STILL NO Z IN VIETNAMESE.

A reader (thanks, Caroline!) sent me a link to this Economist post about a decision by the Vietnamese Ministry of Education not to add the extra letters f, j, w, and z to the alphabet:

Vietnamese scholars took the opportunity to talk about what the script means to them. The debate has mostly been over modernisation and global integration versus cultural integrity. Pham Van Tinh, of the Institute of Lexicography and Encyclopaedia, argued that “these letters are very popular in many languages in the world” and that people already come across them in science and other areas. But another professor said that scripts are part of a country’s “cultural heritage”, perhaps forgetting for a moment how recently quoc ngu had been adopted.
In the end, inertia won out. Changing the alphabet would have taken a lot of work and cost. Add to that the fact that Vietnam has a habit of ignoring its own legislation, whether on public smoking or motorcycle helmets. Getting another generation to sing a new alphabet song and under-resourced schools to print up new alphabet posters would have taken scarce time and money. Those who want to use f and the rest are just going to have to do it without official sanction.

I always like the idea of doing things without official sanction. But while I’m on the subject, does anybody know the story with Zien Hong, name of a Vietnamese restaurant in Portland, Oregon, and of a former publishing house in Saigon? I’m thinking it may have to do with the fact that d and gi are both pronounced /z/ in the northern dialect, but I’d love to know the details.

Comments

  1. Vietnam has a habit of ignoring its own legislation, whether on public smoking or motorcycle helmets.
    This happens in all sensible countries except for the Nordic ones, not only Vietnam.

  2. No, Crown, it’s not sensible at all. I can assure you that!

  3. It may not be sensible, but it’s heartening.

  4. I’ll make an exception for Argentina, then.

  5. I want to hear the Vietnamese alphabet song.

  6. For the introduction of z to make sense, they first would have to agree on whether d, r and gi are pronounced /z/ as in the north or /y/ as in the south… and some dialects still pronounce these three letter forms differently, unlike Ha Noi or Sai Gon !

  7. michael farris says:

    The historical info the article was pretty wrong. The French didn’t cause the transition from characters to Latin. They merely formalized a grass roots movement that had been going on for decades.
    And I don’t see any need to formally add the letters in question to the Vietnamese alphabet. Vietnamese speakers ime can and do use them in foreign names* but they’re not needed at all for Vietnamese words.
    I’ve never heard of a Vietnamese alphabet song but there is a traditional way of spelling words out loud that sounds a lot like singing. IIRC the final is spelt out loud, then the intitial then the tone and the whole thing repeated. I was hoping an example would be on youtube but
    *part of a long tradition of using non-Vietnamese names for non-Vietnamese foreign people and places. In times past Chinese and French international names were used to mediate between Vietnam and the outside world and now often English place names are dumped in the middle of otherwise all-Vietnamese texts.

  8. “Pham Van Tinh”: is this a case of “ph” doing service for “f”?
    P.S.: how is the “nh” pronounced?
    P.P.S.: if I were reforming an alphabet, it’s “l” I’d omit. It’s far too easily confused with “1″. I’d be tempted to omit “o” on similar grounds but I suppose I’d resist.

  9. Yes, ph is pronounced /f/.
    The pronunciation of nh differs between North and South. Technically, nh is /ɲ/ in the North and /n/ in the South. Omniglot has a passage with the words sinh, bình, and tình in it, read aloud by Northern and Southern speakers, although it’s read quite quickly so it may not be easy to pick them out of the stream of sound.
    The Vietnamese way of writing the letters in hand writing is actually rather ornate. The letter ‘l’ is looped, if I remember rightly, and ’1′ is the French style. No danger of getting them mixed up.

  10. Michael’s comment about the historical info was also correct. Alexandre de Rhodes was French, but it’s not correct to say that he ‘learned the language there in some six months and then transposed into his alphabet’. He was actually endebted to the work of earlier Portuguese missionaries. The Vietnamese alphabet is more Portuguese than French in inspiration, including the ‘nh’ mentioned above. A Frenchman would arguably have plumped for ‘gn(e)’ or somesuch.

  11. marie-lucie says:

    Bathrobe is right. Portuguese missionaries created the Vietnamese and Cambodian latinizations.

  12. michael farris says:

    “The pronunciation of nh differs between North and South. Technically, nh is /ɲ/ in the North and /n/ in the South”
    Word finally, though word initially it’s /ɲ/ everywhere as far as I know.

  13. Whoa! Here‘s the direct link, if you don’t mind getting dizzy.

  14. “in hand writing”: hee, hee, hee.

  15. marie-lucie says:

    Dizzy is the word! don’t wait for the end.

  16. “PPS how is the “nh” pronounced?”
    In south Việt Nam, it should be pronounced /n/, but some people pronounce it /ɲ/ like in north Việt Nam or a cross between the two. I believe the pronunciation is derived from Portuguese. Try asking people how to pronounce the city name of Nha Trang. Nha Trang in Cantonese would seem to have a “Ng” initial.
    According to Wikipedia, Nha Trang was based on Cham language Ya Trang.
    If you try saying the name in Mandarin, 芽庄 / 芽莊, without the center -u- sound of 庄 / 莊, then it would sound exactly like the way the Chams would have said it. Tr in Vietnamese, sometimes sounds like “z” of Chinese pinyin, and sometimes like the “dr” of “drum” in English.

  17. “Pham Van Tinh”: is this a case of “ph” doing service for “f”?
    Well, the Vietnamese borrowed the “ph” from the French language, which is /f/ but that’s not always the case: cà phê seems to have taken borrowed the word from French “café” but the ê is a clue that it’s actually an approximate of the way “coffee” is said in Mandarin, 咖啡, kāfēi.

  18. David Marjanović says:

    When the spelling system was invented, ph th kh were the aspirated counterparts of p t c; ph has shifted to [f], and kh to [x], but th is unchanged, says Wikipedia.
    The use of ê and ô for (what mostly still are) [e] and [o] is a Portuguese feature.
    Wikipedia also says tr is a retroflex [t].

  19. michael farris says:

    “Wikipedia also says tr is a retroflex [t].”
    then it’s wrong, it’s either
    a) a retroflex affricate (roughly [tS] with both being retroflex)
    b) a more palatal than English affricate [tS] with neither element being retroflex : identical to Vietnamese /ch/
    a) is more common in the South and b) is more common in the North though there are Northern dialects which distinguish /ch/ and /tr/.
    Most people agree that originally ph and kh were aspirated and then became fricatives. The weird thing with th and t is that the aspiration and fortis features appear in reverse combination from English. That is /t/ is unaspirated and fortis and /th/ is aspirated and (very) lenis, so much so that it’s all but inaudible at times.

  20. David Marjanović says:

    /th/ is aspirated and (very) lenis

    How does that work? Is it a consonant cluster of voiceless [d] and [h]?

  21. ê is a clue that it’s actually an approximate of the way “coffee” is said in Mandarin, 咖啡, kāfēi
    How is that so?
    The tones in ‘cà phê’ are a low syllable followed by a high one, which sounds to me closer to French than to Mandarin.

  22. “The Vietnamese alphabet is more Portuguese than French in inspiration, including the ‘nh’ mentioned above. A Frenchman would arguably have plumped for ‘gn(e)’ or somesuch.”
    And the French version would coincidentally have been more etymologically correct, at least in Chinese loanwords.

  23. michael farris says:

    “/th/ is aspirated and (very) lenis
    How does that work? Is it a consonant cluster of voiceless [d] and [h]?”
    No, I don’t think so. Listen to these and see what you hear:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d6k-Qvvlkio&feature=relmfu
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7dV9ZWBvEoA
    I’ll note that in all of them the th is more forcefully enunciated that in everyday connected speech where it can sound almost like /h/ (maybe with a glottal stop).
    But still both women (not so much the guy) pronounce the unaspirated /t/ with a lot more tension than aspirated /th/.

  24. And the French version would coincidentally have been more etymologically correct, at least in Chinese loanwords.
    Come again?

  25. David Marjanović says:

    But still both women (not so much the guy) pronounce the unaspirated /t/ with a lot more tension than aspirated /th/.

    What do you mean by “tension”? Length? I hear th as an ordinary aspirated fortis, somewhere between English t and Mandarin (Pinyin) t, and t as an ordinary voiceless lenis like Mandarin d, southern German d, and Spanish t.

  26. michael farris says:

    Not the way I hear them, listen to Wednesday ‘thu tu again.’ It might be easier to hear the difference in the vowels though there’s a tone difference too which doesn’t help
    and the speakers are definitely over-enunciating some for the sake of beginners. But I hear /t/ with a lot more tension in the mouth/neck muscles than /th/.
    Again, I’ve never had trouble hearing normal aspirated t’s, but the Vietnamese version can all but disappear in rapid speech for me.

  27. Swedish recently added w, so the Vietnamese situation is not unique…
    (This requires some elucidation. There is no official orthographic authority in Sweden or Finland. The most generally accepted guide to the spelling and inflection of words is the Swedish Academy Glossar (Svenska Akademiens ordlista, SAOL). In its last edition, in 2006, it was decided to list w separately. Previously, words and names containing w had been listed under v. Traditionally, there is no difference in pronunciation, but nowadays younger speakers often pronounce /w/ in English loanwords.)

  28. (N.b.: David placed names of letters in angle brackets, which unfortunately made them disappear when his comment was viewed, so I deleted the brackets.)

  29. David Marjanović says:

    But I hear /t/ with a lot more tension in the mouth/neck muscles than /th/.
    Oh. I agree with that. By “fortis”, I just mean “more pressure from the lungs”.

    Swedish recently added w

    The catalogue of the university library of Vienna began to distinguish i and j in 1972, and u and v at a similar date.

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