The first time you look at Vietnamese writing, you might well be surprised at all the accents on and under the letters. In fact, some vowels have not just one but two – such as in Việt Nam. Why is that?
Vietnamese is a tonal language. There are six tones (though some parts of the country don’t pronounce them all) and they are represented by symbols that actually quite closely match their sound.
|Example||Tone name||My nickname||My notes|
|la||ngang||high, flat tone||Remember this is a high, flat tone.|
|là||huyền||low tone, down tone||Start low and stay low.|
|lá||sắc||up tone||Start high and go higher.|
|lạ||nặng||dot tone||Short and low.|
|lả||hỏi||question tone||Your voice goes up like you’re asking a question. Eg. Really?|
|lã||ngã||tilde tone, squiggle tone||Similar to đả but there is a short break (see the video below). In the south there is no break – ã is exactly the same as ả.|
The full name for the tones includes dấu first (eg. sắc is dấu sắc), but a lot of the time they’re just referred to by the names in the table above (eg. we usually just say sắc).
Learn more about the tones here:
If you’re familiar with a language like French, you’ll have seen accents like é and ê that change the sound of the letter ‘e’. Vietnamese also has some accent sounds.
Let’s look at an example:
ô, o and ơ are totally different sounds.
ô – eg. bộ (walk) – oh like in the English word ‘go’
o – eg. bò (beef) – o like in ‘hot’
ơ – eg. bơ (butter) – er or ir like in ‘bird’
Mixing ô and o is the most frequent mistake I hear in my Vietnamese classes.
You can listen to all of these in this alphabet video. Pay attention to the speaker’s mouth as she makes each sound. For example, to make the ư sound, you have to smile a little when you say it.
I can’t finish this part of the article without telling you the name of the two accent marks in Vietnamese.
ơ, ư, and ă have an accent called móc
â, ê and ô have an accent called mũ
What you may or may not realise is that mũ is the northern word for a hat. Yes, ^ is called dấu mũ – literally ‘the hat accent’!
Combining a tone and an accent
So many Vietnamese words have both a tone and an accent (linguists use the term diacritics). But how do they combine?
Here’s a video combining some different vowels (a, o, ô, ơ) with the various tones.
Let’s look at a word as a further example.
phở (Vietnam’s most famous noodle soup)
Smile a little when you say the ‘uh’ sound, ơ, and say the whole word like it’s a question “phở?”.
So as you can see some words have one mark on the vowel (or vowels) and some may have two, such as: Học tiếng Việt hay lắm. (=Studying Vietnamese is very interesting.)
Over to you: How did you feel the first time you saw written Vietnamese? Were you relieved it uses a romanised alphabet or confused by the two ‘accent’ marks?