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Easy Viet na me se gram mar

Week 32, Episode 63

The Vietnamese language, as many other Asian languages, like Thai or Chinese, besides consonant and vowel sounds, has another surprise for pronunciation—tones. These changes in pitch, so unusual for any English speaker, and unfamiliar sounds may be tricky for your tongue and make you really work hard to produce any word right. But its grammar is something where you can catch a break—or so they say :)

Let's start with the alphabet first. As it always happens, the writing system is shaped by the past. For the Vietnamese language there were two major influencies: 1,000 years of Chinese rule and French occupation. It is no wonder that the Chinese characters were used to write Vietnamese words. In fact, there were two scripts: for formal writing and a modified version for literature.

In the 17th century, however, the French sought to eliminate Chinese symbols and created a Romanized 29-letter "edition" for the Vietnamese alphabet which has been used officially since 1918.

As you can see, there are no letters f, j, w, or z in the Vietnamese alphabet, but it doesn't mean all these sounds are missing in the language, too. The alphabet has, at large, two main ways of pronunciation: Northern and Southern (compare by clicking the links provided).

Did the French take on the letters completely wiped out all the years of Chinese domination from the Vietnamese language? Of course, not. A large portion of Chinese vocabulary is still "stuck" in there, though otherwise these two languages are linguistically unrelated. Take 5 minutes to revise the development of Vietnamese:

Vietnamese vocabulary tends to consist of single syllable words. This also regards all the borrowings from other languages, turning "balcony" into ban công, "carrot" into cà rốt, and "chocolate" into sô cô la.

As for grammar, there are good news and bad news.

The good news is words don’t change to show grammatical case or plurals or possession, etc., neither do the verbs conjugate or change in any other way. The 6 tenses the language has are formed with the help of the tense markers, or particles (which as well can be omitted if the timing is clear from the context):

For the regular present action no particle is used. It's that easy: just put a certain particle before any verb you want and you got your tense—the verb is never changing, never adding any endings. For example, for the verb nói (noh-ee)—to speak—with a pronoun tôi (toy)—I—it goes like this:

  • Tôi nói. I speak.
  • Tôi đang nói. = I am speaking.
  • Tôi mới nói. = I have just (recently) spoken.
  • Tôi đã nói. I spoke.
  • Tôi sắp nói. I am about to speak.
  • Tôi sẽ nói. = I will speak.

Same is true for nouns: they are not modified to create plurals, instead words like nhũng and các are added. For pronouns use chúng, and sometimes các is okay, too. But these particles are not really required—normally, the number is understood from the context.

The passive voice is formed differently from that in English: before the main verb the word được is placed if the verb describing the action implies beneficial effects for the agent, and bị if the verb describing the action implies negative effects.

Now it is time for bad news. In Vietnamese there is a wide set of classifiers that are used depending on the type of an object (noun) whether it is an animal, a song, a stick-like or a globular object, etc. This creates quite a confusion for learners. Besides, the whole mess is caused by the diverse range of pronouns which are chosen based on kinship, age and social relationship.

Just to give an example, here is the guide on how to say "I love you" in Vietnamese, which doesn't have just one translation (as in English) for the very reason mentioned above (4 minutes):

Vietnamese became an official language of Vietnam only in 1954, after the country gained its independence from France. The majority of the country—something around 75 million people—speak the language and the rest—about 12 million—use it as a second language.

Will you make +1 to the Vietnamese speakers? Before you answer, let's see a fun side of the Vietnamese language—in the next episode :)

Hẹn gặp lại! (Hen gup lie!) See you!

" I li kệ thìs ả​r tic lê ! Yes! :) "

Discover more about Vietnamese and other languages at!

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