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The International Writers Magazine: Learning Languages

Vietnamese Loan Words
The vocabulary comes from Khmer, Chinese & French, but Vietnamese is a unique language.
• Antonio Graceffo



Vietnamese is one of only two major Mon-Khmer languages, the other being Khmer, the national language of Cambodia. Like Cambodia, Vietnam is a former French colony. And so, the Vietnamese language has acquired some loan words from French. I am not yet an expert on the Vietnamese language, but so far it appears that the bulk of the loan words are for concepts which the French introduced to Vietnam, such as: Nô-en (Noel), phó mát (cheese), and ca vát (neck tie).


Because of Vietnam’s close proximity to China, and a long and turbulent shared history, there is a significant Chinese influence on the Vietnamese language. Sixty percent or more of the vocabulary is Chinese. Chinese words are often easy to spot because they are one syllable words. Khmer words are normally multi-syllabic. Some Chinese words will consist of more than one Chinese character, put together, but these are compound words, and even in Vietnamese, these words would normally be written as two one-syllable words, with space between them.


Even the country name for Viet Nam is taken from Chinese, with Nam, Vietnamese for south, coming from the Chinese word for south, ?nán.


It is very telling to see which words in Vietnamese were borrowed from Chinese. For example, words related to education and school subjects are Chinese. History - l?ch s? in Vietnamese, ? ? lì sh? in Chinese. So, the word for history is clearly a loan word, from Chinese, and the pronunciation is fairly similar. Intelligent, thông minh in Vietnamese, ? ? c?ng míng in Chinese. Again, it is nearly the same.


Some compound words and loan words are extremely interesting, because they combine Khmer and Chinese or Khmer and French. For example, the Vietnamese word for glove can be bao tay or g?ng tay. The word “tay” is the Khmer word for hand. In the first example, bao is the Chinese word for wrap, package, or cover. So, the literal meaning is a covering for your hand. In the second example, “tay” is still hand but g?ng is most likely the Vietnamese pronunciation for the French word for glove (gant).


Dictionary in Vietnamese is t? ?i?n, in Chinese it is ?? cí di?n. The second syllable of both of these words is nearly identical. The first syllable is pronounced differently, but clearly comes from the same Chinese root.


Study in Vietnamese is h?c, and university is ??i h?c. If the Vietnamese use Chinese characters to write the title of a university they use the same traditional characters as Taiwan or Hong Kong. Study would be written ? And university would be written ? ?. But the interesting thing is the pronunciation. In Chinese, study is pronounced xué and university is dà xué (literally meaning big study). But the Vietnamese ??i h?c, although using the same Chinese characters, would have a pronunciation much closer to Korean (?? dae hak) than to modern Mandarin. This is most likely because the loan words in Vietnamese and Korean came centuries past, before Mandarin dialect became standard Chinese. Another similar example is “dormitory”: ky tuc xa in Vietnamese, and ??? (gi suk sa) in Korean. The Korean and Vietnamese pronunciations are quite similar. They would both use the same set of three Chinese characters, but the pronunciation would be completely different from modern spoken Mandarin, ? ? sù shè.


Another example of a connection between Korean (or older Chinese) with Vietnamese would be the word for happy, h?nh phúc, as in, “I’ll be happy if someone gives me a crossbow.” The modern Chinese word for “a happy” is ? ?g?o xìng. So, it isn’t even close, but the modern Korean word ? ? hang bok, is almost the same.


Sometimes all three languages align. The Vietnamese word for romantic lãng m?ng is almost identical to both the Chinese  ?? làng màn and the Korean ? ? lang man.


Telephone ?i?n tho?i in Vietnamese, ?? diàn huà in Chinese. In both languages the word ?i?n means electricity. So, this character ? ?i?n appears in nearly all appliance names, in both languages. The Vietnamese word for machine is máy móc and everything from an airplane, máy bay to a motorcycle, xe máy includes this machine word. In Chinese, however a computer is seen as an electric appliance, ??diàn n?o (literally electric brain) whereas in Vietnamese, the computer is a machine, máy tính.


While the word for motorcycle and airplane use the Vietnamese word for machine, the word for car is clearly a loan word from French, ô tô.


The Chinese word for machine is ? ? j? qì. So, it is not similar in pronunciation to the Vietnamese word, máy. But the function is the same. Airplane, máy bay in Vietnamese is? ? f? ij? in Chinese. Both Chinese and Vietnamese create the word airplane as a compound word, composed of two syllables, written separately, one of which means “machine”. Camera máy ?nh in Vietnamese, ? ? ? zhào xiàng j? in Chinese. Again, the overall word for camera is different, but both Vietnamese and Chinese have created a compound word for camera which contains the respective word for machine plus the respective word for picture or photo.


Many language learners put great emphasis on words. They want to learn vocabulary, thinking that learning a language and memorizing lists of definitions is somehow the same thing. Obviously, they are nearly completely separate from each other. If you were a native speaker of French, Chinese, and Khmer learning Vietnamese, you would still need to acquire, grammar, usage, and pronunciation, as well as cultural-linguistic elements, such as forms of address and appropriateness of speech. So, even a triple native speaker would be a long way off.


Studying the mechanical parts, the elements, the words of a language is, however, an interesting academic pursuit. In the case of the Vietnamese language, it is fascinating to see how so many components of the language can be traced to some other language, and yet Vietnamese is completely unique.


See Antonio Graceffo’s multipart video series for free, on youtube.

ALG Vietnamese Linguistics Part 1


Also see Antonio’s video

ALG Vietnamese Picture Story Le Loi

In a recent round of interviews, networks and media sent Antonio the question via email and Antonio answered on camera. If you are interested in doing a similar interview, fire off the questions to Antonio. Antonio is looking for an opportunity to study for an MA/PHD in linguistics.


Antonio Graceffo is the author of the book, “The Monk from Brooklyn,” and is he host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts odyssey.”

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