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.

Learning Resources

2 ways of translating words that aren’t in the dictionary

Sometimes you come across a word that you can’t find in the dictionary. Perhaps you’ve tried explaining to a native speaker but you’re not able to describe the exact word you’re aiming for.

What to do?

1. Use Wikipedia

For example, I wanted to know what the skin condition ‘eczema’ was in Vietnamese. I brought up the English Wikipedia page for eczema, then scrolled down to the Languages section of the side bar and selected Vietnamese. This brought up the equivalent page and there it is: viêm da (though actually this seems to be skin conditions in general).

2. Find a picture, then ask a native

Sadly, the Vietnamese Wikipedia is lacking a few articles. Another method I’ve used is pulling up a google image of what I want to describe or drawing a sketch, then showing it to a native speaker and asking what it was.

crochet is đan móc
Crochet is đan móc

Over to you: What do you do when you can’t find a word in the dictionary?


Review: dictionary

Where I taught English, this was the dictionary the Teaching Assistants used for reference.

I started using it myself and found it’s pretty thorough and most of the time has examples of the word in different contexts. I actually think it’s better than my dictionary in book form!

Here’s an example:

Example of in use

Many words also have an audio file so you can hear the pronunciation, with a northern accent of course.

It has multi-lingual dictionary features currently: English↔Vietnamese, Vietnamese-Vietnamese, French↔Vietnamese and Chinese→Vietnamese.

Over to you: Have you used Do you have any other dictionary recommendations? Tell us in the comments.