David Lan Pham (Pham Dinh Lan)

Is the Vietnamese language purely Vietnamese?


The whole world has 6,900 official languages and dialects.  China and India are two large and populous countries.  The former has 400- 500 different dialects.  The latter has 2.000 ones.  It was written in the Indian Constitution that Hindi and English are two vehicle languages in this sub- continent.  The Philippines has more than 7,000 islands.  It has 13 languages in which the most important one is the Tagalog.  Besides there are 171 dialects spoken in the archipelago.  The same linguistic complexity is found in the Indonesian archipelago that has 583 languages and dialects.  Javanese is spoken by 86 million people.

It is difficult for an ethnic community living in the same country but speaking different dialects to communicate and understand one another perfectly.  China has a long historic past.  It had its characters long time ago but the locals pronounced it differently because each area had its own dialect.  Hu Shi and Chen Duxui gave birth to the Cultural Revolution in China after they graduated from foreign Universities.  Hu Shi studied in the United States.  Chen Duxui studied in Japan then in France.   In 1949 Mao Zedong founded the People’s Republic of China.  The Mandarin, a Northern dialect used by the mandarins in Beijing, became the Chinese official language.  So far the Chinese Communist authority in Beijing gets angry at the residents of Guangdong, who keep on using their Cantonese, and seem not to understand the Northerners speaking Mandarin.  At this point the Vietnamese pride of maintaining their language after more than 1,000 years under Chinese domination loses its peculiarity for all the ethnic minorities, the Po Yue,  living in the South of the Yang Tze, learned the Chinese characters by pronouncing them in their own dialects.  The Cantonese have been Chinese but they keep speaking their local language.  The Vietnamese Confucian scholars learned the Chinese characters they called chu Han without conversing with the Chinese.  Phan Boi Chau (Sao Nam) wrote Chinese characters during his conversation with Leang Ki Chao and Sun Yat Sen.  The primordial Vietnamese language was from the language spoken by the Muong.  It did not relate to the Mon- Khmer.  The Muong were the true architects of the Dongsonian culture with famous bronze drums.  They were authors of the Vietnamese fairy tales and obstinate militants hiding in the jungles to  struggle against Chinese invaders in many centuries.  The Khuat Lieu Cave, Hoa Lu Cave, Lam Son Cave remind us of blood relations between the Viet and the Muong.  Ngo Si Lien was right when highlighting and praising the Muong in his Dai Viet su Ky (History of Dai Viet), a valuable book of history published under the Later Le.

After 11 centuries under Chinese domination the Vietnamese language got abundant thanks to the presence of Chinese characters.  Our forefathers learned Chinese characters which were taught by the Confucian bacheliers (thay do) in their private schools.  The triennial contests were a copy of those of China.  All the royal decrees, reports, diplomatic minutes or administrative correspondence were written in Chinese characters.  Beside plain Vietnamese there were Sino- Vietnamese words which were phonetically similar to Cantonese (Canton or Guangzhou- Quang Chau is the capital of Guangdong province).  We have:

Vietnamese                         Sino- Vietnamese  
Vua (king)                            Vuong
Mot (one)                              Nhat
Hai (two)                               Nhi
Ba (three)                             Tam
Bon (four)                             Tu
Ngay (day)                            Nhat
Thit (meat)                            Nhuc
Bo (cow)                              Nguu
Trau (water buffalo)              Thuy Nguu
Troi (Heaven)                       Thien
Dat (Earth)                            Dia
Con (son)                             Tu
Truoc (pre-)                          Tien
Sau (post-)                           Hau etc.        

A  large number of Chinese words relating to food and games were Vietnamized and used in the daily life such as: hoanh thanh, dau chao quay, banh bao, xa xiu, bo bia, tai xiu, di dach, xap xam etc.            
In the field of politics, law, medicine, pharmacy, mathematics, philosophy, arts, architecture, religion, history, geography, geology... all the compound nouns have their Sino- Vietnamese roots.  Hoang Xuan Han compiled Danh Tu Khoa Hoc (Scientific Nomenclature) by using Sino- Vietnamese when translating French scientific names into Vietnamese.  He was a Westernized scholar knowing the Chinese characters.  In the botanical field trees, plants or vines have their Latino- Greek names.  In Asia they bear Chinese, Indian or Sanskrit names.

Buddhism has its wide influence in Vietnam.  It is about Mahayana Buddhism taught by the Chinese Buddhist monks.  The Buddhist Sutras were written in Chinese characters.  All the incantations in Sanskrit were phoneticized by the Chinese Buddhist monks.  The Buddhist followers recite them without understanding their meanings.  As a result, Hindi words are not abundant in the Vietnamese language.  Siddharta becomes Tat Dat Ta; Sakya Muni (the philosopher of the Sakya): Thich Ca Mau Ni; Nirvana:  niet ban; karma: nghiep chuong; bodhi: cay bo de; Mahayana: dai thua; Hinayana: tieu thua etc.

In the course of the Vietnamese people’s Nam Tien (March to the South) the Vietnamese language became more abundant due to the contact with the Cham imbued with Hindu and Islamic cultures, with the Khmers influenced by Hinduism then by Hinayana Buddhism, and to the severity of the absolute monarchy. 

The city names such as Phan Rang, Phan Ri, Phan Thiet reflect the influence of the Cham language which came from Hindi and Sanskrit.  Champa, the country’s name the Vietnamese called Chiem Thanh, was a Hindi name meaning ‘red jasmine’ Plumeria rubra.

Many city, trees and plants names in Cochinchina such as My Tho (Mesa: White Lady), Sa    Dec (Phsar Deck:  iron market), Bac Lieu ( Po- Loeuth: tall banyan tree); Ca Mau (Tuk Khmau: black water); thot not  (thnot- sugar palm); binh bat (mean bat- Jamaica apple),  xoai (sway- mango); muom (muom- xoai muom- small and ugly mango) etc. reflect the influence of the Khmer language.

In the feudal times it was forbidden for the grassroots to mention the king’s’ name and that of the queen, and those of all the members of the royal family.  In the triennial contests any candidates, who mentioned the king’s name in their dissertations, must fail. This violation was considered an insolence toward the monarch, who received his mandate from God Almighty.  In consequence, we have many synonyms that are not homophones (homonyms).  NHAN becomes NHON; NGHIA: NGAI; DUC: DUOC; PHUC: PHUOC; DAM: DOM; HOA: HUE; HONG: HUONG; NHAM: NHIEM; TON: TONG etc.  Ho Thi Hoa, a lady originally from Binh An district, Bien Hoa province, became Queen under the reign of Minh Mang.  In order to avoid her first name HOA (flower), Cau Hoa was changed to Cau Bong; Thanh Hoa to Thanh Hoa.  Hoa loi (income) became Hue loi; Hoa kieu (Chinese immigrants): Hue kieu etc.  In 1862 the French occupied the three Eastern provinces of Cochinchina.  Tran Tu Ca, a communal civil servant in Hoc Mon, became a French collaborator and converted to Catholicism.  He was placed on the book of doc phu su, an administrative title created on Ton Tho Tuong’s suggestion to encourage the Vietnamese collaborators, who were loyal to the colonial authority.  He was called Phu Ca.  His name was Ca.  Therefore, the residents of Sai Gon- Gia Dinh called xoai thanh instead of xoai thanh ca.

Vo Truong Toan, a Minh huong (citizen of the Ming in Cochinchina), was considered the Great Master in Cochinchina in the 18th century.  The Minh huong had their active contributions to the ground preparation in Cochinchina.  Trinh Hoai Duc, Ngo Nhan Tinh, Le Quang Dinh served Lord Nguyen Anh actively and successfully during the civl war between the Nguyen and the Tay Son.  Under the reign of Minh Mang, Phan Thanh Gian, another Minh huong, passed the doctoral contest.  He was the first Cochinchinese receiving the doctoral title under the Nguyen dynasty.  Unlike the Vietnamese Confucian scholars  Minh huong Confucian scholars read the Chinese characters in both Vietnamese and Cantonese (Most Minh huong were from Guangdong).

The current Latinized quoc ngu (national language) was an invention of a French Catholic priest named Alexandre de Rhodes in the 17th century in order to facilitate his teaching of Catholic catechism.  Catholicism was banned by the Trinh in Dang Ngoai (North).  The Catholic followers were graved on their foreheads with these words: Hoc theo Hoa Lan Dao (Studying the Dutch religion).  To the Trinh’s knowledge, the Dutch were Roman Catholics.  In reality they were Protestants.  Unlike the French, Spanish and Portuguese, the Dutch paid more attention to commerce than to religious propagation.   Because Catholicism was banned  the quoc ngu was not taught in the Catholic community in Dang Ngoai (North).  In Cochinchina Pigneau de Behaine (Ba Da Loc) taught Catholicism in Hon Dat, Ha Tien along the Gulf of Siam (Thailand).  This French Catholic priest tried to convince king Louis XVI to help Nguyen Anh defeat the Tay Son.  France should have a lot of politico- economic and religious favors after Nguyen Anh’s military victory.  In 1862 the 1867 the French occupied whole Cochinchina and made it a French colony which was served as an economic and military base before attacking Tonkin and Annam.  The quoc ngu  and French were taught in Cochinchinese schools.  The Cochinchinese Catholics were the early Vietnamese learning French and quoc ngu.  Petrus Truong Vinh Ky, Paulus Huynh Tinh Cua, Truong Minh Ky contributed to the development of the quoc ngu by writing tales, poems in quoc ngu and by translating Chinese and French books into quoc ngu.  Petrus Truong Vinh Ky created Gia Dinh Bao, the first Vietnamese newspaper, in 1865.  Strictly speaking it was not a newspaper.  It was a Journal Officiel spread news and achievements of the colonial authority in Cochinchina.  Le Phat Dat, Queen Nam Phuong’ s grand father, was Catholic.  He knew French and quoc ngu.  He graduated from Ecole des Interpretes of which Petrus Truong Vinh Ky was a teaching member.  French and quoc ngu helped him get the title of HOC SI (scholar) and HUYEN HONORAIRE.  From then on he was called HUYEN SI.
Cochinchina was a French colony where the French established their direct administrative system.  Tonkin and Annam were under the French protectorate.  The Vietnamese king had his nominal power in Tonkin and Annam.  The triennial contest was abolished in Tonkin in 1915.  In 1918 it was abolished in Annam.  In reality, French and quoc ngu took their roots there before the abolition of Confucian education.  Tu Xuong (Tran Te Xuong) felt he was not only unsuccessful in the triennial contest but also outdated when complaining:

The Confucian studies fail in our time
Nine of ten students quit them.

The French introduced Catholicism, arts, music, sports, architecture, education, sciences and technology including haircut and art of making leather shoes into Vietnam.  The Bible was translated into quoc ngu.  Catholicism was translated into Vietnamese and became dao Gia To.  Some country’s names in the Middle East were phonetically Vietnamized.  For example: Syria: Sy- ri-a; Israel: Is- ra- en (Do Thai); Jesus: Gie- Su etc.  The Communists in North Vietnam during the country’s partition did the same thing when changing Washington to Oa- sinh-tong; Lenin: Le- Nin; Stalingrad: Xi-ta-lingo-rad; Paris: Par-ri; Geneve: Gio-neo-vo; Trotsky: To- rot- ky etc.

French words were introduced into the Vietnamese language under French rule.    They were Vietnamized and used in the daily life.  They are:   O to (automobile),  cui-dia (cuillere), cai tach (tasse), xe hu lo (rouleau), xe bu-et (brouette), ruou vang (vin), bia (biere), cai xa lach (salade), pho-mai (fromage), bo (beurre), top (stop-tieng Anh), o-liu (olive), ca to mat (tomate), cai xa lach son (cresson), ca phe (cafe), cao su (caoutchouc), thit coc-let (cotelette), cay lap (l’arbre), cay den (bielle), cai mo-let (molette), bu-lon (boulon), day lap long (fil a plomb), cai tong-do (tondeuse), phim (film), sam (chambre), cai phanh (frein), phu lit (police), sen dam (gendarme), linh san da (soldat), ong ach (adjudant), ong cai (caporal), ba dam (dame), banh mi ba-ghet (baguette), ba-do (base), sut (soude), xa bong (savon), o-me-let (omelette), hot ga op- la (oeufs sur plat), ba gai (bagarre), lam reo (greve-dinh cong), lam co-ve (corvee), dau que (haricot vert), con vet (verte - con ket mau xanh la cay), trai bom (bombe), trai bom (pomme), ong bom (pompe), trai so- ri (cerise), ach (ace), danh cat-te (cartes), co (coeur), ro (carreau), bich (pique), ra-gu (ragout), bip-tet (beefsteak), top (stop) (arret) etc.

A thing is named when it exists and when people see it.  The Vietnamese know rice and rice flour.  Before French rule they did not know either wheat or bread made from wheat flour.  Their knowledge of geography and anthropology was absent.  They called the Africans in the French army ‘Tay Den’ (Black French) because those African soldiers were tall like the French but their complexion was black.  The French call wine VIN which becomes ruou vang in Vietnamese.  Based on the colors we have ruou vang do (red wine) or ruou vang trang (white wine).  Wine is called ruou chat because of its acrid taste.  It is also called ruou nho when people find out that it iss made from grapes.  The motorcycle was called xe binh bich because of the noise from the engine and muffler.  Later it was called xe mo- to, the first two syllables of the brand Motobecane.  People called the plane may bay (flying engine) because it flew in the sky like the bird, the ship tau thuy (thuy: water) to oppose tau hoa (hoa: fire), the train, which ran on the rails with hot coals in releasing black smoke darkening a part of the sky.  Western music was different from Vietnamese traditional one.  The musical instruments such as trumpets, drums, cymbals had nothing in common with our dan bau, dan kim, dan gao, dan tranh, ong tieu, trong com...One timeWestern music was called am nhac cai cach (reformed music) then tan nhac (modern music).  Western musical instruments had their Vietnamese names such as bang-gio (banjoline), mang-do- lin (mandoline), ghi-ta (guitare), Tay Ban Cam (guitare espagnole), Ha Uy Cam (guitare hawaiienne), ken hat-mo-ni-ca (harmonica - khau cam), dan ac-cot-de-ong (accordeon - phong cam), pi-a-no (piano - duong cam), vi-o-long - vi cam (violon) etc.

Some English words were used in the Vietnamese language under French rule.  They related to the sports, games and food such as banh (ball), be-nanh-ty (penalty), giu gon (goal keeper), to-nit (tennis), danh boc (boxing), banh bong (pingpong), bong ro (basket ball), vo-lay, bong chuyen (voley ball) v.v.  The children started their games with danh, tu, ti (one, two, three).  The words sandwiches, beefsteak, whisky were used in Vietnam before the American arrival in 1960s.

The Vietnamese language got literary and politically internationalist for being full of Sino-Vietnamese, Russian and foreign words after Lin, the Russian name of Nguyen Ai Quac, future Ho chi Minh, who finished the political training in Moscow, went to Hong Kong to found the Vietnam Communist Party on the orders of Stalin (1930).  The following words were repeated every day in the rural areas after the August Revolution: binh san (equal property), tu ban chu nghia (capitalism), xa hoi chu nghia (socialism), cong san (communism), bon-se-vit (bolsheviks), men-se-vit (mensheviks), lo- gic (logique), pham tru (norm), abc (antibochevistes), tu san (bourgeois), tri thuc tieu tu san (petit bourgeois intellectuel), tri (intellectuals), phu (rich people), dia (landlords), hao (notables), dan chu (democracy), binh dang (egality), binh quyen (equal rights), vo san (proletarians), tu huu (private property), nhan sinh quan (human view point), the gioi quan (global view point), khach quan lich su (historic objectivity), chu quan lich su (historic subjectivity), duy vat bien chung (materialistic dialectics), giai cap dau tranh (class struggle), giai phong (liberation), mat tran (front), lien doan (league), lien minh (alliance), thuc dan (colonialists), phong kien (feudal), phat xit (fascists) ...The word Thanh Nien (Youth) replaced Boys, Girls; Phu Nu, Lao Ong, Lao Ba instead Dan Ba (woman), Ong Gia (Old man), Ba Gia (Old Woman); NHI DONG instead of Tre Con, Con Nit (children).  The Viet Minh cadres used Sino- Vietnamese words instead of plain Vietnamese ones.  Asking about age they said: “Anh duoc bao nhieu nien ky?” (NIEN -Sino- Vietnamese: Year.  KY- Sino- Vietnamese: Age).  During the Franco- Vietnamese War we found some changes in spelling in the Viet Minh- controlled areas.  In the quoc ngu alphabets there are no F, J, W, Z.  The Viet Minh used F to replace PH.  They wrote FAP instead of PHAP (France).  They used Z to replace GI in the SKZ.  At the first glance this abbreviation seemed to be the brand name of a bazooka made in USSR, Germany or Czechoslovakia.  SKZ was the abbreviation of Sung Khong Zat (recoilless bazooka) made of steel from the railroad by Tran Dai Nghia born Pham Quang Chanh.  Y was abolished.  MY was written MI.  The hyphen was abolished in North Vietnam after 1954 excep for Truong- Chinh, pseudonym of the General Secretary of Dang Lao Dong Viet Nam.

There were two different political regimes in Vietnam during the country’s partition.  North Vietnam was under the influence of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China.  These two Communist powers rivaled each other to lead the Communist bloc.  In South Vietnam the French lost their influence to the Americans.  French was taught in high schools.  From the 1960s on, English got more and more important in South Vietnam.
Although Communist, the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China could not hide their deep contradictions.  The Soviet Union cherished genuine Marxism- Leninism struggling for the working class.  Mao Zedong modified Marxism- Leninism to give birth to Maoism paying more attention to the farming class and to the expansion of the Han (Pan- Hanism).  The People’s Republic of China was heavily influential in North Vietnam after 1954.  It helped the Viet Minh with weapons, medicine, food, military and political advisors during the Franco- Vietnamese war.  Ho Chi Minh received Soviet training.  He was afraid that Truong- Chinh strongly supported by the Chinese Communists would eclipse him.  North Vietnam tried to vulgarize Vietnamese and to change the Lunar Calendar that was slightly different from that of China (1967) as an act of hostility to the Chinese Communists in the purpose of pleasing the Soviet Union and showing the North Vietnamese that the Ha Noi government was not dependent upon Beijing.  As a result we have ho xi instead of cau tieu, nha ve sinh (WC), xuong de instead of nha bao sanh (maternity); may bay instead of phi co (plane); may bay len thang instead of truc thang (helicopter); linh thuy danh bo instead of thuy quan luc chien (marine). The Vietnamese Communists called the American or South Vietnamese pilots giac lai (corsairs in space) etc.  They were demagogic and contradictory when spreading many Sino- Vietnamese words with their incomprehensible and exaggerated meanings such as ho khau (household certificate), xe cai tien (Brouette; wheelbarrow), tong tay quan (sweeper- Quan: official, mandarin), van cong (writer- van cong: literary worker), nghe nhan (artist), cong nghe (industry), vo san chuyen chinh (proletarian absolutism), tap the hoa nong nghiep (agricultural collectivization) etc.  All of these words bore their Sino- Vietnamese seal.

In North Vietnam the Communist government vulgarized the Vietnamese vocabulary.  In contrast to North Vietnam, the Sino- Vietnamese words were in vogue in South Vietnam.  Most teachers of Vietnamese literature graduated from the Sino- Vietnamese Section of the Faculty of Pedagogy.  President Ngo Dinh Diem was deeply influenced by Catholicism, Confucianism and Western culture.  He was a devoted Roman Catholic spending some years in the United States.  He liked to end his speech with the sentence:  Xin On Tren Phu Ho Chung Ta that reminds us of May God Bless Us.  The American English words were not found in the Vietnamese language except for some English words appearing under French rule.  From 1954 to 1975 the United States was influential in South Vietnam economically, militarily and politically.  In these two decades the following words were continually repeated as a criteria the South Vietnamese must reach and a duty they must accomplish: cong dong (community), phat trien cong dong (community development), khuyech truong kinh te (economic development), tu do (freedom), dan chu (democracy), cong hoa (Republic), tong thong che (presidential regime), chu nghia nhan vi (Personalism), Can Lao (Labor- Work), Lien Doi (Solidarity), da thuc (anti- colonialism), bai phong (anti- feudalism), diet cong (Communist extermination) v.v.  The lovely slogans mentioned by President Ngo Dinh Diem were Cai Tien San Sinh (People’s livehood improvement) and Dong Tien Xa Hoi (Social Co- Progress).


Regardingthe Vietnamese language, Vietnamese characters, the current quoc ngu, and foreign languages we have three following hostile opinions:

  1. This current quoc ngu was a French product.  The French invaded our country and spread it.  Some extremists suggested to abolish it to restore the NOM which was a Vietnamese pure product.
  2. Some people propose to abolish Sino- Vietnamese vocabulary in the Vietnamese language to show our cultural independence.  The more we used the Sino- Vietnamese words the more the listeners lose their comprehension.
  3. The Vietnamese language is abundant.  It is not necessary to learn foreign languages.


There were no Vietnamese characters before French rule.  There was no Ministry of Education in Luc Bo (Six Ministries).  In 1932 king Bao Dai returned to Hue after studying in France for ten years.  He created the Ministry of Education (Bo Hoc: Ministry of Learning).  In the past the Ministry of Rites was in charge of religions, rites, diplomacy, education.  In reality, there were no public schools in our country in the 19th century.  The Quoc Tu Giam (National College) was founded in the capital to educate the courtiers’ children.  The teachers were mostly Confucian bacheliers (thay do) or retired mandarins opening private schools in their houses.  They taught Chinese characters (chu Han).  The French invaders asked our people to learn French and quoc ngu like the Chinese invaders had taught Chinese characters to our ancestors.  The difference was that chu Han (Chinese characters) were the characters of the Northern invaders while the quoc ngu was not the characters of the Western invaders.  The quoc ngu was Latinized by Alexandre de Rhodes based on the Vietnamese pronunciation.  From the politico- historic view point there was tearful and bloody friction between France and Vietnam.  But the quoc was innocent.  It is culturally useful to our country for the Latin alphabets are worldwide.  Turkey and Indonesia are two Islamic countries adopting the Latin alphabets.  Why do we think of the restoration and use of the NOM?  In reality, the NOM did not play any important role in our history of education and in the triennial contests.  King Quang Trung was right when thinking of the replacement of  the Chinese characters by the NOM.  He came to the throne in 1789 and died in 1792.  The civil war between the Nguyen and the Tay Son was going to end at the expense of the Tay Son.  In 1801 the Tay Son collapsed.  The NOM did not have any brilliant development even on Tay Son soil.  King Quang Trung’s idea was revolutionary in the18th century but it is not convenient in our time after the quoc ngu showed its rapid development.   With the quoc ngu it is easy to expand public education which is not smooth with the NOM.  It takes 06 months for an illiterate to learn and to read the quoc ngu.  How long does it take to learn and to read the NOM?  Who teaches it?  It is easy to speak plain words.  But learning the NOM is not easy.  Students must know basic Chinese characters before learning the NOM.  In appearance, the Latinized quoc ngu  has nothing in common with the Chinese characters.  In the 19th century, after Cochinchina became a French colony, many rich Vietnamese did not send their children to school to learn French and the quoc ngu.  They hired the other children to go to school in place of their children not to be charged with having anti- French attitude by the colonial authority.

The abolition of the Sino- Vietnamese words should turn our language sterile.  There are many fields which are independent from politics and nationalism.  Languages, arts, Sciences and technology...are these independent fields.  In the previous pages we see many Vietnamese words borrowed from the foreign countries.  All the languages in the world enriched their vocabulary by borrowing foreign words.  The American English is more abundant than British English because it borrows many words from many different foreign  countries.   The development of American sciences and technology is very rapid.  Thousands of new products are manufactured every year.  They need naming.  The American dictionary gets thicker and thicker for it has 3,000- 5,000 new words every year.  Borrowing foreign words is enriching our language.  It does not cause any damage.  We do not pay any penny for borrowing foreign vocabulary.  English, French and European languages have their Greek and Latin roots.  The Americans have no inferiority complex when speaking English, the language of their old bosses and enemies.  Neither do the French and Europeans when using any words deriving from Latin for, in the past, their countries were under Roman rule.  The Indians (Hindus) feel comfortable when speaking English, the language of the  people colonizing their country.  To a certain extent English is easier than their own dialects.    Did India not have its millenary culture and civilization?  The Canadians never feel uncomfortable when they speak French and English.  Neither do the Swiss when speaking German, French and Italian.

With the Sino- Vietnamese in our language Vietnam does not have a perfect dictionary.  It does not have its Academy yet.  Without the Sino- Vietnamese this imperfect dictionary should lose 45% of its thickness.  The Vietnamese illiterates in the mid 20th century knew ma ta, phu lit without knowing canh sat (police).  A Vietnamese with his modest level of education in the United States knows money order without knowing its Vietnamese translation ngan linh.  He knows food stamp but he ignores tem phieu luong thuc.  It is a matter of habit.  ‘Voter’ is translated into Sino- Vietnamese cu tri.   In plain Vietnamese  cu tri  is nguoi di bo phieu or nguoi di bau.  ‘Electoral college’ is translated into Sino- Vietnamese cu tri doan that would be doan nguoi di bo phieu (a group of voters)in plain Vietnamese?  ‘Electoral college’ is not the synonym of ‘the group of voters’.  Quoc gia doc lap (Sino- Vietnamese) would become nuoc nha dung mot minh in plain Vietnamese?  Between Quoc Gia doc lap and nuoc nha dung mot minh which one is simpler, more harmonious, comprehensible, and properly meaningful?  In the event of abolishing Sino- Vietnamese what nouns would we use to replace compound nouns such as chanh tri (politics), tu do (freedom), dan chu (democracy), Cong Hoa (Republic), Quoc Hoi (Congress), Hien Phap (Constitution), ngan hang (bank), thi truong (market), kinh te (economy), thuong mai (commerce)...?  ‘Dai nhan’ (great man) would become nguoi lon.  The listeners figure nguoi lon, an adult, over 18 years of age or a tall man 2 m high.  ‘Tieu nhan’ (mean man) would become nguoi nho (tieu: nho <small>; nhan: nguoi <man>), who attracts the listeners’ imagination that he is less than 1.50 m high.  Do ‘dai nhan’ and ‘nguoi lon’ have the same meaning?  We ask the same question for ‘tieu nhan’ and ‘nguoi nho’.

The clearness of a language depends on the communication capacity of the speaker mastering the problems he talks about and on the level of receptive ability of the listeners.  Each subject has its own vocabulary.  It is not true to use plain words to simplify the complications and to turn incomprehensible problems comprehensible.  The slogans Muoi Sau Chu Vang (16 Golden Words) and Bon Tot (Four Good) do not contain any Sino- Vietnamese root.  They are easily understood but they imply countless dangerous and cruel schemes upsetting our understanding.  Languages have their grammar, beauty and value.  They are served to evaluate the speakers and the listeners as well.  Latin and Sanskrit were difficult and complicated.  They were sent to death to become dead languages (langues mortes).  The simplicity and complication of a language depends on the politico- national institution, national socio- economic situation, cultural and educational development and the people’s capacity of reasoning.  As soon as the United States became independent it simplified the way of speaking English.  British English was complicated because Great Britain was a kingdom.  Its language had its social classes hierarchy.  The Vietnamese monarchic regime was not an exception.  A number of specific words were used by the king and the royal family only.  These words were:  long nhan (king’s face), long the (king’s body), long bao (king’s robe),ngoc ty (king’s seal), thanh y (king’s thoughts), nui ngu (mountain visited by the king), chuoi ngu (banana eaten by the king),ngu tru (royal cook),ngu y (king’s doctor), vua se minh (the king falls sick), vua bang ha (the king dies- bang ha: glacier), hoang tu (prince), cong chua (princess), hoang hau (queen), hoang hau lam bon (queen’s delivery) etc.  American English in the 18th century was simple because the United State was a young democratic Republic.  In the 20th century American economy was prosperous; the people’s livelihood was high; education was soaring not only in the cities but also in the rural areas.  The people’s level of education was high enough.  The language simplicity decreased.  That did not mean that American English lost its brightness.  The American bourgeois began their kingly life, and loved vocabulary used by the European bourgeois and noblemen.  However, they were not so ridiculous that they called the chair the sitting wooden instrument.  Sometimes the finicality and complication comes from human will to distinguish and to separate a certain group of humans from the other ones.  If all the roads are straight the landscape will be monotonous.  That is why we have dangerous and meandering roads making the scenery picturesque and forcing the drivers to be more careful.  Linguistic complication and incomprehension is similar to these dangerous and meandering roads.

It takes two days to finish cementing a 50 m2 wall.  But it takes 20 days to carve a 0.50 m2 column.  The artistic beauty of the house is the 0.50 m2 carved column but not the 50 m2 wall.
European languages have their complicated grammar which makes them clearer and brighter.  Their grammar comes from analysis, synthesis and scientific arguments.  Through the verbs conjugation we can evaluate the speaker and know when the events happened (past, present, future etc.).  The absence of S indicates Singular.  The presence of He, She, It, Il, Elle inform the readers of a male, a female, persons, animals or things etc.  The linguistic clearness tells us about the respect of regulations and law, and scientific spirit from  curious people, who try to get the right answer to 5WH + H (What, Why, Who, When, Where and How).  The perfect answer helps them discover something good and new in the world we live in.  Thorny questions and perfect answers require democracy.  There will not be initiatives and inventions without freedom.


Under French rule those Vietnamese, who were good at French and quoc ngu like Petrus Truong Vinh Ky, Diep Van Cuong, Le Phat Dat, Nguyen Huu Bai, Ngo Dinh Kha, Pham Quynh, Nguyen Van Vinh... were famous and powerful in colonial society.  After the August Revolution many people suffered and even faced the death for speaking French!  Since the founding of the Vietnam Communist Party (1930) a latent political wave has excited the folk to scorn the intellectuals in society.  The despise of the intellectuals blossomed not only in the Communist regime in North Vietnam but also in the military regime in South Vietnam.  Tri thuc ‘bo sua’; Tri thuc trum chan; Tri thuc khong bang cuc phan; Tri thuc ‘sa long’; Tri thuc xoi thit; Tri thuc troi ga khong chat ...were heard.  The intellectuals were linked to butter, milk, comfortable life, words but not actions etc.  According to Mao Zedong, they were not as valuable as the manure!  The word ‘laureate’ had its ironical and pejorative meaning.  Bui Qang Chieu and many members of his family were murdered.  Ho Van Nga was killed without a tomb.  Nguyen Van Sam was assassinated on a crowded bus.  Tran Duc Thao had mental health problems.  Nguyen Manh Tuong was about dying of starvation.  Phan Khoi fell into oblivion.  Tran Anh, Le Minh Tri, Tran Van Van, Nguyen Van Bong were assassinated. 

The proletarians and illiterates were honored and praised in society and in the dramas but people could not hide their despise toward needy teachers through the following verses:  Ngheo ma trong sach (Poor but honest); Hoc tro di mo ca sac (The students grope for fish); Thay giao o nha nha...(The teacher cut his ... to cook soup at home)...Dua leo cham voi ca keo (Cucumbers are soaked in salted gobies); Hoc tro ngheo di hoc not- man (normale) (Needy students choose Ecole Normale) etc.

The intellectuals faced poverty, starvation, imprisonment, assassination, corporal suppression.  Some spent the rest of their life in the Buddhist pagodas to avoid earthy disasters.  Some left their country to enjoy freedom air.  Through the ups and downs  of their life the ordinary people felt that ignorance was the shield of their safety and happiness.  It would be a huge disadvantage for our people and country if we had prejudice against the intellectuals by linking them to the foreigners.  It was a vague, harmful and irresponsible induction.  The self- isolation policy was useless to the country’s progress.  The closed- door policy of the Nguyen in the 19th century was a copy of the Qing’s  which aimed at breaking off relations with the Westerners and at fighting the White Barbarians.  That policy failed to protect our independence.  China, a large and populous country, was dismembered by the Western countries.  The policy of self- isolation and closure did not help our king and his courtiers see the path leading our people and country to prosperity, freedom and happiness.  European countries pay attention to teaching foreign languages.  Japan and South Korea plan to hire American  educators to teach English to elementary school students in order that the latter acquire perfect pronunciation and comprehension.  Countries that pay interest in foreign languages  are conscious of the linguistic importance helping them update mankind ‘s global progress.
What foreign language are we interested in, in the event of studying foreign languages?  Why?

Following are the important foreign languages in the world:

  1. Mandarin:  935 million speakers (14% of the world’s population).  It is spoken in Continental China, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia.
  2. Spanish: 387 million speakers (5.85% of the world’s population).  It is spoken in Central America, Islands the the Caribbean Sea, South America except for Brazil, Spain.
  3. English: 365 million speakers (5.52% of the world’s population).  It is spoken in the United States, United Kingdom, Ireland, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand.
  4. Hindi: 295 million Hindu speakers (4.46% of the world’s population).  The population of India is 1.1 billion people.
  5. Arabic: 280 million speakers (4.23% of the world’s population).  It is spoken in North Africa, Middle East except for Israel.
  6. Portuguese: 204 million speakers (3.06% of the world’s population).  It is spoken in Brazil, Portugal, Angola, Mozambique.
  7. Bengali: 202 million speakers (3.05% of the world’s population.  It is spoken in Bangladesh and areas along the Bay of Bengal.
  8. Russian: 160 million speakers (2.42% of the world’s population).  It is spoken in Russia, Central Asia, Mongolia, Israel.
  9. Japanese: 127 million speakers (1.92% of the world’s population).

The English speakers rank 3rd after the Mandarin and Spanish speakers.  But English has been worldwide since the 19th century.  The number of the Hindus speaking  English is bigger than the population of the United Kingdom. People living the remote  areas of former Soviet Republics in Central Asia, Tibet, Xinjiang, Mongolia...can speak English. 

English is necessary for Vietnam to form the intellectual force for the country’s development.  It is understood that the United State and United Kingdom have been well known for their sciences, technology, industrialization, prosperous economy, flourishing commerce.  These two countries received 57% of the Nobel prizes in the fields of sciences, technology, economics, politics etc.  The Soviet Union then Russia received less prizes than Sweden (27- 30). Compared with Switzerland and Holland Russia is larger and more populous.  But the total Nobel prizes received by Russia was slightly bigger than those received by Switzerland (27- 26) and Holland (27- 19).

English is easier and more practical than Mandarin, Spanish, Russian, French, German, Italian, Japanese.  That is the reason why we must pay interest in English.


I am not a linguist.  This article is not a linguistic study.  I expose some of my personal opinions in the hope of getting some from the readers in order to complete and to correct shortcomings, if existent.  The strength of a people is not in someone’s  eminent capacity but in the co-operation of the popular collectivity.  We cannot mention the name of any Japanese orator but we can tell a series of splendid successes the Japanese people did in all the fields of activity.  We must be courageous to recognize our country’s  weakness for lack of collective force in spite of some individuals having good scores in school or receiving honorable diplomas from the most famous World’s Universities.  Now we are no longer Vietnamese citizens.  It is certain we feel anguish at  our native country’s gloominess.  We left this lovely country with tears in eyes and persistent sobs in our painful hearts.


David Lan Pham (Pham Dinh Lan), F.A.B.I.


Cái Đình - 2013