The Vietnamese Alphabet: Learning the Basics

Vvietnamese alphabetSpoken throughout the country of Vietnam, and by over three million Vietnamese individuals living elsewhere throughout the world, the Vietnamese language is simultaneously one of the more challenging and one of the simplest languages to learn. It is complex because it is a highly tonal language, meaning that slight variations in the way that words are spoken can lead them to mean very different things. Taking a course such as Udemy’s Learn to Speak Vietnamese Like a Native can be an important step in mastering the language. (To get started, check out some Vietnamese phrases on the Udemy blog!)

However, despite the difficulties of the spoken language, written Vietnamese can actually be quite simple to learn. Unlike other Asian languages such as Chinese and Japanese, which make use of incredibly complex character-based writing systems, the Vietnamese alphabet makes use of characters that directly translate from the letters on the written page to the sounds they represent. Not only that, but Vietnamese makes use of the Latin alphabet, with some small variations to represent sounds specific to the Vietnamese language. Because of that, there is a relatively small learning curve when it comes to mastering the basics of written Vietnamese.

Vietnamese Characters

The same letters used in the alphabet of the English language (and many others) are used to represent Vietnamese sounds. As is the case with other languages that make use of the Latin alphabet, accent markers or “diacritics” are used to indicate variations on the sounds these letters make.

Letters

In general, you will pronounce the majority of these letters the same as you would when speaking any of the Romance languages that make use of the Latin script. However, there are some exceptions that you should keep in mind.

  • As is the case with English, the “PH” construction is always pronounced like the letter “F”.
  • The letter “C” is always hard in Vietnamese, and pronounced like the letter “K”.
  • There are many sounds in Vietnamese represented by the Vietnamese alphabet not present in English. For example, “G” is pronounced using a sound not currently found in English, and “NH” borrows from a nasal “N” sound used in Portuguese.

Another thing that you must keep in mind as you set out to learn Vietnamese and the Vietnamese alphabet is the fact that there different dialects which have different pronunciations. You will likely need to choose a particularly dialect in order to ensure you learn the language as uniformly as possible.

Diacritics Indicating Tone 

One of the primary uses of diacritics in the Vietnamese alphabet is to indicate the tone that is used to speak the major vowels of the language. The diacritics that are used to indicate tone are unique to the Vietnamese alphabet, and as such are one of its most defining features. Letters that are already marked by a diacritic may be marked by a second to indicate tone – when this occurs, two separate accent marks may appear on one letter. This can be one of the most challenging aspects of learning Vietnamese.

  • For a mid-tone with a neutral inflection, no marker is needed. Vowels indicating a neutral tone include: A/a, Ă/ă, Â/â, E/e, Ê/ê, I/i, O/o, Ô/ô, Ơ/ơ, U/u, Ư/ư, Y/y.
  • A “grave accent” is used to indicate a low, falling tone in which the speaker begins in a low tone and drops the voice slightly. Vowels indicating a low falling tone include: À/à, Ằ/ằ, Ầ/ầ, È/è, Ề/ề, Ì/ì, Ò/ò, Ồ/ồ, Ờ/ờ, Ù/ù, Ừ/ừ, Ỳ/ỳ.
  • The hook indicates a dipping tone in which you begin low, drop the voice, and then raise your tone. This is the type of tone a person might use to ask a question in English. (Imagine saying the word “what” to ask a question.) Vowels used to indicate a dipping tone include: Ả/ả, Ẳ/ẳ, Ẩ/ẩ, Ẻ/ẻ, Ể/ể, Ỉ/ỉ, Ỏ/ỏ, Ổ/ổ, Ở/ở, Ủ/ủ, Ử/ử, Ỷ/ỷ.
  • The use of a tilde as a diacritic indicates a glottalized rising tone. This means that the individual will include a glottal stop in the vowel, and then will continue to voice the syllable while raising their tone. Vowels used to indicate a glottalied rising tone include: Ã/ã, Ẵ/ẵ, Ẫ/ẫ, Ẽ/ẽ, Ễ/ễ, Ĩ/ĩ, Õ/õ, Ỗ/ỗ, Ỡ/ỡ, Ũ/ũ, Ữ/ữ, Ỹ/ỹ
  • The high rising tone simply indicates that you start at a mid tone, and then raise your tone sharply while speaking. Á/á, Ắ/ắ, Ấ/ấ, É/é, Ế/ế, Í/í, Ó/ó, Ố/ố, Ớ/ớ, Ú/ú, Ứ/ứ, Ý/ý.
  • Finally, the glottalized falling tone indicates that you should start low and then dip even lower. Your voice should become somewhat creaky as you speak. Vowels indicating a glottalized falling tone include: Ạ/ạ, Ặ/ặ, Ậ/ậ, Ẹ/ẹ, Ệ/ệ, Ị/ị, Ọ/ọ, Ộ/ộ, Ợ/ợ, Ụ/ụ, Ự/ự, Ỵ/ỵ.

While there’s always a lot to learn when studying any foreign language, Vietnamese can be a relatively simple language to explore. If you’re interested in learning it or any other language, check out Udemy’s Teach Yourself a Foreign Language course, which can help you develop the skills you need to master any language.

Be sure to also check out Udemy’s Learn Korean Writing and Survival Chinese for Beginners courses if you have an interest in learning any of the other Asian languages.