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Tonal challenge: Vietnamese

Week 31, Episode 62

"Watch your intonation!" There are languages for which this is not just a rather useful advice for a better communication between one another, but an actual part of them, as important as correct pronunciation of the sounds. You get your intonation wrong, and the whole message is flawed or even incomprehensible. Vietnamese is one of these languages called tonal languages, meaning they have tones.

This is such a different way of producing speech and a huge part of the language itself, so bare with me here to understand how this works.

In English, for example, when you talk, the acoustic flow of speech is determined by the accent placed on specific words within each sentence, depending on the meaning you're trying to convey or the words you want to emphasize. The position of stress in a word is not fixed, i.e. it may be on the first, second, third syllable. But in tonal languages, like Vietnamese, every word is stressed and every vowel has a particuar tone—in this case, one of six!

Well, actually, talking about the number of tones in the Vietnamese language, it is worth noting that this number differs from one dialect to another, but we'll get back to it later.

Tones can have high, middle or low pitch; they can be short or long; they can rise, fall or stay on the same level; they can also break in the middle or change the initial direction; and in Vietnamese, in particular, they may have that creaky way of sounding.

To give you a better idea of how the 6 tones of the Vietnamese language sound like, here are 2 minutes of examples showing the way a tone affects a word:

When written, the Vietnamese tones are "embodied" by the diacritics:

  • ngang ("level") tone—not marked anyhow: it begins at mid-pitch tone and remains flat while the tone is held;
  • huyền ("hanging") tone—a grave accent over a vowel: it begins at a low pitch and falls slightly;
  • sắc ("sharp") tone—an acute accent over a vowel: it begins at a higher pitch and rises sharply;
  • hỏi ("asking") tone—a hook-like symbol over a vowel: it begins at a mid pitch, drops to a lower pitch, and the rises to a higher pitch (similiar to yes/no questions in English);
  • ngã ("tumbling") tone—a tilde over a vowel: begins at about the same pitch as hỏi, and then also drops, but has a "break" in the sound, and then rises to a much higher pitch;
  • nặng ("heavy") tone—a dot below a vowel: it begins at a very low tone and drops sharply at the end.

Other diacritics that you encounter in the Vietnamese language do not represent tones but differ the letters (and sounds) one from another, meaning that they are a part of these letters rather than something a letter may or may not have (like tones).

Though the grammar of Vietnamese is relatively simple, these 6 tones put a lot of pressure on the learners of the language and make it all a challenge. Because if you're not used to change your pitch on every syllable in 6 different ways, trust me you'll have to put quite an effort to get it right.

Doesn't it seem like there is a connection between the amount of tones and the length of the words? It would be definitely more complicated to pronounce longer words with all these different pitches. Maybe, that is why Vietnamese words are normally so short.

As an example, listen to this 3 minute conversation in Vietnamese (with English translation) and try to recognize each tone by ear:

The Vietnamese language has three main dialects:

  • The Northern Vietnamese, or Hanoi ( Nội) dialect;
  • The Central Vietnamese, or Hue (Huế) dialect;
  • The Soutern Vietnamese , or Ho Chi Minh, which is also known as Saigon (Sài Gòn), dialect.

The Northern dialect forms the basis of the standard language and is the prestige dialect. Curious how these three differ by ear? Try out here (1 minute):

Some linguists distinguish four-five dialects. These dialects differ in the way they sound, in their vocabulary and grammar. They are mostly mutually intelligible, though Hue is said to be difficult for speakers of the other two dialects to understand.

As far as the tones are concerned, there are 6 of them in the Northern Vietnamese. In the Southern version ngã is prounced the same as hỏi making it 5 tones in total, which is also true for Central Vietnamese. Although, some Central dialects merge ngã, hỏi and nặng together resulting in 4-tone system.

So there you have it—6 tones that will challenge your devotion to Vietnamese every step on the way :) Is everything that effort-taking? Let's check on the grammar as it holds suprisingly good news!

Tuyệt vời! (Tu-yet voy!) Awesome!

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