Sino-Vietnamese vocabulary

Sino-Vietnamese vocabulary (Vietnamese: từ Hán Việt, chữ Nôm: 詞漢越, literally "Sino-Vietnamese words") are words and morphemes of the Vietnamese language borrowed from Chinese. They comprise about a third of the Vietnamese lexicon, and may account for as much as 60% of the vocabulary used in formal texts.[1] This vocabulary was originally written with Chinese characters that were used in the Vietnamese writing system, but like all written Vietnamese, is now written with the Latin-based Vietnamese alphabet that was adopted in the early 20th century.

Together with Sino-Korean and Sino-Japanese vocabularies, Sino-Vietnamese has been used in the reconstruction of the sound categories of Middle Chinese. Samuel Martin (1953) grouped the three together as "Sino-xenic".

Classical Chinese

As a result of a thousand years of Chinese control (except for brief rebellions), and a further thousand years of strong Chinese influence, two main layers of Chinese vocabulary have been borrowed into Vietnamese.

The Old Sino-Vietnamese layer was introduced after the Chinese conquest of the kingdom of Nanyue, including the northern part of Vietnam, in 111 BC. The influence of the Chinese language was particularly felt during the Eastern Han period (25–190 AD), due to increased Chinese immigration and official efforts to sinicize the territory.[2] This layer consists of roughly 400 words, which have been fully assimilated and are treated by Vietnamese speakers as native words.[3]

The much more extensive Sino-Vietnamese proper was introduced with Chinese rhyme dictionaries such as the Qieyun in the late Tang dynasty (618–907). Vietnamese scholars used a systematic rendering of Middle Chinese within the phonology of Vietnamese to derive consistent pronunciations for the entire Chinese lexicon.[4] After expelling the Chinese in 938, the Vietnamese sought to build a state on the Chinese model, including using Literary Chinese for all formal writing, including administration and scholarship, until the early 20th century.[5] Around 3,000 words entered Vietnamese over this period.[6][7] Some of these were re-introductions of words borrowed at the Old Sino-Vietnamese stage, with different pronunciations due to intervening sound changes in Vietnamese and Chinese, and often with a shift in meaning.[4][8]

Examples of multiply-borrowed Chinese words
(Old > Middle)
Old Sino-Vietnamese Sino-Vietnamese
*mjəts > mjɨjH mùi 'smell, odor' vị 'flavor, taste'[9]
*pənʔ > pwonX vốn 'capital, funds' bản 'root, foundation' [9]
*wjek > ywek việc 'work, event' dịch 'service, corvee'[9][10]
*muks > mawH 'hat' mạo 'hat'[4]
*gre > giày 'shoe' hài 'shoe'[4]
*kras > kæH gả 'marry' giá 'marry'[4][11]
*bjəʔ > bjuwX vợ 'wife' phụ 'woman'[4][10]
*gjojʔ > gjweX cúi 'bow, prostrate oneself' quị 'kneel'[4]
*rijʔ > lejX lạy 'kowtow' lễ 'ceremony'[4]
*pjap > pjop phép 'rule, law' pháp 'rule, law'[4]

Wang Li, who produced the first systematic study of Sino-Vietnamese,[12] followed Henri Maspero in identifying a problematic group of forms as Sino-Vietnamese loans that had been affected by changes in colloquial Vietnamese. Most scholars now follow André-Georges Haudricourt in assigning these words to the Old Sino-Vietnamese layer.[13]

Modern creations

Until the early 20th century, Literary Chinese was the language of administration and scholarship, not only in China, but also in Vietnam, Korea and Japan, similar to Latin in medieval Europe.[14] Though not a spoken language, this shared written language was read aloud in different places according to local traditions derived from Middle Chinese pronunciation, the literary readings in various parts of China and the so-called Sino-Xenic pronunciations in the other countries.

As contact with the West grew, Western works were translated into Chinese and read by the literati. In order to translate words for new concepts (political, religious, scientific, medical and technical terminology) scholars in these countries coined new compounds formed from Chinese morphemes and written with Chinese characters. The local readings of these compounds were readily adopted into local vernaculars, including Vietnamese. For example, the Chinese mathematician Li Shanlan created hundreds of translations of mathematical terms, including 代數學 ("replace-number-study") for "algebra", yielding modern Chinese dài shùxué, Japanese dai sūgaku, Korean dae suhak and Vietnamese đại số học.[15] Often, multiple compounds for the same concept were in circulation for some time before a winner emerged, and sometimes the final choice differed between countries.[16]

A fairly large amount of Sino-Vietnamese have meanings that differ significantly from their usage in other Sinitic vocabularies. For example, bác sĩ (博士) is widely used with the meaning "physician", while it means "doctor" or "Ph.D." in Chinese; bạc ( "platinum") is a false term for "silver"; luyện kim (煉金) means "metallurgy" instead of its original meaning, "alchemy"; or giáo sư (教師) means "teacher" in Chinese, but is now associated with "professor" in Vietnamese. Interestingly, club became 俱樂部 kurabu in Japan, was borrowed to China, then to Vietnam, is read as câu lạc bộ, and abbreviated CLB, which can be an abbreviation for club.

Some Sino-Vietnamese words are entirely invented by the Vietnamese and are not used in Chinese, such as linh mục (靈牧 "spiritual shepherd") for pastor, or giả kim thuật (假金術 "art of artificial metal"), which has been applied popularly to refer to "alchemy". Others are no longer used in modern Chinese or have other meanings.


Because Sino-Vietnamese provides a Vietnamese form for almost all Chinese characters, it can be used to derive a Vietnamese form for any Chinese name. For example, the name of the Chinese leader Xi Jinping consists of the Chinese characters 習近平. Applying a Sino-Vietnamese reading to each character in turn yields a Vietnamese name Tập Cận Bình, which has some similarity to the Cantonese form Zaap6 Gan6-ping4.

Western names, approximated in Chinese (in some cases approximated in Japanese and then borrowed into Chinese), were further "garbled" in Vietnamese pronunciations. For example, Portugal became 葡萄牙, and in Vietnamese Bồ Đào Nha. England became Anh Cát Lợi (英吉利) shortened to Anh (), while America became Mỹ Lợi Gia (美利加), shortened to Mỹ (). The official name for the United States in Vietnamese is Hoa Kỳ (花旗); this is a former Chinese name of the United States and translates literally as "flower flag".

Country Chinese name Vietnamese name
Austria 奧地利 Áo (奧)
Belgium 比利時 Bỉ (比)
Czechoslovakia 捷克斯洛伐克 Tiệp Khắc (捷克)
France 法蘭西 Pháp (法)
Germany 德意志 Đức (德)
Italy 意大利 Ý (意)
Russia 俄羅斯 Nga (俄)
Yugoslavia 南斯拉夫 Nam Tư (南斯)

Except for the most deeply ingrained, or ones with Chinese references, such as Trung Quốc (中國) for China, Vietnamese names for countries of the world are now close to their original spelling or pronunciation instead of Sino-Vietnamese. However, China-specific names continue to be rendered in Sino-Vietnamese.


Sino-Vietnamese words have a status similar to that of Latin-based words in English: they are used more in formal context than in everyday life. Because Chinese and Vietnamese use different order for subject and modifier, compound Sino-Vietnamese words or phrases might appear ungrammatical in Vietnamese sentences. For example, the Sino-Vietnamese phrase bạch mã (白馬 "white horse") can be expressed in Vietnamese as ngựa trắng ("horse white"). For this reason, compound words containing native Vietnamese and Sino-Vietnamese words are very rare and are considered improper by some. For example, chung cư "apartment building" was originally derived from chúng cư 眾居 "multiple dwelling", but with the syllable chúng "multiple" replaced with chung, a pure Vietnamese word meaning "shared" or "together".

Writing Sino-Vietnamese words with the Vietnamese alphabet causes some confusion about the origins of some terms, due to the large amount of homophones in Chinese and Sino-Vietnamese. For example, both (bright) and (dark) are read as minh, thus the word "minh" has two contradictory meanings: bright and dark (although the "dark" meaning is now esoteric and is used in only a few compound words). Perhaps for this reason, the Vietnamese name for Pluto is not Minh Vương Tinh (冥王星 – lit. "underworld king star") as in other East Asian languages, but is Diêm Vương Tinh (閻王星), named after the Hindu and Buddhist deity Yama. During the Hồ Dynasty, Vietnam was officially known as Đại Ngu (大虞 "Great Peace"). Unfortunately, most modern Vietnamese know ngu as "stupid" (); consequently, some misinterpret it as "Big Idiot" (大愚). Conversely, the Han River in South Korea is often erroneously translated as sông Hàn () when it should be sông Hán () due to the name's similarity with the country name. However, the homograph/homophone problem is not as serious as it appears, because although many Sino-Vietnamese words have multiple meanings when written with the Vietnamese alphabet, usually only one has widespread usage, while the others are relegated to obscurity. Furthermore, Sino-Vietnamese words are usually not used alone, but in compound words, thus the meaning of the compound word is preserved even if individually each has multiple meanings.

See also




External links

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