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Journal Articles Mon-Khmer Studies Year : 2010

The origin of the peculiarities of the Vietnamese alphabet


A summary of the origin of the letters and groups of letters representing Vietnamese sounds [quốc ngữ spelling]: The missionaries who adapted the Latin alphabet to Vietnamese were Portuguese, Italian and French. The resulting spelling inherited some peculiarities from the spelling systems of Romance languages. Aspirated consonants H, PH, TH, KH [IPA: /h/, /pʰ/, /tʰ/, /kʰ/] are not found in Romance languages; however, in these languages, the combinations of letters PH, TH and KH are present in words of Greek origin, as equivalents for the Greek initials phi, theta, khi (φ, θ, χ), which were aspirated consonants in Greek; and thus these combinations were used to transcribe Vietnamese aspirated stop consonants. Dorsal stops C, G are only used before the vowels /a/, /o/ and /u/. This is because, in Romance languages, it is the only position where these consonants preserved the obstruent pronunciation they had in Latin; GHE, GHI are used with the phonetic value they have in Italian; the combinations KE and KI resort to the letter K, used in Greek (kappa, κ) and in Germanic languages. Labiovelar stops QU and GU are taken from Italian and Latin spellings. Among prepalatals, the unvoiced stop CH is taken from the Portuguese and the Spanish, which themselves borrowed this notation from Old French, where it had been created to transcribe a new sound, not found in Latin. The voiced stop D is used as an approximative notation for a sound not found in Europe, where D is the voiced counterpart of T. In Vietnam, a new letter, Đ, was coined [for a preglottalised alveolar stop: /ɗ/], its horizontal bar pointing to a similarity with the letter T. The voiced spirant was written as GI, as in Portuguese and French (at the time, J was not yet in use in Europe). The unvoiced spirant X is borrowed from Portuguese and the Northern dialects of Spanish: in these languages, the S is pronounced at the back of the mouth [IPA: retroflex /ʂ/], as in Vietnamese, whereas elsewhere in Europe S is an anterior sibilant as in French [IPA: alveolar /s/]. NH [for the palatal nasal /ɲ/] is borrowed from the Portuguese; TR is an approximative notation for a sound which is not found in European languages [IPA: /ʈ/]. Ô, Ê are taken from the Portuguese, which is why the pair Ê, E does not have the same phonetic value as in French. [In French, Ê stands for /ɛ/, E stands for /e/, whereas the opposite is found in Vietnamese quốc ngữ, namely Ê for /e/, E for /ɛ/.] Y is used in Vietnamese quốc ngữ in a way similar to what is found in Spanish, where it replaces I in-between vowels or at the end of words. The letter Y comes from the Greek alphabet (upsilon, υ). Ơ and Ư were created to represent Vietnamese vowels that do not have equivalents in Western Europe [IPA /ɤ/, /ɯ/].


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Dates and versions

halshs-00918824 , version 1 (15-12-2013)
halshs-00918824 , version 2 (17-12-2013)


  • HAL Id : halshs-00918824 , version 2


André-Georges Haudricourt. The origin of the peculiarities of the Vietnamese alphabet. Mon-Khmer Studies, 2010, 39, pp.89-104. ⟨halshs-00918824v2⟩
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