The Alphabet of the Vietnamese Language

If you've just started learning Vietnamese, then the alphabet can look a bit challenging. Sure, it's based on the same Latin alphabet that we use in English, but it has some additions, like đ and ơ.

What’s more, the written language is covered all over with diacritics (accent marks). You'll often see multiple accents per word, or even per letter. It can be difficult for your mind to process if you’re not used to it, and it's far from obvious how to pronounce words like đở, một, or người.

But don't get too discouraged. The Vietnamese alphabet might seem tricky, but it's still far easier than learning a completely new writing system like that of Thai, Japanese, or Korean. If you're familiar with the Latin alphabet then you're already 90% of the way to being able to read Vietnamese. And I promise, the remaining 10% is not as difficult as you may think.

The Vietnamese Alphabet: A Historical Introduction

Vietnamese used to be written using a pictorial system called chữ nôm that's similar to modern Chinese characters. These days, chữ nôm is all but dead. Modern Vietnamese uses a Latin-based alphabet called chữ Quốc ngữ (“national language script”) which was originally devised by Portuguese and Italian missionaries in the 16th century.

This might look complicated, but there's good news: Vietnamese spelling, unlike English spelling, is highly consistent and unambiguous. Once you learn the rules, it's relatively easy to figure out how a written Vietnamese word should be pronounced. And how a spoken word is spelled.

Why Do Some Vietnamese Letters Have Two Accents?

A very distinctive feature of Vietnamese writing is that some letters are written with two accents — like the “ế” in the word tiếng (“language”).

In my experience, this is a major point of confusion for beginners that it's worth addressing before we go any further. If I don't clear things up now, it will be harder to explain later.

The problem goes back to those missionaries who wanted to write Vietnamese using the Latin alphabet. That alphabet only has five symbols for vowels – a, e, i, o, and u – which isn't nearly enough to cover all the different vowel sounds of Vietnamese.

They could have used the same symbol to represent multiple sounds, as is common in English. (E.g. “a” is pronounced differently in the English words mat, mate, and car.) Or they could have invented some entirely new symbols that look nothing like a, e, i, o and u.

Instead, they decided to add six new letters: ă, â, ê, ô, ư, ơ.

These new symbols should not be thought of as “a with a hat” or “u with a hook/tail”. In Vietnamese they're considered to be completely separate letters from the five “normal” Latin vowels.

They're listed separately in the dictionary, have their own names, and are pronounced differently. For example, e is pronounced like the “e” in the English “get”, and ê is (roughly) like the “ay” in “hay”.

So that explains the “hats” on ă/â/ê/ô, and the hook thing (technically called a “horn”) on ơ/ư. You'll never see those symbols on any letters apart from the ones I just mentioned, so you'll never see an “i” with a hat or an “a” with a horn.

You'll also never see these three diacritics in combination with each other. So, for example, no Vietnamese letter has both a circumflex (ˆ) and a breve (˘).

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