Vietnamese Writing Systems


Đàm Trung Pháp


In chronological order, Vietnamese has used three writing systems, namely “Chinese Script” (chữ Hán), “Southern Script” (chữ Nôm), and “National Language” (chữ Quốc Ngữ).

The Chinese Script was for centuries the means for education and formal communication. Throughout the Chinese rule (111BC to 938AD), the Vietnamese were taught not only Chinese calligraphy but also lessons in Chinese history, philosophy, and classical literature. During those 827 years under Chinese domination, Vietnamese absorbed a large number of Chinese loanwords that were eventually integrated into the recipient language (Nguyễn Đình Hòa 1997). The Sino-Vietnamese pronunciation (lối phát âm Hán-Việt) of those learned Chinese characters (or graphs) reflects the pronunciation of archaic Chinese of the Tang [唐] (Đường) dynasty (618 to 907AD) and has not changed since then.

The contents of scholarly works by popular Chinese philosophers, e.g. Confucius [孔子] (Khổng Tử) and poets, e.g. Li Bai [李白] (Lý Bạch) made up the curriculum of an educational system that, for several centuries, organized periodic civil-service examinations. Needless to say, only the best and brightest literati benefitted from this kind of education. Oftentimes their teachers were unsuccessful candidates in these examinations, or scholars with literary talent and moral integrity who preferred the teaching profession to a more lucrative mandarin career. An example of notable works written in Chinese Script is the proclamation of Vietnam’s independence from the Ming [明] (Minh) dynasty’s China titled Bình Ngô Đại Cáo [平呉大誥] written by Nguyễn Trãi in 1428.

Along with Chinese culture and language came three religions: Buddhism [佛教] (Phật giáo), Confucianism [孔教] (Khổng giáo), and Taoism [老教] (Lão giáo). Buddhism thrived during the Lý and Trần dynasties, when kings were devout practitioners who built temples and valued monks. Confucianism, which emphasized learning and ethics, also flourished during that time when King Lý Nhân Tông founded the Temple of Literature (Văn Miếu) to host the Imperial Academy (Quốc Tử Giám), and ordered the first civil-service examination at the bachelor of literature level. Later, King Trần Nhân Tông decreed the first civil-service examination at the doctor of literature level (Dương Quảng Hàm 1968, Hà Như Chi 1969). The Confucianist education stressing literary talent and morality during the Lý and Trần dynasties produced military geniuses like marshal Lý Thường Kiệt and general Trần Quốc Tuấn and scholars with brilliant literary talent and irreproachable righteousness like Chu Văn An and Trần Quang Khải. An integral part of the belief that these “three religions came from the same origin” [三教 同原] (tam giáo đồng nguyên), Taoism advocating humility and religious piety was also popular.

The Southern Script appeared sometime during the 10th century, when the Vietnamese adapted the Chinese Script to write their own language. They called their new demotic script “chữ Nôm.” The earliest known example of writing in this demotic script (discovered in 1209) was an inscription on a stone stele at a temple in Vĩnh Phú province during the Lý dynasty. And it was during the Trần dynasty (1225 to 1400) that the script was systematized and started to be used in literature. Illustrious Vietnamese literati who penned in Nôm script include the poets Nguyễn Thuyên, Nguyễn Sĩ Cố (14th century), and Nguyễn Trãi (15th century). These Nôm graphs, which consist of Chinese graphs or their components and combinations, are often undecipherable to the Chinese themselves. Thus, while the Nôm graph for “love” [愛] is also the Chinese graph for “love” [愛] and the two graphs mean the same thing and are pronounced alike as in the Sino-Vietnamese pronunciation of the graph “ái,” the Nôm graph for “năm” (= number 5) is the combination of the Chinese graphs “nam” and “ngũ” [南+五] and the Nôm graph for “năm” (= 12 months) is the combination of the Chinese graphs for “nam” and “year” [南+年]. In both cases, the first component is for phonetic purpose, and the second component is for semantic purpose.

The National Language (chữ Quốc Ngữ) was invented by European missionaries who started arriving in Vietnam during the 17th century. They developed a new script for Vietnamese based on the Latin alphabet which they used to write prayer books and other religious material in Vietnamese. Although chữ Quốc Ngữ was developed by a number of different missionaries and by Vietnamese scholars, the person usually credited with its invention was the Roman Catholic priest Alexandre de Rhodes, a French Jesuit missionary. It proved to be an excellent system of writing that enabled Vietnamese to learn how to read and write their own language within a few weeks. Indeed, the novel script facilitated the campaign against illiteracy and efficiently assisted in the dissemination of knowledge about socio-political revolutionary movements in China, Japan, and European countries (Nguyễn Khắc Kham 1996, Nguyễn Đình Hòa 1997).

Currently, chữ Quốc Ngữ serves as the medium of instruction at all levels of education, and despite its imperfection, it has been groomed as the official orthography of Vietnamese. Since the reunification of Vietnam in 1976, conferences have been held to hear linguists from both Hanoi and Saigon discuss its inconsistencies and recommend spelling reforms to be carried out gradually to standardize its written form.


(1968) Dương Quảng Hàm. Việt Nam Văn Học Sử Yếu. Saigon: Trung Tâm Học Liệu, Bộ Văn Hóa và Giáo Dục.

(1969) Hà Như Chi. Việt Nam Thi Văn Giảng Luận Toàn Tập. Saigon: Nhà xuất bản Sống Mới.

(1996) Nguyễn Khắc Kham. “Tác, Tộ, Ngộ, Quá” đăng trong sách Chữ Nghĩa Tiếng Việt (pp. 117-129). Huntington Beach, CA: Southeast Asian Culture and Education Foundation.

(1997) Nguyễn Đình Hòa. Vietnamese / Tiếng Việt Không Son Phấn. Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.