Vietnamese alphabet

Vietnamese alphabet

The Vietnamese alphabet, called Chữ Quốc Ngữ (script of the national language), usually shortened to Quốc Ngữ (national language), is the modern writing system for the Vietnamese language. It is based on the Latin script (more specifically the Portuguese alphabet[1]) with some digraphs and the addition of nine accent marks or diacritics – four of them to create additional sounds, and the other five to indicate the tone of each word. The many diacritics, often two on the same letter, make written Vietnamese easily recognizable.


Letter names and pronunciation

Vietnamese alphabet
Letter Name IPA
A a a , some dialects: æ
Ă ă á ɐ
 â ə
B b bê, bờ, bê bò ɓ, ʔb
C c xê, cờ k
D d dê, dờ north: z, south: j
Đ đ đê, đờ ɗ, ʔd
E e e ɛ
Ê ê ê e
G g giê, gờ ɣ
z (before i)
H h hát, hắc, hờ h
I i i ngắn i
K k ca k
L l e-lờ, lờ l
M m em-mờ, mờ m
N n en-nờ, nờ n
O o o ɔ
Ô ô ô o
Ơ ơ ơ əː
P p pê, bê phở p
QU qu quy, cu north: kw, south: w
R r e-rờ, rờ north: z, south: ɹ, ɣ, ʐ
S s ét, ét-sì, sờ, sờ mạnh s, south and middle: ʂ
T t tê, tờ t
U u u u
Ư ư ư ɨ
V v vê, vờ v, south: j, ʋj
X x ích, ích-xì, sờ nhẹ s
Y y i dài, i-cờ-rét as a vowel: i, not a consonant


Most of the consonants are pronounced approximately as in the International Phonetic Alphabet, with the following clarifications:

  • Both D and GI are pronounced either [z] in the northern dialects (including Hanoi), or [j] (similar to English y) in the central and Saigon dialects. In Middle Vietnamese, D was [ð], also one of the pronunciations of Portuguese d; and GI was [ʝ], vaguely reminiscent of Italian [dʒ], spelled gi.
  • Đ is similar to a [d] sound in many languages. Vietnamese đ, however, is implosive.
  • S is pronounced like the English s for most speakers; however, it is sometimes pronounced [ʂ] (similar to English sh) in southern Vietnam. [ʂ] is the Middle Vietnamese pronunciation; it was spelled s due to the similarity with the apico-alveolar sound spelled the same way in medieval Portuguese.
  • V is pronounced [v] in the northern dialects, or [j] and [bj] in the southern dialects.
  • X is pronounced like English s (at the beginning of a word, e.g. "sing"). This sound was [ɕ] in Middle Vietnamese, resembling the Portuguese sound /ʃ/, spelled x.
  • CH is a voiceless palatal stop (IPA: [c], similar to British English t in "Tuesday") or affricate (IPA: [tʃ], similar to English ch in "chip"). Pronounced as [t̚] in the final position.
  • KH is a voiceless velar fricative (IPA: [x]). It is similar to the German or Scottish ch, Russian x, Dutch g, Spanish j, or Arabic and Persian "خ" (kh).
  • NG is a velar nasal (IPA: [ŋ]). It is similar to both occurrences of ng in English "singing". It is never pronounced like English n, or n plus g.
  • NH is a palatal nasal (IPA: [ɲ]), similar to Indonesian ny, Spanish ñ, Portuguese nh, Czech and Slovak ň, or French and Italian gn. Pronounced as [n] or [ŋ] in the final position, depending on dialects.
  • PH is pronounced [f], as in English "Philip" or the English "f". It is never pronounced like English p or Hindi "फ" (ph). It is used instead of F (e-phờ) because it developed from an earlier [pʰ] (like Greek phi).
  • TH is an aspirated t (IPA: [tʰ]). It is similar to the "थ" (th) sound in Hindi or the t sound in English when pronounced at the beginning of a word. It is never pronounced like the English th in path or French/Spanish t.
  • TR is uniformly pronounced like Vietnamese CH in northern dialects, and preserved as "T + R" by some southern speakers.

The digraph GH and the trigraph NGH are basically variants of g and ng used before i, in order to avoid confusion with the digraph GI. For historical reasons, gh and ngh are also used before e or ê.



The correspondence between the orthography and pronunciation is somewhat complicated. In some cases, the same letter may represent several different sounds, and different letters may represent the same sound. This may be because the orthography was designed centuries ago and the spoken language has changed, or because the inventors were trying to spell the sounds of several dialects at once.

The letters y and i are mostly equivalent, and there is no rule that says when to use one or the other, except in diphthongs like ay and uy (i.e. tay (hand) is read /tɐi/ while tai (ear) is read /taːi/). There have been attempts since the early 20th century to standardize the orthography by replacing all the vowel uses of y with i, the latest being a decision from the Vietnamese Ministry of Education in 1984. These efforts seem to have had limited effect, in part because some people bristled at the thought of names such as Nguyễn becoming Nguiễn and Thúy (a common female name) becoming Thúi (stinky), even though the standardization does not apply to diphthongs and triphthongs and allowed exceptions to proper names. Currently, the spelling that uses i exclusively is found only in scientific publications and textbooks. Most people and the popular media continue to use the spelling that they are most accustomed to.

Spelling Sound Spelling Sound
a  /aː/, /æ/ in some dialects, /ɐ/ before "u" and "y", /ə/ in "ia" /iə/ o  /ɔ/, /ɐw/ before "ng" and "c"; /w/
ă  /ɐ/ ô  /o/, /ɜw/ before "ng" and "c" except "uông" and "uôc"
â  /ə/ ơ  /əː/
e  /ɛ/ u  /u/, /w/
ê  /e/, /ə/ after iê ư  /ɨ/
i  /i/ before "a" and "ê" y  /i/ before "ê"



The table below matches Vietnamese vowels (written in the IPA) and their respective orthographic symbols used in the writing system.

Sound Spelling Sound Spelling
/i/ i, y /e/ ê
/ɛ/ e /ɨ/ ư
/əː/ ơ /ə/ â
/aː/ a /ɐ/ ă
/u/ u /o/ ô
/ɔ/ o


The vowel /i/ is:

  • usually written i: /si/ = (A suffix indicating profession, similar to the English suffix -er).
  • sometimes written y after h, k, l, m, s, t, v: /mi/ = Mỹ 'America'.
    • It is always written y when:
  1. preceded by an orthographic vowel: /xuiən/ = khuyên 'to advise';
  2. at the beginning of a word derived from Chinese (written as i otherwise): /iəw/ = yêu 'to love'.

Note that i and y are also used to write /i/.

Diphthongs and triphthongs

Sound Spelling Sound Spelling
/uj/ ui /iw/ iu
/oj/ ôi /ew/ êu
/ɔj/ oi /ɛo/ eo
/əːj/ ơi
/əj/ ây, ê in ⟨ênh⟩ /əjŋ/ and ⟨êch⟩ /əjk/ /əw/ âu, ô in ⟨ông⟩ /əwŋ/ and ⟨ôc⟩ /əwk/
/aːj/ ai /aːw/ ao
/ɐj/ ay, a in ⟨anh⟩ /ɐjŋ/ and ⟨ach⟩ /ɐjk/ /ɐw/ au, o in ⟨onɡ⟩ /ɐwŋ/ and ⟨oc⟩ /ɐwk/
/ɨj/ ưi /ɨw/ northern usually /iw/ ưu
/iə/ ia, ya, iê, yê /uə/ ua
/ɨə/ ưa /ɨəː/ ươ
/uo/ /uiː/ uy
/iəw/ iêu, yêu /uoj/ uôi
/ɨəːj/ ươi /ɨəːw/ ươu


The diphthong /iə/ is written:

  1. ia in open syllables: /miə/ = mía 'sugar cane' (note: open syllables end with a vowel; closed syllables end with a consonant);
  2. before a consonant: /miəŋ/ = miếng 'piece';

The i changes to y at the beginning of words or after an orthographic vowel:

  • ya: /xuiə/ = khuya 'late at night'
  • : /xuiən/ = khuyên 'to advise'; /iən/ = yên 'calm'.

The diphthong /uə/ and /uo/ is written:

  1. ua in open syllables: /muə/ = mua 'to buy';
  2. before a consonant: /muon/ = muôn 'ten thousand'.

The diphthong /ɨə/ and /ɨɜː/ is written:

  1. ưa in open syllables: /mɨə/ = mưa 'to rain';
  2. ươ before consonants: /mɨəːŋ/ = mương 'irrigation canal'.

Tone marks

Vietnamese is a tonal language, i.e. the meaning of each word depends on the "tone" (basically a specific tone and glottalization pattern) in which it is pronounced. There are six distinct tones in the standard Northern dialect. In the south, there is a merging of the hỏi and ngã tones, in effect leaving five basic tones. The first one ("level tone") is not marked, and the other five are indicated by diacritics applied to the vowel part of the syllable. The tone names are chosen such that the name of each tone is spoken in the tone it identifies.

Name Contour Diacritic Vowels with diacritic
Ngang or Bằng mid level, ˧ unmarked A/a, Ă/ă, Â/â, E/e, Ê/ê, I/i, O/o, Ô/ô, Ơ/ơ, U/u, Ư/ư, Y/y
Huyền low falling, ˨˩ grave accent À/à, Ằ/ằ, Ầ/ầ, È/è, Ề/ề, Ì/ì, Ò/ò, Ồ/ồ, Ờ/ờ, Ù/ù, Ừ/ừ, Ỳ/ỳ
Hỏi dipping, ˧˩˧ hook Ả/ả, Ẳ/ẳ, Ẩ/ẩ, Ẻ/ẻ, Ể/ể, Ỉ/ỉ, Ỏ/ỏ, Ổ/ổ, Ở/ở, Ủ/ủ, Ử/ử, Ỷ/ỷ
Ngã glottalized rising, ˧˥ˀ tilde Ã/ã, Ẵ/ẵ, Ẫ/ẫ, Ẽ/ẽ, Ễ/ễ, Ĩ/ĩ, Õ/õ, Ỗ/ỗ, Ỡ/ỡ, Ũ/ũ, Ữ/ữ, Ỹ/ỹ
Sắc high rising, ˧˥ acute accent Á/á, Ắ/ắ, Ấ/ấ, É/é, Ế/ế, Í/í, Ó/ó, Ố/ố, Ớ/ớ, Ú/ú, Ứ/ứ, Ý/ý
Nặng glottalized falling, ˧˨ˀ dot below Ạ/ạ, Ặ/ặ, Ậ/ậ, Ẹ/ẹ, Ệ/ệ, Ị/ị, Ọ/ọ, Ộ/ộ, Ợ/ợ, Ụ/ụ, Ự/ự, Ỵ/ỵ
  • Unmarked vowels are pronounced with a level voice, in the middle of the speaking range.
  • The grave accent indicates that the speaker should start somewhat low and drop slightly in tone, with the voice becoming increasingly breathy.
  • The hook indicates that the speaker should start somewhat low, and fall, then rise, as in a question.
  • A tilde indicates that the speaker should start mid, break off (with a glottal stop), then start again and rise like a question in tone.
  • The acute accent indicates that the speaker should start mid and rise sharply in tone.
  • The dot signifies that the speaker should start low and fall lower in tone, with the voice becoming increasingly creaky and ending in a glottal stop.

In syllables where the vowel part consists of more than one vowel (such as diphthongs and triphthongs), the placement of the tone is still a matter of debate. Generally, there are two methodologies, an "old style" and a "new style". While the "old style" emphasizes aesthetics by placing the tone mark as close as possible to the center of the word (by placing the tone mark on the last vowel if an ending consonant part exists and on the next-to-last vowel if the ending consonant doesn't exist, as in hóa), the "new style" emphasizes linguistic principles and tries to apply the tone mark on the main vowel (as in hoá). In both styles, when one vowel already has a quality diacritic on it, the tone mark must be applied to it as well, regardless of where it appears in the syllable (thus thuế is acceptable while thúê is not). In the case of the ươ diphthong, the mark is placed on the ơ. The u in qu is considered part of the consonant. Currently, the new style is usually used in new documents, while some people still prefer the old style.

In lexical ordering, differences in letters are treated as primary, differences in tone markings as secondary, and differences in case as tertiary differences. Ordering according to primary and secondary differences proceeds syllable by syllable. According to this principle, a dictionary lists tuân thủ before tuần chay because the secondary difference in the first syllable takes precedence over the primary difference in the second.

The signs always go on the vowels. If there are many vowels in a word, the sign will go on the last vowel, unless that vowel ends the word. For example: tuần (meaning "week"), thưởng (meaning "reward"), tuyết (meaning "snow"), yếu (meaning "weak"), etc.


As a result of influence from the Chinese writing system, each syllable in Vietnamese is written separately as if it were a word. In the past, syllables in multisyllabic words were concatenated with hyphens, but this practice had died out, and hyphenation is now reserved for foreign borrowings. A written syllable consists of at most three parts, in the following order from left to right:

  1. An optional beginning consonant part
  2. A required vowel syllable nucleus and the tone mark, if needed, applied above or below it
  3. An optional ending consonant part, can only be one of the following: c, ch, m, n, ng, nh, p, t, or nothing.


A page from Alexandre de Rhodes' 1651 dictionary

The Vietnamese language was first written down, from the 13th century onwards, using variant Chinese characters (chữ nôm 字喃), each of them representing one word. The system was based on the script used for writing classical Chinese (chữ nho), but it was supplemented with characters developed in Vietnam (chữ thuần nôm, proper Nom characters) to represent native Vietnamese words.

As early as 1527, Portuguese Christian missionaries in Vietnam began using Latin script to transcribe the Vietnamese language for teaching and evangelization purposes. These informal efforts led eventually to the development of the present Vietnamese alphabet, largely by the work of French Jesuit Alexandre de Rhodes, who worked in the country between 1624 and 1644. Building on previous Portuguese–Vietnamese dictionaries by Gaspar d'Amaral and Duarte da Costa, Rhodes wrote the Dictionarium Annamiticum Lusitanum et Latinum, a VietnamesePortugueseLatin dictionary, which was printed in Rome in 1651, using his spelling system.[1]

In spite of this development, chữ nôm and chữ nho remained in use until the early 20th century, when the French colonial administration made Rhodes's alphabet official. Nationalists embraced the script as a weapon to fight the French administration and heavily promoted its use, setting up schools such as the Tonkin Free School and publishing periodicals utilizing this script. By the late 20th century, quốc ngữ was universally used to write Vietnamese, such that literacy in the previous Chinese character-based writing systems for Vietnamese is now limited to a small number of scholars and specialists.

Because the period of education necessary to gain initial literacy is considerably less for the largely phonetic Latin-based script compared to the several years necessary to master the full range of Chinese characters, the adoption of the Vietnamese alphabet also facilitated widespread literacy among Vietnamese speakers— whereas a majority of Vietnamese in Vietnam could not read or write prior to the 20th century, the population is now almost universally literate.

Pamela A. Pears asserted that the French, by instituting the Roman alphabet in Vietnam, cut the Vietnamese off from their traditional literature, rendering them unable to read it.[2]

Sino-Vietnamese and quốc ngữ

Writing Sino-Vietnamese words with quốc ngữ caused some confusion about the origins of some terms, due to the large number of homophones in Chinese and Sino-Vietnamese. For example, both (bright) and (dark) are read as minh, which therefore has two opposite meanings (although the meaning of "dark" is now esoteric and is used in only a few compound words). Perhaps for this reason, the Vietnamese name for Pluto is not Minh Vương Tinh (冥王星 – lit. underworld king star) as in other East Asian languages, but is Diêm Vương Tinh (閻王星), named after the Buddhist deity Yama. During the Hồ Dynasty, Vietnam was officially known as Đại Ngu (大虞 – Great Yu). Unfortunately, most modern Vietnamese know ngu as "stupid" (); consequently, some misinterpret it as "Big Idiot". However, the homograph/homophone problem is not as serious as it may seem, because although many Sino-Vietnamese words have multiple meanings when written with quốc ngữ, usually only one has widespread usage, while the others are relegated to obscurity. Furthermore, Sino-Vietnamese words are usually not used alone, but in compound words; thus, the meaning of the compound word is preserved even if individually each has multiple meanings. Most importantly, since quốc ngữ is an exact phonemic transcription of the spoken language, its understandability is as high or higher than a normal conversation.

Computer support

The universal character set Unicode has full support for the Vietnamese writing system, although it does not have a separate segment for it; the required characters are scattered throughout the Basic Latin, Latin-1 Supplement, Latin Extended-A, Latin Extended-B, and Latin Extended Additional segments. An ASCII-based writing convention, Vietnamese Quoted Readable, and several byte-based encodings including TCVN3, VNI, and VISCII were widely used before Unicode became popular. Most new documents now exclusively use the Unicode format UTF-8.

Unicode allows the user to choose between precomposed characters and combining characters in inputting Vietnamese. Because various operating systems implement combining characters in a nonstandard way (see Verdana font), most people use precomposed characters when composing Vietnamese-language documents.

Most keyboards used by Vietnamese-language users do not support direct input of diacritics by default. Various free utilities that act as keyboard drivers exist. They support the most popular input methods, including Telex, VIQR and its variants, and VNI.

See also


  • Gregerson, Kenneth J. (1969). A study of Middle Vietnamese phonology. Bulletin de la Société des Etudes Indochinoises, 44, 135-193. (Published version of the author's MA thesis, University of Washington). (Reprinted 1981, Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics).
  • Haudricourt, André-Georges (1949). "Origine des particularités de l'alphabet vietnamien". Dân Việt-Nam 3: 61–68. 
  • Healy, Dana.(2003). Teach Yourself Vietnamese, Hodder Education, London.
  • Nguyen, Đang Liêm. (1970). Vietnamese pronunciation. PALI language texts: Southeast Asia. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 0-87022-462-X
  • Nguyễn, Đình-Hoà. (1955). Quốc-ngữ: The modern writing system in Vietnam. Washington, D. C.: Author.
  • Nguyễn, Đình-Hoà (1992). "Vietnamese phonology and graphemic borrowings from Chinese: The Book of 3,000 Characters revisited". Mon-Khmer Studies 20: 163–182. 
  • Nguyễn, Đình-Hoà. (1996). Vietnamese. In P. T. Daniels, & W. Bright (Eds.), The world's writing systems, (pp. 691–699). New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-507993-0.
  • Nguyễn, Đình-Hoà. (1997). Vietnamese: Tiếng Việt không son phấn. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company. ISBN 1-55619-733-0.
  • Pham, Andrea Hoa. (2003). Vietnamese tone: A new analysis. Outstanding dissertations in linguistics. New York: Routledge. (Published version of author's 2001 PhD dissertation, University of Florida: Hoa, Pham. Vietnamese tone: Tone is not pitch). ISBN 0-415-96762-7.
  • Thompson, Laurence E. (1991). A Vietnamese reference grammar. Seattle: University of Washington Press. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 0-8248-1117-8. (Original work published 1965).

Further reading

  • Nguyen, A. M. (2006). Let's learn the Vietnamese alphabet. Las Vegas: Viet Baby. ISBN 0977648206
  • Shih, Virginia Jing-yi. Quoc Ngu Revolution: A Weapon of Nationalism in Vietnam. 1991.


  1. ^ a b Roland Jacques (2002). Portuguese pioneers of Vietnamese linguistics prior to 1650. Orchid Press. 
  2. ^ Pamela A. Pears (2006). Remnants of Empire in Algeria and Vietnam: Women, Words, and War. Lexington Books. p. 18. ISBN 0739120220. Retrieved 2010-11-28. 

External links

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