Seals XVII, Aug. 31st to Sept. 2, University of Maryland, College Park

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SEALS XVII, Aug. 31st to Sept. 2, University of Maryland, College Park

Sino-Vietnamese Grammatical Vocabulary and Sociolinguistic Conditions for Borrowing

Mark J. Alves, Montgomery College,

Key Questions

  1. What have been the means of transmission of vocabulary from Chinese into Vietnamese?

  2. What is the role (i.e., effects on registers and semantico-syntactic domains) and quantity of Sino-Vietnamese vocabulary in Vietnamese, and how have they changed over time?

  3. How can borrowed grammatical vocabulary in particular help to answer these questions?

Historical Linguistic Issues: language contact, linguistic borrowing, sociolinguistic history, grammaticalized vocabulary

Means of Transmission of Sino-Vietnamese Elements in Different Eras

  1. Early Sino-Vietnamese contact (Han Dynasty): mainly through spoken bilingualism; mandated adoption of Chinese cultural customs (e.g., Chinese family and household customs and accoutrements); large groups of Chinese soldier-settlers and the establishment of an elite Sino-Vietnamese class; borrowing of at least a few hundred Chinese words (mostly nouns and some verbs)

  2. Large-scale spread of Chinese writing throughout East Asia (Tang to Song dynasties): transition from mainly spoken to mainly literary means of transmission; presumably minimal influence on Vietnamese at the beginning but solid establishment of the Chinese political and educational model (e.g., the creation of the Confucian university, the Văn Miếu (文廟, wén miào) “Temple of Literature,” shortly after independence from China)

  3. Independence from China (Post-Tang Dynasty): mainly through biliteracy; increasing modeling of the Chinese socio-political and cultural systems (Woodside 1971) regardless of Chinese population in Vietnam; increasingly larger numbers of Chinese loans; unclear effect of spoken Chinese (e.g., largely restricted to literary elite, but what about trade and migration?); adoption over a period of centuries of several hundred (???) Chinese words into daily, spoken Vietnamese

  4. Modern Era (from early 20th century): mainly through biliteracy; large-scale spread of “Sino-neologisms” (i.e., translation by Chinese and Japanese of Western concepts and terms using Chinese morphs); massive growth in literacy in Vietnamese; thousands of Chinese words enter Vietnamese

Note: Sino-Vietnamese readings (i.e., the Vietnamese pronunciation of Chinese characters) and Sino-Vietnamese vocabulary, with very few exceptions (e.g., very recent borrowings of food terms from Cantonese), do not reflect colloquial borrowings from varieties of Yue (e.g., Cantonese).

Ancient Non-Chinese Vietnamese Words for Which Sino-Vietnamese Counterparts Are the Dominant Forms in Modern Vietnamese

Grammatical Functions

17th Century

Modern Era


đòi* “every”

phô “the various (higher social status)”

mỗi “every” (, měi)

các “the various” (, gè)

Sentence connecting

bèn “but”

chưng* “because”

âu là* “or”

nhưng “but” (, réng)

vì “because” (為, wéi)

hoặc “or” (或, huò)


chẳng* “no/not”

không “no/not” (, kōng)


ca “at”

tại “at” (, zài)

Comparison and intensification

ngất “equal to”

bằng (Old-Sino-Vietnamese) (, píng)

Time terms

chưng (progressive marker)

đạc “time/instance”

đang (progressive marker) (, dāng)

lần “time/instance” (, lún)

Grammatical adverbs

bui “only”

chỉn “truly”

nghĩ “by oneself”

chỉ “only” (, zhǐ)

thật “truly” (, shí)

tự “by oneself” (, zì)

(Forms marked with * are literary or otherwise have limited usage in modern Vietnamese)

Modern Sino-Vietnamese Grammatical Borrowings

156 grammatical Vietnamese words of Chinese origin (Lê 2002: 397-403)

  • Many of these words belong to a very formal and/or written register (e.g., nhược (, ruò) “if,” giả sử (假使, jiǎ shǐ) “in the event that”, and sở dĩ (所以, suǒ yǐ)).

  • Some of the forms are prefixes in Vietnamese but free morphs in Chinese (e.g., bất “un-” (, bù), tái “re-” (, zài), and tối “-est” (, zuì)).

  • Some of the Vietnamese forms differ in part of speech from the Chinese forms (e.g., the Chinese adverb 果然 (guǒ rán) is in Vietnamese quả nhiên “as expected,” and the Chinese adverb 實在 (shí zài) “truly/really” is in Vietnamese thực tại both an adverb “really” and noun “reality”).

  • Some words are not part of spoken Cantonese, the Chinese lingua franca in Vietnam (e.g., bị (passive marker) (, beì) and “at” (, zài)), suggesting that these forms were not borrowed through spoken contact with Cantonese.

Hypothesis: The above-mentioned details suggest that these words were not borrowed by bilingual speakers through spoken contact but rather by biliterate Vietnamese who were bringing written language into formal Vietnamese.

Gleanings from de Rhode’s 1651 Vietnamese-Latin-Portuguese Dictionary

  1. De Rhodes’ dictionary shows a noticeable quantity of Sino-Vietnamese terms, but much less than in modern Vietnamese (numerous non-Chinese grammatical words or terms that have been replaced by Sino-Vietnamese vocabulary).

  2. De Rhodes’ dictionary shows a language in which Chinese vocabulary was more on the literary, high-culture side than today. This suggests biliterate Vietnamese as the primary means of transmission in that era.

  3. De Rhodes’ dictionary shows that Cantonese or other varieties of Yue have contributed extremely little in terms of lexical content, again suggesting that spoken bilingualism was relatively unimportant after the first few centuries of Sino-Vietnamese language contact.

Areas to Which This Research Can Contribute

  • Sociolinguistics and language contact (Mixed contact, both spoken and written)

  • Sociohistory (Peoples in East and Southeast Asia)

  • Psycholinguistics (Spoken vs. written language, semantico-syntactic categories of words)


De Rhodes, Alexandre. 1991 (originally 1651). Từ Ðiển Annam-Lusitan-Latinh (Thường Gọi là Từ Ðiển Việt-Bồ-La). Ho Chi Minh City: Nhà Xuất Bản Khoa Học Xã Hội.

Lê, Ðình Khẩn. 2002. Từ Vựng Gốc Hán trong Tiếng Việt (Vocabulary of Chinese Origin in Vietnamese). Hồ Chí Minh City: Nhà Xuất Bản, Ðại Học Quốc Gia Thành Phố Hồ Chí Minh.

Nguyễn, Ðình Hòa. 1991. “Seventeenth-century Vietnamese lexicon: preliminary gleanings from Alexandre de Rhodes’ writings” in Austroasiatic Languages: Essays in Honour of H.L. Shorto, (ed.) J.H.C.S. Davidson, 95-104.

Sinh, Vinh. 1993. Chinese characters as the medium for transmitting the vocabulary of modernization from Japan to Vietnam in Early 20th century. Asian Pacific Quarterly, 25.1:1-16.

Vương, Lộc. 2002. Từ Ðiển Từ Cổ (A Dictionary of Ancient Words, 2nd. Ed.). Hà Nội: Nhà Xuất Bản Ðà Nẵng, Trung Tâm Từ Ðiển Học.

Woodside, Alexander. 1971. Vietnam and the Chinese Model: A Comparative Study of Nguyen and Ch'ing Civil Government in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century. Harvard University Press.


  • Historical linguistics: (a) linguistic genetic affiliation, (b) language contact and borrowing/convergence

  • Growing database of possible colloquial loanwords from early Sino-Vietnamese contact: How do these correspond to historical records that clarify sociohistory of sino-Vietnamese contact?

  • Activities at the Max Planck Institute and the loanword typology project

  • Research on de Rhodes and the recent acquisitions in Vietnam

  • Sino-Vietnamese contact: (Thomason and Kaufmann) slight or moderate structural influence?

  • My primary interest is to clarify the socio-historical context in which elements of Chinese came into Vietnamese and sort out the spoken versus the literary means of transmission.

  • It is important to connect proto-language phonemes and etymologies in languages with historical, archeological, and genetic data.

  • The focus on grammatical vocabulary represents a cross-section of types of vocabulary, though this type of vocabulary presupposes a previously large quantity of content vocabulary loanwords.

  • Another interest is to understand the various ways in which grammatical vocabulary can be borrowed. How is it that grammatical words can be borrowed without spoken bilingualism (biliteracy, social status of the source language, established system of borrowing)? This is one reason to focus on grammatical vocabulary. Another reason is that the notion that content vocabulary is borrowed before grammatical vocabulary means that the status of grammatical vocabulary too can be useful in understanding the sociolinguistic conditions under which the transfer borrowing occurred.

  • My main point is to suggest that the Sino-Vietnamese language contact situation has been over the past thousands years one in which biliteracy has been the main means of transmission, of borrowing from Chinese into Vietnamese, rather than by spoken bilingualism due to a Chinese population in Vietnam. This is not a radical notion, but I don’t think it is one that has been given enough attention. This is especially important if one wishes to understand language contact situations.

  • It is important to separate the influence of bilingual speakers Vietnamese and Chinese from the influence of biliterate Vietnamese who read but did not necessarily speak Chinese. Though bilingual speakers of Chinese and Vietnamese would have at various times contributed to the influence of Chinese in Vietnamese, the literary elite of Vietnam were most likely the main source of Chinese words that entered spoken Vietnamese. This idea is reinforced by the fact that very few Chinese dialect words have entered mainstream Vietnamese, and those that have are phonetically very distinct from the standard Sino-Vietnamese pronunciations of Chinese characters.

  • Sino-Vietnamese vocabulary on the whole has a rather literary and technical status in Vietnamese. This sociolinguistic status also suggests that the means of transmission was largely through biliterate Vietnamese rather than through bilingual speakers.

  • The sociolinguistic foundation of Chinese in the first millennium laid the groundwork for more borrowing regardless of the size of the Chinese-speaking population in Vietnam. The relatively consistent phonetic realizations of Sino-Vietnamese (e.g., only a few hundred doublets out of several thousand XX Sino-Vietnamese words)

  • Data in a dictionary of ancient Vietnamese words and a 17th century Vietnamese-Portuguese-Latin dictionary reveals that, while there were some Chinese grammatical words that are no longer used in Vietnamese, there is a good number of non-Chinese grammatical words that have been replaced or generally dominated by Sino-Vietnamese forms.

  • In addition, even larger numbers of grammatical words entered Vietnamese at the beginning of the 20th century at the time when Sino writings from both Japan and China were widely disseminated throughout East Asia, including Vietnam.

  • As an aside, this long tradition of Chinese writing in Vietnam, which continues up to the present day in the continuing use and borrowing of Chinese, should constitute Vietnamese as an East Asian language.

  • What distinguishes Vietnamese in the 20th century and in the 17th century is the substantially larger number of grammatical Sino-Vietnamese words (though it must be admitted that a good number of this vocabulary differ in their semantico-syntactic properties from the original words in Chinese, in some cases, quite substantially (Alves 2005)).

  • Overall, the number of Chinese grammatical morphs that exist as part of the overall Vietnamese lexicon, in both upper and lower registers, has grown substantially in the past century, beyond the accumulated vocabulary.

  • bị (passive marker): not used in Cantonese, no large groups of Mandarin speakers in Vietnamese in the 20th century

  • tối (post-adjectival superlative) and bất (negation word) used primarily as affixes rather than free morphemes

  • Shifting from borrowing more through spoken bilingualism to more through biliteracy of the educated elite Vietnamese

  • Borrowed grammatical Chinese vocabulary: (a) higher register; (b) not from varieties of Chinese in or near Vietnam

  1. (clearer in ancient times (Han Dynasty) and more recent times (from the early 20th century), but not as clear in the several centuries following independence from China (10th through 19th centuries)?

Final Thought: A database through which queries could be made would make such research much more accurate and complete.

This paper considers the sociolinguistic conditions under which Chinese grammatical vocabulary was borrowed into Vietnamese. While the early contact with Chinese was focused on spoken contact, over time, the means of transmission increasingly became biliteracy, namely, Vietnamese speakers who were literate in Chinese and Vietnamese Nôm. Supporting data include the nature of Sino-Vietnamese grammatical vocabulary and historical details relevant to Sino-Vietnamese language contact.

  • Han Dynasty: contact largely through spoken bilingualism, initial introduction of Chinese cultural concepts and terms

  • Tang/Song Dynasties: shifting from borrowing through spoken bilingualism to biliteracy

  • Independence from China: continued introduction of Chinese via biliterate Vietnamese literary elite

  • Modern era: mass importation of “Sino-neologisms” from China and Japan, again largely via writing

Students Aimed at the Civil Service Exam in Vietnam

“Minh Mạng grumbled in 1824 about some for their more notorious extracurricular intoxications: wine, sex, fawning upon high officials in Huế society who had power and influence, gambling, stealing, and living scattered outside school’s jurisdiction. “Presumptuous” absence from lectures was not unknown.” (Woodside 1971: 183)

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