Vietnam was ruled by the Chinese for over a thousand years from 111
BC - 938 AD. As a result, the official written language was Classical
Chinese, known as Chữ-nho (𡨸儒) in Vietnamese, which
continued to be used in Vietnam, in parallel with Chữ-nôm
(𡨸喃) and Quốc Ngữ,
until about 1918.
Sometime during the 10th century the Vietnamese adapted the Chinese
script to write their own language and called their script 'Chữ-nôm'
(southern script). The earliest known example of writing in the Chữ-nôm
script, an inscription on a stele at the Bao An Pagoda in Yen Lang,
Vinh Phu province, dates from 1209 AD (Ly Dynasty). It was during
the Tarn Dynasty (late 13th century) that the script was systematized
and started to be used in literature.
Famous Vietnamese writers who wrote in the Chữ-nôm script include the
poets Nguyen Thuyen and Nguyen Si Co (14th century) and Nguyen Trai
(15th century), and HoQuy Ly (14th century) who translated Chinese textbooks
into Vietnamese and wrote royal proclamations and ordinances.
When western missionaries starting arriving in Vietnam during the 17th
century, they developed a new script for Vietnamese based on the Latin
alphabet - Quốc Ngữ (national
language), which they used to write prayer books and other religious
material in Vietnamese. Though Quốc Ngữ was developed by a number of
different missionaries and by Vietnamese scholars, the person usually
credited with its invention is Alexandre de Rhodes, a French Jesuit
In the mid 18th century, some schools in Vietnam began to teach Quốc
Ngữ, but it wasn't until the beginning of the 20th century that the
use of Quoc Ngữ became widespread. Today Quốc Ngữ is the only script
used for writing Vietnamese.
Courses in the Chữ-nôm script were available at
Ho Chi Minh University until 1993, and the script is still studied and
taught at the Han-Nôm Institute in Hanoi, which has recently published
a dictionary of all the nôm characters.
- Chữ-nôm uses a mixture of standard Chinese characters and
new characters invented specifically for writing Vietnamese.
- When adapting the Chinese characters, the inventors of Chữ-nôm
borrowed many Chinese words and adapted that pronunciations to Vietnamese
phonology. As a result of this borrowing, there are often two words
for the same thing - a Sino-Vietnamese one and the original Vietnamese
one, as can be seen below.
- The new characters combine a character which gives the meaning and
another which hints at the Vietnamese pronunciation.
Selection of Chữ-nôm characters
On the top right of each Chinese loan word is the modern Vietnamese
word, which sometimes differs from the historic pronunciation of the Chữ-nôm character.
The Mandarin and Cantonese pronunciations are given below this (Mandarin on the left,
Cantonese on the right) The Vietnamese pronunciation is generally closer to Cantonese
Sample texts in Chữ-nôm
Within the span of hundred years of human existence,
what a bitter struggle is waged between genius and destiny!
How many harrowing events have occurred while mulberries cover the conquered sea!
Rich in beauty, unlucky in life!
Strange indeed, but little wonder,
since casting hatred upon rosy cheeks is a habit of the Blue Sky.
The first six lines of the poem The Tale of Kiều
Quốc Ngữ transliteration
Tất cả mọi người sinh ra
đều được tự do và bình đẳng
về nhân phẩm và quyền lợi. Mọi con
người đều được tạo hóa ban
cho lý trí và lương tâm và cần
phải đối xử với nhau trong tình anh em.
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are
endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a
spirit of brotherhood.
(Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)
Information about Vietnamese |
Chữ-nôm script |
Vietnamese phrases |
Vietnamese colours |
Vietnamese numbers |
Tower of Babel in Vietnamese |
Vietnamese learning materials
Information about Chữ-nôm
Online Chu Nom Lessons
Dictionary of 4000 Chữ-nôm characters
Vietnamese Nôm Preservation Foundation (includes a facility
for looking up Chữ-nôm characters):
Free fonts containing Chữ-nôm characters
Yahoo newsgroup on Chữ-nôm writing
Ancient Egyptian (Demotic),
Ancient Egyptian (Hieratic),
Ancient Egyptian (Hieroglyphs),