Vietnamese Language: An In-depth Exploration

February 8, 2024
Vietnamese Language: An In-depth Exploration

The Vietnamese language was once considered the world’s least attractive language. But in my opinion, this is a narrow view of a native tongue that has a rich history, complex tonality, and widespread dialects, offering a fascinating study into the linguistic diversity of Southeast Asia.

So let’s discover the origins, evolution, and distinctive features of the Vietnamese language, its role as the official language of Vietnam, the nuances of its regional dialects, and the unique aspects of its linguistic structure that make translating the Vietnamese language both a rewarding and learning experience.

Origins and Historical Evolution

Vietnamese, known locally as “tiếng Việt”, boasts an intricate history that intertwines with the socio-political developments of Vietnam and the broader Austroasiatic language family. Emerging from Mon-Khmer linguistic roots, Vietnamese underwent significant transformations influenced by millennia of Chinese rule, periods of independence, and French colonization, shaping it into the language spoken by over 75 million people worldwide today.

The language's evolution is segmented into periods: 

  • Proto-Viet–Muong, its earliest form, (7th century)

  • Proto-Vietnamese (7th to 9th century)

  • Archaic Vietnamese, under the Ngo Dynasty, when Sino-Vietnamese vocabulary began to be developed (9th to 10th century)

  • Ancient Vietnamese, when“Chữ Nôm”, a type of Nom script that uses Chinese letters to write Sino-Vietnamese words, was introduced by Jesuit missionaries(15th century)

  • Middle Vietnamese, the time that “Chữ Quốc ngữ”, a Vietnamese Latin-based writing system, was created (17th to 19th century), and finally, 

  • Modern Vietnamese: (19th century to current time)

Vietnam Official Language

Vietnamese holds the prestigious status of being Vietnam's official language, serving as a crucial element of national identity and unity across the country's 54 ethnic groups. It’s also widely used in neighboring Laos, Thailand and Cambodia. Australia has a significant community of Vietnamese speakers too, as well as being officially recognized as a minority language in the Czech Republic.

It's not only a medium of communication but also a symbol of Vietnam's resilience and adaptation throughout its history. The government's efforts to promote the language, alongside campaigns to maintain its purity against the backdrop of globalization, underscore its significance in education, media, and official discourse.

Vietnamese Dialects and Regional Nuances

Some people might think that Vietnamese isn’t a very pleasant-sounding language, but one of its most unique traits is in its dialects, spoken across the country's length. From the northern highlands to the southern delta, each region adds its flavor to the language, creating a rich mosaic of linguistic expression.


The Northern dialect, centered around Hanoi, is considered the standard form of Vietnamese. Its pronunciation and vocabulary set the benchmark for formal education and national broadcasting. The tonality of Northern Vietnamese is often described as sharp and clear, serving as a bridge between the country's past and present.


The Central dialect, with its epicenter in Hue, carries the historical weight of the former imperial capital. It is characterized by a distinct set of tones and a certain lyrical quality, reflecting the region's rich cultural heritage and the solemnity of its historical ceremonies.


The vibrant and dynamic Southern dialect, dominant in Ho Chi Minh City, mirrors the economic and cultural openness of the region. Its tones are considered more melodic and gentle, embodying the warmth and hospitality of the southern people.

Minority Languages and Linguistic Diversity

Vietnam's linguistic landscape is further enriched by the languages of its 54 ethnic minorities. Here’s a list of some of the more popular minority languages that groups are using alongside Vietnamese:

  • Tay: spoken by around 1.7 million Vietnamese people, belonging to the Thai group of languages. Used in Laos, Cambodia, India, Myanmar and China. Tay is also subdivided into regional dialects, depending on the speaker’s location.

  • Cham language: can be found in central Vietnam, spoken by residents of the former Kingdom of Champa that existed around the 2nd century AD. It belongs to the Malayo-Polynesian branch of the Austronesian family and is considered one of the oldest languages in the Austronesian language family. It also has two sub-dialects: Eastern and Western. 

  • Khmer: the official language of Cambodia, from the Austroasiatic family of languages. Due to their shared borders and proximity, many locals in Vietnam speak a version of Khmer called Khmer Krom (Lower/Southern Khmer). 

  • Muong: another member Austroasiatic language, its users are also called Muong, an ethnic group that lives in the mountainous regions of Hoa Binh and Thanh Hoa. A feature of this dialect is its use of a modified Vietnamese alphabet with more consonants. 

  • Nung: spoken in northern Vietnam, in the Cao Bang and Lang Son provinces. A part of the Tai-Kadai language family. Its most popular sub-dialect is called Nuang Phan Slinh.

  • Hmong: belonging to the Hmong-Mien family of languages, spoken mostly in southern China, Laos, and Thailand, and parts of Northern Vietnam. Possibly a member of the Sino-Tibetan languages as well, though this is still a topic of discussion. 

Vietnamese Language Linguistic Features

The Vietnamese language has numerous striking features. These features include an intricate system of tones, a flexible grammar and syntax framework, and a vocabulary that reflects Vietnam's complex history of cultural exchanges. 

Tones and Melodies

Vietnamese is a tonal language, where the meaning of a word can change with the pitch in which it's spoken. The language employs six distinct tones in the North and five in the South, creating a melody that is inherent to the Vietnamese speech pattern. The high broken tone is often produced as the low rising tone in the southern dialect, adding a layer of complexity and beauty to the language.

Here are the tones of the Vietnamese language:

  • Mid-Level (không dấu): a, ă, â, e, ê, i, o, ô, ơ, u, ư, y

  • Low Falling (dấu huyền): à, ằ, ầ, è, ề, ì, ò, ồ, ờ, ù, ừ, ỳ

  • High Rising (dấu sắc): á, ắ, ấ, é, ế, í, ó, ố, ớ, ú, ứ, ý

  • High Broken (dấu ngã): ã, ẵ, ẫ, ẽ, ễ, ĩ, õ, ỗ, ỡ, ũ, ữ, ỹ

  • Low Rising (dấu hỏi): ả, ẳ, ẩ, ẻ, ể, ỉ, ỏ, ổ, ở, ủ, ử, ỷ

  • Heavy (dấu nặng): ạ, ặ, ậ, ẹ, ệ, ị, ọ, ộ, ợ, ụ, ự, ỵ

Alphabet, Grammar and Syntax

The Vietnamese alphabet has:

  • 17 consonants (b, c, d, đ, g, h, k, l, m, n, p, q, r, s, t, v, x)

  • 11 consonant compounds (ch, gh, gi, kh, ng, nh, ph, qu, th, tr, and ngh)

  • a special digraph (gh) and trigraph (ngh)

  • 11 single vowels (a, ă, â, e, ê, i, y, o, ô, ơ, u, and ư)

  • 32 dipthongs (ai, ao, au, âu, ay, ây, eo, êu, ia, iê/yê, iu, oa, oă, oe, oi, ôi, ơi, oo, ôô, ua, uâ, ưa, uê, ui, ưi, uo, uô, uơ, ươ, ưu, and uy), and,

  • 13 triphthongs (iêu/yêu, oai, oao, oeo, uao, uây, uôi, ươi, ươu, uya, uyê, uyu).

Vietnamese grammar is also marked by its analytic nature, relying on word order and sentence structure rather than conjugations to convey meaning. The language follows a subject-verb-object (SVO) order, similar to English, making it somewhat more accessible to English speakers who want to understand or learn Vietnamese.

Vocabulary Riches

Vietnam’s close geographical location to China, and the latter’s history as a long-reining empire, resulted in the much larger country influencing the Vietnamese language significantly. Its contribution to the language’s vocabulary consisted of terms related to science, medicine, politics, and religion.

However, in the late 19th century, Vietnam became a colony of France. French became the language of administration and was taught officially in schools. This brought on changes to the Vietnamese language, the dictionary filled with French words related to food, fashion, and infrastructure.

It was only after the country gained independence from France that the current form of the language, influenced by both the Chinese and French, with its thousand years of history, that the Vietnamese language was recognized as the country’s official language. Globalization has also added some English words into its lexicon, particularly in topics about modern technology.

Effortlessly Navigate Vietnamese Language with Tomedes

Navigating the complexities of the Vietnamese language can be a daunting task, with characteristics that set it apart even from its Southeast Asian neighbors.

But understanding Vietnamese doesn’t have to be a trial. It’s a time to embrace the linguistic beauty of Vietnamese and enrich your language journey. Reach out to Tomedes for expert communication and connections with Vietnam's culture and people.


By Raphaella Funelas

Raphaella Funelas is a creative writer who graduated from the University of the Philippines Diliman with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Studies, specializing in Language. She likes learning about anything new in any field, and has pursued that interest through a writing career. She always has an ear on the ground for any exciting topics, and an enthusiasm to share any newfound knowledge through her words.



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