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Why do some Vietnamese words have two accent marks?

Vietnamese tones and accentsThe 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?

Tones

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.
huyền low tone, down tone Start low and stay low.
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?
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.

Nặng is the only tone written below the letter.

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:

Accents

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?

Why you should learn to read from the beginning

Đọc đi! Why you should learn to read a foreign language from Day 1 Vietnamese’s romanised script is a little deceptive. It looks familiar but many of the sounds are totally different. Our recent interviewee, Adam, shared one example of where this can go very wrong.

Let’s look at the problems caused by not starting to read early in your learning journey.

Reading problems

When I first arrived in Vietnam, it was as a traveller. I thought I might stay but I wasn’t sure. I had an abridged phrasebook with me and I learnt 1, 2, 3, 10 (chục), rice and thank you on the bus over, before it got too crowded. The following day I learnt the rest of the numbers and some more food items. However, as I had no idea how to pronounce these words with all their ‘squiggles’ I learnt how to say them from the pronunciation guide provided in the book. While this meant I was understood (thanks in part to context, I’m sure), when I later came to study Vietnamese in a classroom, it caused an embarrassing problem…

I couldn’t read numbers written in word form.

I still remember the first time I saw ‘bốn’ on a page. I was shocked. I read it out slowly in disbelief before realising it was in fact the number 4. This phenomenon is not limited to numbers though, I learnt the word ‘khóc’ (cry) from a friend and was similarly staggered when I first saw it written down until I again read it out. It’s a good job Vietnamese is so phonetic!

Pronunciation problems

The second problem with not learning to read, and this will apply to languages that use a different script too, is that you might make errors when transcribing how a word is pronounced.

Again, I can offer an example from my experience. I started some Korean classes recently and this is my first time learning a new alphabet. After a couple of lessons I was able to read, albeit very slowly. My teacher has a habit of calling on people to read things from the book. But because I’m slow at reading, I wrote a phoneticisation next to the sentences in case I got called on.

While this meant I could read a little quicker, it wasn’t until I got home and wrote some sentences on lang-8 that I realised I had misread an ‘o’ for an ‘a’, thus pronouncing the word for ‘I’ totally wrong.

So there we have two reasons, with examples, why you should learn to read in a foreign language from Day 1.

Over to you: Have you had any problems reading Vietnamese? Have you ever learnt a language with a different script?