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Chinese Vietnamese

From the year 111 BCE to 938 CE, Vietnam was directly ruled by China. Most of the nations surrounding China such as Korea, Mongolia and Tibet, were generally regarded as barbarian tributaries. Vietnam, on the other hand, was at that time treated as part of the Middle Kingdom. Vietnamese spoke their own language, but due to Chinese rule, many Chinese linguistic elements became enmeshed with Vietnamese. Today, approximately sixty percent of Vietnamese vocabulary comes from Chinese.

To say that so much of Vietnamese has Chinese origins is not to say that Vietnamese can understand Chinese, or even that Vietnamese words are the same as Chinese words. In fact, the situation is rather similar to the relationship between English and French. After the Norman invasion in 1066, England was frequently ruled by French speakers, and today as much as forty percent of English vocabulary is of French origin even though English is actually a Germanic language.

Where Chinese Vietnamese Comes From

Vietnam is located to the Southwest of the main population of China. As a result of its location, Vietnam mainly adopted the Chinese spoken in the South. In other words, Chinese loanwords in Vietnamese resemble the vocabulary of Cantonese or other southern dialects more than that of the standard dialect. Indeed, Vietnamese shares many features with southern dialects: Vietnamese has about six tones (although, as with Chinese, the number of tones varies depending on the dialect), and it is also similar to Chinese in that it relies more on word order and particles than inflection to express concepts such as tense, case, and person. The similarities between Vietnamese and Chinese made it easy for Vietnamese to adopt so much Chinese vocabulary.

More Than Words

In addition to Vocabulary, Vietnamese also adopted significant pieces of Chinese culture that revolve around language. Like other Asian nations, Vietnam adopted the Chinese Writing system, which is called “Han Tu” (han4zi4 汉字) in Vietnamese. Because Chinese writing was not perfectly suited to recording Vietnamese, the educated elite actually wrote in classical Chinese, wen2yan2 文言. Even when Vietnam was independently governed, it continued to use Confucian style exams that tested a potential official’s proficiency in wen2yan2. These types of exam continued in Vietnam even after they were terminated in China in the 1911 Republican Revolution—the last Confucian exam was held in Vietnam in 1918.