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The Origin and Nature of
the Vietnamese Language


Linguistic affiliations often reveal ancient unrecorded migrations. The Vietnamese language belongs to the Viet-Muong branch of the Mon-Khmer language family. The Mon-Khmer languages are spoken in a region extending from the Assam state of India on the west to Vietnamese on the east. It is the language family of mainland Southeast Asia. The major branches of the Mon-Khmer family are Vietnamese, Khmer (Cambodia), Muong (Mountainous provinces of northern Vietnam) and Mon (Mon State of Myanmar). There are about 60 million speakers of Vietnamese, 16 million of Khmer, 1 million of Muong and 1 million of Mon.

The langages of the Mon-Khmer family have affiliations with broader grouping of the Austro-Asiatic family.

Vietnamese contains a lot of words adopted from the languages of China as a result of centuries during which Vietnam was part of the Chinese Empire and as a result of trade and cultural ties of the Vietnamese with the Chinese. These words retained their pronunciation as in Tang dynasty but in China the pronunciation of those words evolved over time.

There are some who believe that there is a close affiliation of Vietnamese and Cantonese. The region in which Cantonese is spoken was called Viet Bei, meaning the northern Viet. Viet was the Chinese term for alien people to the south of China. Viet Nam meant southern Viet. Both Vietnamese and Cantonese have six tones whereas Mandarin has only four.

Overall Structure of Vietnamese

The order of subject (S), verb (V) and Object (O) in Vietnamese sentences is SVO as in English and about 45% of the languages of the world. Japanese and slightly more than 45% of the languages of the world have an SOV structure.

Vietnamese is an analytic language in the sense that syntax and relationship between words is expressed in terms of word order rather than prefixes and/or suffixes.

Prepositions come before the noun in Vietnamese but adjectives after their noun.

Vietnamese has measure words that must be used with nouns. English has only a few of yhese. For example, one cannot properly say three cattle; one must say three head of cattle.

Most Vietnamese words are monosyllabic; i.e., consist of a single syllable. This is the same as Mandarin and Cantonese.

The Phonetic Structure of Syllables in Vietnamese

The three mandatory components of a Vietnamese syllable are its tone, onset and nucleus. It may also have what called its glide and coda components. This structure can be represented as


The term rhyme just means the triplet of glide, nucleus and coda. The onset of a syllable is just its initial consonant(s). The nucleus is a vowel or diphthong. The glide is a sound that transitions between the consonant(s) of the onset and the vowel(s) of the nucleus. The coda is a final consonant cluster. For example, for the word syllable toán the onset is t, the nucleus is á with o as the glide and n as the coda. For the word thuyên the onset is th, the nucleus is with u as the glide and n as the coda. The syllable làm has no glide. The syllable has no coda.


The pitches and durations of the six tones of Vietnamese are depicted as follows:

Their names, descriptions and diacritical marks are as follows:

1NgangHigh & Level
2HuyênLow & Falling
3NgãHigh & Falling-rising
4Hỏi Low & Falling-rising
5Sắc High & Rising
6Nặng Low & Falling

The high level (ngang) tone requires no diacritical mark. A diacritical mark is required that indicates the other tones for a syllable. It is placed over the last vowel in a syllable ending in a consonant and over the next to last vowel in a syllable ending in in a vowel.

(To be continued.)


A Concise Grammar of Vietnamese for Non-Native Speakers, Doan Thien Thuat (Editor-in-chief), Vietnam National University, Hanoi.

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