Vietnamese offers the mot fascinating linguistic puzzle in South East Asia; nowadays written in Latin characters, it is related with toneless Khmer, but have adopted tones and an extensive Chinese vocabulary.
Like the Khmer, Vietnamese belongs to the Mon-Khmer branch of the Austroasiatic Family of languages; however, the long-time colonization of Vietnam by China caused a significant adoption of Chinese vocabulary as well as tones.
In a fashion resembling the Japanese language, old Vietnamese used Chinese characters accompanied with specific modifiers, a system known as Chữ nôm, as well as the original Hán tự characters.
After being written in Chinese characters for roughly one millennium, the Vietnamese were happy to adopt an adapted Latin alphabet designed by a French Jesuit missionary named Alexandre de Rhodes (1591–1660) in the 17th century and based on works of the earlier Portuguese missionaries Gaspar de Amaral and António de Barbosa.
Thus, reading Vietnamese signs is relatively easy, speaking it is rather difficult. This system became the official one at the beginning of the 20th century, when it officially replaced Chinese as the administrative language due to the French colonization and the fact it was much more convenient and easy to learn that Chinese characters.
Hán Việt is the general name to the extensive Sino-Vietnamese vocabulary used for professional matters in topics from politics, through administration and ending in medicine.
There are four Vietnamese dialects, namely Northern, North-central, Central and
Southern Vietnamese; though they are mutually intelligible and of no concern for the traveller. They can be easily recognized by the different way they pronounce certain consonants.
Around seventy percent of the vocabulary contains mixed Sino-Vietnamese roots; other influences are French (the best known being đầm, from madame and ga, from gare), and English.
Vietnamese tones vary with the dialects, but the Hanoi one contains six tones: level, low falling, high rising, falling then rising, stopping and rising and finally the heavy one.
Twenty-fie consonants exist in Vietnamese, some of them are represented by combinations of two, like: "ph" for "f" and "gi" for "z."
Eleven vowels create a complex system of monophthongs, diphthongs and triphthongs and each one can be pronounced in the different regional tones.
Hindu-Arabic numerals are used and thus understanding written numbers is simple; the pronunciation of Vietnamese is also rather simple, with simple transition rules between the unit, the unit plus ten, and the unit times ten and between ordinal and cardinal numbers.
As in many other Asian languages, verbs inflections do not exist in Vietnamese; the tenses are denoted by specific time particles added to the sentence.
Vietnamese nouns can be modified by a complex system of prefixes and suffixes. Duplication of one of the noun syllables can be used to intensify or diminish its meaning; the rules of the tones variation in such a case are quite complex and rigid. Certain special particles may be added to a noun according to its role in the sentence and several nouns can be added together, forming a noun phrase.
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Vietnamese uses an especially complex system of classifiers; or words used to count specific types of nouns (like "pack" in "a pack of dogs").
Many Vietnamese would seriously tell the innocent traveller that their language is monosyllabic, while in fact over three quarters of it is disyllabic. The error lies in the fact that most words are still transliterated syllabic Chinese characters and that a space is used to denote different original characters.
Used pronouns depend on the relative status of the people talking, like in Thai. That’s the reason for the many personal questions Vietnamese (and Thai) ask first while meeting a stranger – they just are trying to find a relative social framework enabling them to choose pronouns (even if they are speaking English – the custom is ingrained in their culture).
A joke told time and again to every visitor showing some interest in the language is that the first word Vietnamese children learn is "ba-ba-ba." It sounds pretty close to "pa-pa," a childish form of "father" in many languages and thus it makes sense to the still innocent – but infinitely intrepid – traveller. However, "ba" means "three" in Vietnamese. What’s the pun? 333 is – of course – the name of the most popular beer in the country.