The official language of Vietnam is Vietnamese. Many educated people also speak French, a language introduced during the colonial era. English is increasingly popular as a second language, and is taught in most schools.
Minority languages include Mandarin, Hmong, Khmer, Northern Dong, Tày, Cham, Nùng, and Muong.
|Vietnamese Quick Facts
North-central (Area IV) Vietnamese
South-central (Area V) Vietnamese
ISO 639-1 (vi)
ISO 639-2 (vie)
ISO 639-3 (vie)
Vietnamese / Tiếng Việt
History and Evolution
Vietnamese comes from the Mon-Khmer branch of the Austroasiatic family. It has changed radically as a result of Chinese influence, beginning with the Han conquest in 111 BCE. Even when Vietnam became nominally independent in 938 CE, it was dominated by Chinese culture. Approximately two-thirds of Vietnamese words come from Chinese.
During French colonial rule of the 19th century, French was the primary language of educated Vietnamese people. Many French words entered the language, such as cà phê (from café, meaning “coffee”) and áo sơ mi (from chemise, meaning “shirt”).
Vietnamese was first written using Chinese characters (字儒, or “scholar’s characters”). By the 15th century, an expanded character set called chữ nôm (“characters of common speech”) had developed to accommodate uniquely Vietnamese words. Both systems were superseded by the quốc ngữ system based on the Latin alphabet, developed by Jesuit missionaries and declared official by the French in 1910.
With 68 million speakers, Vietnamese is by far the largest language in the Austroasiatic family. There are 1.8 million speakers in the United States, as well as populations in Europe, particularly in the Czech Republic and the former East Germany as a result of economic ties under communism.
Standard Vietnamese is based on the northern (Hanoi) dialect; the central dialect has a unique local vocabulary, while residents of Saigon and the south exhibit some pronunciation differences, such as substituting “y” for “v.”
Prominence in Society
Vietnamese is the national and official language of Vietnam and as such is the language of government, business, education, and media in the country. In addition, increasing commerce and intermarriage with Taiwan has led to a surge in the study of Vietnamese by the Taiwanese.
Vietnamese is an “isolating” language of separated single syllables. Nouns do not have plural forms or a case system, but there is a system of classifier words likely adopted from Chinese. Verb tenses are indicated by particles such as đã for past and sẽ for future.
Duplication of words can either intensify or moderate their meaning. For example, when mạnh (strong) is repeated as mạnh mẽ, it means “very strong”; however, when đỏ “red” is repeated, as in đo đỏ, it means “somewhat red.”
Vietnamese combines a Chinese-derived tone system with a Mon-Khmer system of contrasting voice quality, such as “clear,” “breathy,” and “creaky,” to create a standard set of six tones (five in some areas). The permutations of tones and vowels result in over 70 distinct vowel sounds.
Loanwords in English
The Vietnam War and the movement of refugees to escape it has resulted in an influx of Vietnamese culture into the United States, including these commonly heard Vietnamese words.
- áo dài (a high-slit dress worn with pants)
- nước mắm (fermented fish sauce)
- phở (a beef or chicken noodle soup)
- Tết (Vietnamese New Year)
- Việt Cộng (The National Liberation Front, opponent of the United States in the Vietnam War)
The consonants “b” and “d” are begun with the vocal cords closed, which gives them a “swallowing” sound. Another unique consonant is k͡p, which is “k” and “p” spoken simultaneously. Such sounds are common only in Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Although Vietnamese has been heavily influenced by Chinese, the influence is not all in one direction. Since most of the languages related to Chinese place the verb at the end of the sentence, linguists believe that it was contact with people from the Mon-Khmer group that led the Chinese to adopt a subject-verb-object order instead.
In place of pronouns, Vietnamese uses honorific forms of address calibrated to the complexities of each social relationship and the difference in age, sex, knowledge, and social status between the speaker and the hearer. Family relationship words are extended to others: a stranger could for instance be addressed as ong (grandfather). It is therefore not unusual for a conversation to be conducted entirely in the third person.
Writer: Darrin McGraw
|Khmer Quick Facts
Standard (Central) Khmer
Khmer Krom (Southern Khmer)
Cardamom Khmer (Western Khmer)
ISO 639-1 (km)
ISO 639-2 (khm)
ISO 639-3 (khm)
ISO 639-3 (kxm)
Khmer / ភាសាខ្មែរ
History and Evolution
Khmer, also called Cambodian, is the earliest recorded and written language of the Mon-Khmer family. Old Khmer was the language of the historical empires of Chenla, Angkor, and, it is believed, its predecessor state, Funan. The Old Khmer language flourished during the 500-year reign of the Khmer empire, from the 9th century to the 13th century, when it ceased to be the language of government and lost its standardizing influence. The period of Middle Khmer lasted until the 18th century. During this time, it was heavily influenced by the languages of its more powerful neighbors, taking on characteristics of Thai, Lao, and Vietnamese. During the modern period, the language was influenced by colonialism, when French became the language of government, higher education, and the ruling economic class. In the 20th century, a monk named Chuon Nath sought to revitalize the language, using original Pali and Sanskrit roots to coin new words for modern ideas. He created the modern Khmer dictionary that is still in use today.
Khmer is the native language of some 13 million people in Cambodia, where it has official status. It is also spoken by a million or so people in southern Vietnam and by 1.4 million in northeast Thailand. It is a second language for most minority groups and indigenous hill tribes.
There are at least four recognized dialects, mostly mutually intelligible. The dialect spoken in the area of Phnom Penh, in the central region, is considered Standard Khmer and is by far the most widely spoken, with other dialects distributed in the west, north, and south.
Prominence in Society
Khmer is the language of government, education, business, and the media in Cambodia.
There are no inflections (changed form of a word), conjugations, or case endings in Khmer; rather, auxiliary words are used to indicate grammatical relationships.
Unlike neighboring languages, Khmer is not tonal, and words are almost always stressed on the last syllable.
There are no articles in Khmer, and nouns have no grammatical gender or number distinctions. Plural nouns are expressed by a number following the noun, as in: ឆ្កែពីរ (dog two), meaning “two dogs.”
Similar to pluralization, adjectives follow the noun, as in: ឆ្កែធំ (dog large), meaning “large dog.” A very large dog is expressed as ឆ្កែធំធំ, or “dog large large.”
Khmer uses a biquinary (mixed-base) number system, so that the numbers from six to nine are expressed as "five one," "five two," etc. The words for multiples of ten from 30 to 90 are most likely borrowed from Thai, as they are not related to the basic Khmer numbers.
Loanwords in English
There are no Khmer words in common English usage. The term Khmer Rouge ខ្មែរក្រហម (from the French for “Red Khmers”) refers to the Communist-inspired regime led by Pol Pot in the late 1970s. While this phrase is widely known in English, its origins are not, strictly speaking, Khmer.
Old Khmer is written in a script borrowed from south India, and many Khmer words trace their roots to Sanskrit.
The term “Khmer” describes not just the language but the ethnic group that comprises some ninety percent of Cambodia’s population.
Standard Cambodian Khmer is mutually intelligible with the other dialects in common usage, although a speaker of Khmer Krom from Vietnam, for instance, may find it difficult to understand a Khmer native from, say, Sisaket Province in Thailand.
Writer: Bruce Falstein
|French Quick Facts
Central African Republic
Democratic Republic of Congo
Republic of the Congo
Saint-Pierre & Miquelon
Wallis & Futuna
Maghreb (North African) French
Jersey Legal French
New Caledonian French
New England French
Southeast Asian French
ISO 639-1 (fr)
ISO 639-2 (fre)
ISO 639-2 (fra)
ISO 639-3 (fra)
French / Français
History and Evolution
The French language originated when Latin encountered the languages of pre-Roman Celtic tribes when Julius Caesar conquered Gaul, an area covering much of modern-day France, between 58 and 52 BCE. Gaulish words retained from this time mostly pertain to agriculture and rural life; examples include bourdaine (black alder), boue (mud), and cervoise (ale).
Germanic influences affected the language from approximately 200 CE, when the Franks and other Germanic tribes invaded Gaul. Words from Frankish often pertain to military vocabulary and feudal social structure; examples include attaquer (to attack), féodal (feudal), and gagner (to win).
Scandinavian words entered the language in 1204, when the Kingdom of France absorbed the Duchy of Normandy. Many of these words are related to seafaring, including flotte (fleet) and vague (wave).
Words from Arabic entered French during the Middle Ages. Many relate to mathematics and science, such as algèbre (algebra) and alchimie (alchemy), as well as luxury items, such as élixir (elixir).
From the 1600s to the 1800s, France was one of the world’s major colonial powers. As a result, French is the second most widely spoken language in the world, and the official language in 29 countries.
Approximately 40 percent of French speakers live in Europe, while 35 percent come from sub-Saharan Africa, 15 percent from North Africa and the Middle East, 8 percent from the Americas, and 1 percent from Asia and Oceania. The community of French-speaking countries is known as “La Francophonie.”
Prominence in Society
During the Enlightenment, French established itself as the language of literature, diplomacy, and the arts throughout Europe. It was common as a court language even in Germany, Russia, and Scandinavia.
After World War II, English became the diplomatic lingua franca. However, French is the second most common native language in the European Union, and is an official language of NATO, the European Union, the World Trade Organization, the United Nations, the ICRC, and the International Olympic Committee.
French has no gender-neutral “it” pronoun and all inanimate objects have a gender, which is reflected in sentence elements such as pronouns, adjectives, and some verb endings.
French has two levels of formality, characterized by tu (informal you) and vous (formal you). Verb tenses change to reflect formal or informal address. The language’s phonology includes nasal vowels and a uvular r. Final consonants are often silent (arrêt), as are the s or x placed at the end of nouns to indicate a plural (Les doigts, les berceaux).
The French numerical system advances in increments of twenty; for example, 70 is soixante-dix, or “sixty-ten,” and 80 is quatre-vingts, or “four twenties.”
Loanwords in English
Approximately 28 to 45 percent of all English words come from French. From 1066, when the Normans conquered England, Anglo-Norman French became the language of government, nobility, and commerce. Examples of loanwords in English include justice (fair treatment under the law); hors-d'œuvre (literally “outside of the main work,” meaning "appetizers"); and liqueur (a sweet, flavored alcoholic beverage).
More people speak French in Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, than in Brussels or Montreal. Kinshasa is the second largest French-speaking city in the world.
Cardinal Richelieu founded the Académie Française in 1634 to regulate and protect the French language. The Académie strenuously resists Anglicization, often inventing its own French words to replace borrowed English words relevant to modern technology. For example, courriel (email) is a conflation of courier (mail) and électronique (electronic).
In 1793, the year of the French revolution, approximately 75 percent of French people were not native French speakers. People in different regions of France spoke many different dialects and languages, among them Breton, Gallo, Gascon, and Provençal.
Writer: Jennifer Williamson
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