Language & Culture

Do Vietnamese words have syllables?

Thảo ơi, I heard that Vietnamese is monosyllabic. Is that right?

Do Vietnamese words have syllables?

It’s true that in Vietnamese every syllable is written separately, and many words have just one syllable (such as cây, xem, vui). However Vietnamese words can still have more than one syllable. In fact the statisticians say the vast majority of words in Vietnamese do. *

Most of these are disyllabic (ie. they have two syllables). For example đồng hồ is a noun which means clock. Both syllables are needed for the meaning. It’s a word with two syllables which are written separately.

The same can be true of adjectives (eg. thông minh), verbs (eg. sắp xếp) and adverbs (eg. thỉnh thoảng).

To a lesser extent there are compound words where new words are formed by putting other words together. For example mắt trời. In these instances, knowing one of the words can give you a clue what the compound word is about (eg. if you know trời is sky, you can infer that mắt trời is something to do with the sky).

face + sky = sun (mắt trời)
face + sky = sun (mắt trời)

Tackling problems reading new words

As a Vietnamese learner it can be tricky, when reading, to figure out how these syllables combine to form words that have meaning. It can be hard to know what to look up in the dictionary.

Often when intensively reading something, you will find three or four new words all in a row. But should you be looking up four words in the dictionary? Or two pairs of syllables, or some other combination of words?

What should you be looking up out of tác phẩm hồi ký...
Should you be looking up tác phẩm hồi ký? Tác phẩm and hồi ký? Tác and phẩm hồi and ký…?

Enter google translate.

You may be thinking ‘but Google Translate doesn’t do a great job with Vietnamese’. The translations can be unnatural to say the least.

However google translate has a built-in feature where you can hover over words to see alternative translations. But it’s not the alternative translations we’re interested in, it’s the hover feature itself.

By hovering over each of those unknown ‘words’, you can see if there are any multiple-syllable words.

Hover over the translation to figure out where the words are
Hover over the translation to figure out where the words are.

Now you know how to break down those new words (in this example tác phẩm hồi ký is in fact tác phẩm and hồi ký) so you’re able to easily look them up in the dictionary.

Over to you: Had you given any thought to syllables in Vietnamese before? How do you tackle new words when you come across a few in a row?

Image credit: Billy Frank Alexander Design

* Not everyone agrees on this.

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