vietnam and was eventually adopted as a much simpler way to write Vietnamese than the modified Chinese script. As the 20th century began, education was becoming more and more widespread in Vietnam and this Romanized writing was deemed by the authorities of the time as more convenient for communication and education as far as the general population was concerned.
There are four Vietnamese dialects distinguished generally by the regions in which they are spoken. These are Northern Vietnamese, Southern Vietnamese, North-Central Vietnamese, and Central Vietnamese.
Northern and Southern Vietnamese are generally similar in content and both can easily be understood by native speakers of either dialect. Many of the differences between these two dialects have to do with slight changes in the pronunciation of certain words or sounds. Although there are also minor vocabulary and grammatical differences, the similarities make these two dialects quite mutually intelligible. Experts have attributed this to the large amount of movement and traveling between the residents of the North and the South of Vietnam. Many residents of the South speak with a slight Northern accent and, similarly, many Northern residents have adopted much Southern lingo.
On the other hand, the Central and North-Central dialects have major vocabulary and grammatical differences which make it very hard for them to be understood by those in the South or North. Entire words are different and sentences are constructed differently. Natives speaking these dialects are generally considered by other Vietnamese to be harder to understand.
In recent times, however, many residents of Central or North-Central Vietnam have opted to move to the South looking for jobs and more prosperous lives. This has contributed to a lot of blending between the dialects and has made Vietnamese as a whole a lot more unified.