The replacement of han characters with romanization in vietnam

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Đoàn Thiện Thuật

Hanoi National University

Translated by Nguyen Thu Phuong

1. Writing systems in Vietnam

Vietnam has undergone centuries under the Chinese domination, but even after achieving its independence, Vietnamese people kept using Han characters for a long time. However, the Han pronunciation of Vietnamese people is different from that of the present Chinese people. That was the pronunciation of classical Han writing under the Tang dynasty. That pronunciation was changed under the time, but it has been preserved by Vietnamese people so far. It was called Sino-Vietnamese pronunciation.

Later, Vietnamese people borrowed Han characters to present their vernacular, creating a specific language, so called chữ Nôm (Nom script). The most earliest Nom writing was found on a bell picked up from Đồ Sơn Sea, it was assumed to be under King Lý Nhân Tông (1076), but it might be a prediction. Nom writing was also found on stelae of Báo Ân pagoda, under King Lý Cao Tôn (1210). Those stelae were engraved by names of people and regions in their vernacular language (1). In Đại việt sử ký toàn thư (The complete history of Dai Viet), in the eighth century, Nom script was used to compose poem by many famous writer such as Nguyễn Thuyên, Nguyễn Sỹ Cố. At the end of Chen dynasty, the Book of Poetry, Books of History were translated into Vietnamese language and were written in Nom script thanks to Lê Quý Ly. Afterwards, besides the literature written in Han characters, there was a national language literature (Quoc am) written in Nom script with many famous works, such as Truyện Kiều (Kieu story) of Nguyễn Du, which has been accorded the status of classics of Vietnam literature so far. During a long time, up to the seventh and eighth centuries, Han writing and Nom script existed parallel. Han writing was adopted in the imperial examination system and an official government system, Nom script was used in composing and reciting a poem extempore.

Three of six approaches were used to create Nom script: Hội ý, Giả tá and Hình thanh. Hội ý was used little, e.g. A Vietnamese word “trời” (sky) was written by two Han characters in which thiên was above thượng ().

Giả tá was adopted much a) Sino-Vietnamese pronunciation from Tang dynasty which was Vietnamized was utilized to write a similar sound of Vietnamese language. b) Han characters were employed to write loan words from Han of Vietnamese language. c) Borrowing Han writing, following Sino-Vietnamese pronunciation to set down in writing homonyms of Vietnamese language and Han characters (but with different meaning). d) Borrowing Han characters and Sino-Vietnamese pronunciation which was similar to sound of Vietnamese word. Hình thanh was also applied much. Half of a word is ideographic writing, and another is phonetic writing. Half word was written by a single distinctive symbol or a character, but there were only sixty characters in Nom script compared to 214 characters in Han writing and there was a bit change in each character’s meaning.

To acquire Nom script, it was necessary to learn Han characters before, and the pronunciation was not always in regular, thus it was very complicated. However, it was still applied for a long time to present their vernacular language, and it was the pride of Vietnamese people (especially feudal intellectuals).

Vietnamese composed parallel poem sentences in Nom script but adhering poetry rules from Tang dynasty.

Under French colonialist domination, in Vietnam, Han and Nom writings were gradually replaced by French language and Romanized Vietnamese writing, firstly in the South, then in the North and finally in the Central. In government, French language was used to replace Han characters, newspaper started to use chữ quốc ngữ (CQN). French language and writing existed collaterally with CQN presenting Vietnamese spoken language nearly a century. The significant difference is that CQN was taught in school only at a low level and applied in examination. In 1945, the year of establishment of Democratic Republic of Vietnam, chu Quoc Ngu gained its dominant status.

Nowadays, Han and Nom writings have confined in worship and oriental medicine.

2. The origin of chữ quốc ngữ

2.1. In Vietnam, CQN was originally developed by missionaries in the seventeenth century.

In the fifteenth century and in the early period of the sixteenth century, Portuguese and Spanish emperors expanded their territories. Japan, China, Vietnam and other countries in the Orient region were influenced by Portuguese forces. In accompany with them was Western missionaries, primarily of Portuguese, Italian, French etc. Because Asia where they put their feet on has a distinguished culture different from American colony of Spanish people at that time, therefore they merely adapted themselves, which means they learnt language from native speakers to enter the masses to preach.

By doing so, missionaries used Romanization to present Vietnamese spoken language, such as proper names, local names and everyday spoken language.

The situation in Vietnam was not different from that in the region. Most missionaries who were in Vietnam had come to Japan and China. In Japan, Francois Xavier met T. Yojiro in 1548. He helped Xavier to transcribe the religious Creed for Xavier to read. In Japan, Jesuits organized a publisher and published some books and dictionaries of Romanized Japanese transcription. In China, at the end of the sixteenth century, there was Portuguese-Han dictionary, in which Han writing was transcribed in Romanization next to the original Han writing. At present, manuscripts of the dictionary were kept in the Jesuit storehouse in Roma. Firstly, words were transcribed in Italian without tone marks. But then, a series of vocabularies came out with tone marks.

In the early period of the seventeenth century, Catholicism penetrated into Vietnam. An Italian Jesuit Francisco Buzomi who first came to Vietnam in accompany with the two Portuguese Jesuits in 1615. In 1621 João Roiz, a Portuguese was authorized to write a report in Portuguese to send to Roma with some Vietnamese words, such as Unsai “ông Sãi” (Buddhist monk), Cacham “Kẻ chàm” (name of a place), Ungue “ông Nghè” (a title of a person who passed the imperial provincial examination), those transcribed words were written without space between syllabus and without tone marks. In 1626, in the annual report of Gaspar Luis written in Romanization included names of Vietnamese places, such as Nước mặn, Quảng Ngãi, Quy Nhơn, also written by Nuocman, Quanghia, Quinhin.

It is to say that this was a test period. Vietnamese words were transcribed spontaneously without any rules. At that time, many missionaries having different nationalities arrived in Vietnam before or after one year. A French missionary Alexandre de Rhodes also came to Vietnam since 1624. Among whom, a Portuguese missionary, Francisco de Pina arrived in Vietnam quite early (1617). He could speak native language fluently, preached in Vietnamese language, and he was a person who taught Vietnamese language for A. de Rhodes. De Pina was considered as a designer of chữ Quốc ngữ in Vietnam (2). In reality, it is said that CQN was the result of collective contributions.

2.2. A. de Rhodes is also referred to as the inventor of CQN (3).

That is not really correct. He made his contribution to publishing ̀ điển Việt - Bồ Đào Nha - La Tinh (Annam - Lusitan - Latin Dictionary) (4) and the appearance of the Dictionary was a great landmark in the history of CQN development. If before 1651, the year of publishing the Dictionary, which was regarded as a test period means since 1651, CQN was referred to be developed. However, all contributions to compiling the dictionary were not of A. de Rhodes himself. He inherited previous labor from the two Portuguese missionaries Gaspar d' Amaral, the author of ̀ điển Việt - Bồ (Annam - Lusitan Dictionary) and Antoine Barbosa, the compiler of ̀ điển Bồ – Việt (Lusitan – Annam Dictionary.(5) To obey his superior, Rhodes added Romanization to the dictionary. After publishing the dictionary, it was used to transcribe into Vietnamese language, therefore, the writing was more unified. Vietnamese words were written with space in between and having tone marks. The writing in the Dictionary is not definitely the same the present CQN. The special initial consonant “b” was used to write bilabial sound among the present words written by “b” or “v,” e.g. biết (= viết), ruầi bâu (= ruồi bâu). Some compound consonants “bl,” “tl,” and “ml” presently have been written by “tr,” “gi,” “l,” and “nh” for example blời (= trời, giời), tlong (= trong), mlầm (= lầm, nhầm).

Those special and compound consonants reflected the pronunciation of Vietnamese language in the seventeenth century. Currently, Vietnamese phonetics has developed and it is not like before, thus the above writing was no longer existed. Many rhymes in Vietnamese language was written differently from the present, for example deính (= dính), deaic (= dách). The present rhymes of ong, ông, at that time were written with diphthongs and tilde mark, e.g. ão, ãu (= ong), ôũ, oũ, âũ, âõ (= ông). The ascertainment of those vowels proved the inconsistency in all cases. The tilde marks were used inconsistently. Sometimes the tilde mark was used to present those above-mentioned rhymes, and sometimes it was written as the final consonant, e.g. ang (=ang), inh (= inh). All the tone marks remains the same value in the present writing.

2.3. One concern has been set out that when did CQN have its own form and rule of writing like that of the present?

Until 1772, Pigneau de Behaine compiled Từ điển Việt-Latinh (Annam - Latin Dictionary). A manuscript which has been left so far shows that the tilde mark was no longer used and rhymes ão, ãu (=ong), ôũ, oũ, âũ, âõ (=ông) were replaced by “o,” “ô,” and “ng” at the end of rhyme into ong, ông as the present rhymes. Why were there such sudden changes? In fact, the individual transcription was gradually more consistent since the publication of A de Rhodes’ từ điển Việt-Bồ-La. The bilabial consonants were ever written by b or v or u. For example, “vội vàng” is represented by “boi uàng” in the dictionary of A de Rhodes, and even a word “vai” which was ever written by three possibilities: “uai, bai, beai” now is used consistently. Among the eighteenth century documents, CQN in the seventeenth century, there were three letters v, b, and u used to write the bilabial consonants. However, in the eighteenth century, the letter v was in common use, the letter b was in seldom use and the letter u was no longer used. Another example of comparing the present rhyme “ong” with that in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries will be illustrated in the following table.

In the seventeenth century

aõ, aũ, oũ, ũ without ong


In the eighteenth century

aõ with ong

85% 15%

The table shows that there is only one way to write vowels left from the fours which were reduced in the eighteenth century and the nasalization started to be written by the final consonant “ng” which is parallel to the tilde mark.

In brief, in the advent of the eighteenth century, there were existing two parallel methods of representing aõ, ong in which was even in more common use (85%).

The consistence of orthography ong in Pigneau de Behaine’s dictionary only belonged to an individual and this orthography was still in minor use. However, it is adopted and considered as the unique, and the tilde mark was completely disappeared due to an event happened in 1838. A.J.L. Taberd published a dictionary Từ điển Việt-Latinh, also called Nam Việt Dương hiệp tự vị in Serampore, India (7). It was significantly based on the dictionary of Behaine’s. Since its publication, it was regarded as a standardization of CQN. And that was an individual orthography of Behaine which was not popular at his time, but at the moment, it became in wide use, even in dominant use. CQN came into being since then.

3. The spread of Chữ Quốc Ngữ

Generally, the development of CQN could be divided into 3 periods:

3.1. CQN was introduced to Vietnamese people by Western missionaries with the purposes of preaching as well as serving foreign benefits. At first, it was limited in the use among missionaries and followers.

Under the French colonialist aggression in Vietnam, colonialist regime also used native language to write names of places and people, Romanized writing was used by French rather Han characters and Nom script. However, the most important purpose was its ruling strategy under French regime. They wanted to eliminate Han and Nom scripts to prevent influences on this country from China. French regime forced all Vietnamese people to learn CQN. And the examinational contents in the imperial examination system in Han characters were replaced CQN with French. Anyone who wanted to take part in examination had to learn QN. At this time, Vietnamese people abominated CQN, not many people wanted to learn, excepting someone who wanted to cooperate with the new regime.

In 1865, in the South, there was a gazette, then named Gia định báo. The South became a colony of French colonialist; therefore the ruling policy was applied more fiercely. Spoken French language, its writing and CQN were soon widely used to replace Han characters. In the North, the place where was under a protectorate, the replacement of Han characters took place latter. In 1915, the examination in Han characters was the last one. A college of probationers was opened in 1903 to train mandarins.

Many French – Vietnamese schools were opened to teach CQN at a low level, and to teach both the spoken and written French language at a high level.

3.2. Under the French colonialist domination, Vietnamese people were not to sit with folded arms and accept death. After many unsuccessful armed struggles, Vietnamese patriots found another way to escape from being slaves. Thanks to the Europeanization, Japan gained its good results in economy and education, and became a model of imitation for Vietnam realized by several patriotic feudal intellectuals.

Đông Kinh nghĩa thục (School founded by a group of Vietnamese revolutionaries) opened in March 1907 was an organizational imitation of Khánh ứng nghĩa thục of Japan. The guideline of Đông kinh nghĩa thục was to increase people’s awareness in order to modernize Vietnamese people and to motivate patriotism of the people, towards the construction of a rich and prosperous country. At that time, patriotic feudal intellectuals realized the beneficial instrument of CQN to carry out their patriotic ideas and thus prompted actively learning CQN. Vietnamese people no longer contemned CQN as before. The French regime found this learning motivation, therefore closed Đông kinh nghĩa thục after nine months from beginning its new term.

The agitation of learning CQN, however, was subsided for a short time. Between 1936 and 1939, The Indochina Communist Party had its opportunities in more openly activities and A CQN propagandizing Association was established (1936). At first, the Association was in Hanoi and then developed in many provinces in the North. The Association held many free classes of teaching CQN, propagandized the people to learn CQN. In the leadership board of the Association, there were members from the Indochina Communist Party, namely Mr. Vo Nguyen Giap, Prof. Dang Thai Mai and Mr. Phan Thanh. The Association started in the North, spread in the Central, and then in the South. As a result, till August 1945 there were 51 branches of the Association over the country with 857 classes and 69,827 literates.

Since CQN was taught in French-Vietnamese schools, Han characters was hardly used in private classes mainly far from the town. In French-Vietnamese schools, Han writing was taught as a foreign language at a secondary with a little time (1-2 periods per week).

Under French domination, CQN was restricted to the government at communal levels but widely used in composing literature and arts and journals, such as Nam phong tap chi, Dong Duong tap chi which are still useful with many valuable research projects. Tho moi (The new poetry) was composed to replace poems of Tang prosody or of a traditional one. “Western educated” people who were good at French also massively participated in writing novels. It’s them who brought new wind to the literature. Those all founded a new literature in CQN.

3.3. In 1945, Vietnam declared its independence and escaped from foreign aggressions. CQN officially became a national language used in administrations and other aspects. A big campaign for “illiterate elimination” was implemented over the country in order to assure all the people are able to read and write CQN. Some ethnic writings, such as Cham, Thai, etc. have still been used in a certain field, especially in literature and art. Romanization, basing on CQN has been applied to teach ethnic minorities which do not have their own writings. Han writing was taught as a foreign language in universities.

CQN is a Romanized writing used to transcribe Vietnamese spoken language, thus using CQN also means using Vietnamese language. Using Han characters as well as French are a glumness of foreign languages. Although Nom script was involved in Vietnamese language, it was difficult to learn. Regarding patriotism, Vietnamese people had no way rather choosing CQN to write their language. The replacement Han characters with Romanization is apropos to the nationality’s consciousness though the Confucianism penetrated each person, ideology of the Confucianism did not expel patriotism. The nationality awareness of Vietnamese people are always available even from the start of using Han characters. Therefore, the univerlization of CQN soon gained its success and after the independence, it essentially became the national language.


1. Đào Duy Anh. Chữ Nôm, Nguồn gốc, Cấu tạo, Diễn biến (Nom script, the origin, design and development). Social Sciences Publishing House. Hanoi. 1975.

2. Roland Jacques. Portuguese pioneers of Vietnamese Linguistics. Orchid Press. 2002.

3. Nguyễn Khắc Xuyên. Lịch sử chữ Quốc ngữ (History of Quoc ngu script). The lecture at ĐHVK Saigon city. 1970.

4. Alexandre de Rhodes. Từ điển Annam - Lusitan – Latinh (Annam-Lusitan-Latin Dictionary). Translated by Thanh Lãng, Hoàng Xuân Việt, Đỗ Quang Chính, Social Sciences Publishing House. 1991.

5. Theo Đỗ Quang Chính. Lịch sử chữ Quốc ngữ 1620 – 1659 (History of Quoc ngu script 1620-1659). Ra khơi Bookcase, Saigon city, 1972.

6. Đoàn Thiện Thuật. Những tư liệu mới đóng góp vào việc nghiên cứu lịch sử chữ QN và ngữ âm tiếng Việt (New materials contributing to researching history of Quoc ngu script and Vietnamese linguistics). A scientific report at the fifth International Symposium on Pan Asiatic Linguistics.

7. A.J.L.Taberd. Nam Việt Dương hiệp tự vị Dictionaerium Anamitico - Latinum, Serampore, 1838.

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