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About Vietnamese Language

Vietnamese (tiếng Việt, or less commonly Việt ngữ), formerly known under French colonization as Annamese (see Annam), is the national and official language of Vietnam. It is the mother tongue of 86% of Vietnam's population, and of about three million overseas Vietnamese. It is also spoken as a second language by many ethnic minorities of Vietnam. It is part of the Austroasiatic language family, of which it has the most speakers by a significant margin (several times larger than the other Austroasiatic languages put together).

Much vocabulary has been borrowed from Chinese, especially words that denote abstract ideas in the same way European languages borrow from Latin and Greek, and it was formerly written using the Chinese writing system, albeit in a modified format and was given vernacular pronunciation. The Vietnamese writing system in use today is an adapted version of the Latin alphabet, with additional diacritics for tones and certain letters.

Geographic distribution

As the national language of the majority ethnic group, Vietnamese is spoken throughout Vietnam by the Vietnamese people, as well as by ethnic minorities. It is also spoken in overseas Vietnamese communities, most notably in the United States, where it has more than one million speakers and is the seventh most-spoken language (it is 3rd in Texas, 4th in Arkansas and Louisiana, and 5th in California). In Australia, it is the sixth most-spoken language.

According to the Ethnologue, Vietnamese is also spoken by substantial numbers of people in Cambodia, Canada, China, Côte d'Ivoire, Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Laos, Martinique, the Netherlands, New Caledonia, Norway, the Philippines, Senegal, Thailand, the United Kingdom, and Vanuatu.

Genealogical classification

Vietnamese was identified more than 150 years ago[4] to be part of the Mon-Khmer branch of the Austroasiatic language family (a family that also includes Khmer, spoken in Cambodia, as well as various tribal and regional languages, such as the Munda and Khasi languages spoken in eastern India, and others in southern China). Later, Mường was found to be more closely related to Vietnamese than other Mon-Khmer languages, and a Việt-Mường sub-grouping was established. As data on more Mon-Khmer languages were acquired, other minority languages (such as Thavưng, Chứt languages, Hung, etc.) were found to share Việt-Mường characteristics, and the Việt-Mường term was renamed to Vietic. The older term Việt-Mường now refers to a lower sub-grouping (within an eastern Vietic branch) consisting of Vietnamese dialects, Mường dialects, and Nguồn (of Quảng Bình Province).

Language policy

While spoken by the Vietnamese people for millennia, written Vietnamese did not become the official administrative language of Vietnam until the 20th century. For most of its history, the entity now known as Vietnam used written classical Chinese for governing purposes, whereas written Vietnamese in the form of Chữ nôm was used for poetry and literature. It was also used for administrative purposes during the brief Ho and Tay Son Dynasties. During French colonialism, French superseded Chinese in administration. It was not until independence from France that Vietnamese was used officially. It is the language of instruction in schools and universities and is the language for official business.

History

It seems likely that in the distant past, Vietnamese shared more characteristics common to other languages in the Austroasiatic family, such as an inflectional morphology and a richer set of consonant clusters, which have subsequently disappeared from the language. However, Vietnamese appears to have been heavily influenced by its location in the Southeast Asian sprachbund, with the result that it has acquired or converged toward characteristics such as isolating morphology and tonogenesis. These characteristics, which may or may not have been part of proto-Austroasiatic, nonetheless have become part of many of the phylogenetically unrelated languages of Southeast Asia; for example, Thai (one of the Kradai languages), Tsat (a member of the Malayo-Polynesian group within Austronesian), and Vietnamese each developed tones as a phonemic feature, although their respective ancestral languages were not originally tonal.[citation needed] Presently, Vietnamese has similarities with both Chinese and French due to the influence of the French invasion.

The ancestor of the Vietnamese language was originally based in the area of the Red River in what is now northern Vietnam, and during the subsequent expansion of the Vietnamese language and people into what is now central and southern Vietnam (through conquest of the ancient nation of Champa and the Khmer people of the Mekong Delta in the vicinity of present-day Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), characteristic tonal variations have emerged.

Vietnamese was linguistically influenced primarily by Chinese, which came to predominate politically in the 2nd century B.C. With the rise of Chinese political dominance came radical importation of Chinese vocabulary and grammatical influence. As Chinese was, for a prolonged period, the only medium of literature and government, as well as the primary written language of the ruling class in Vietnam, much of the Vietnamese lexicon in all realms consists of Hán Việt (Sino-Vietnamese) words. In fact, as the vernacular language of Vietnam gradually grew in prestige toward the beginning of the second millennium, the Vietnamese language was written using Chinese characters (using both the original Chinese characters, called Hán tự, as well as a system of newly created and modified characters called Chữ nôm) adapted to write Vietnamese, in a similar pattern as used in Japan (kanji), Korea (hanja), and other countries in the Sinosphere. The Nôm writing reached its zenith in the 18th century when many Vietnamese writers and poets composed their works in Chữ Nôm, most notably Nguyễn Du and Hồ Xuân Hương (dubbed "the Queen of Nôm poetry").

As contact with the West grew, the Quốc Ngữ system of Romanized writing was developed in the 17th century by Portuguese and other Europeans involved in proselytizing and trade in Vietnam. When France invaded Vietnam in the late 19th century, French gradually replaced Chinese as the official language in education and government. Vietnamese adopted many French terms, such as đầm (dame, from madame), ga (train station, from gare), sơ mi (shirt, from chemise), and búp bê (doll, from poupée). In addition, many Sino-Vietnamese terms were devised for Western ideas imported through the French. However, the Romanized script did not come to predominate until the beginning of the 20th century, when education became widespread and a simpler writing system was found more expedient for teaching and communication with the general population.

Vocabulary

As a result of a thousand years of Chinese occupation, much of the Vietnamese lexicon relating to science and politics is derived from Chinese. As much as 60%-70% of the vocabulary has Chinese roots, although many compound words are Sino-Vietnamese, composed of native Vietnamese words combined with Chinese borrowings. One can usually distinguish between a native Vietnamese word and a Chinese borrowing if it can be reduplicated or its meaning doesn't change when the tone is shifted. As a result of French colonization, Vietnamese also has words borrowed from the French language, for example cà phê (from French café). Nowadays, many new words are being added to the language's lexicon; these are usually borrowed from English, for example TV (though usually seen in the written form as tivi). Sometimes these borrowings are calques literally translated into Vietnamese for example, 'software' is calqued into phần mềm, which literally means "soft part".

Language variation

Vietnamese has traditionally been divided into three dialect regions: North, Central, and South. However, Michel Fergus and Nguyễn Tài Cẩn offer evidence for considering a North-Central region separate from Central. The term Haut-Annam refers to dialects spoken from northern Nghệ An Province to southern (former) Thừa Thiên Province that preserve archaic features (like consonant clusters and undiphthongized vowels) that have been lost in other modern dialects.

These dialect regions differ mostly in their sound systems (see below), but also in vocabulary (including basic vocabulary, non-basic vocabulary, and grammatical words) and grammar.[14] The North-central and Central regional varieties, which have a significant amount of vocabulary differences, are generally less mutually intelligible to Northern and Southern speakers. There is less internal variation within the Southern region than the other regions due to its relatively late settlement by Vietnamese speakers (in around the end of the 15th century). The North-central region is particularly conservative. Along the coastal areas, regional variation has been neutralized to a certain extent while more mountainous regions preserve more variation. As for sociolinguistic attitudes, the North-central varieties are often felt to be "peculiar" or "difficult to understand" by speakers of other dialects.

It should be noted that the large movements of people between North and South beginning in the mid-20th century and continuing to this day have resulted in a significant number of Southern residents speaking in the Northern accent/dialect and to a lesser extent, Northern residents speaking in the Southern accent/dialect. Following the Geneva Accords of 1954 that called for the "temporary" division of the country, almost a million Northern speakers (mainly from Hanoi and the surrounding Red River Delta areas) moved South (mainly to Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, and the surrounding areas.) About a third of that number of people made the move in the reverse direction.

Following the reunification of Vietnam in 1975-76, Northern and North-Central speakers from the densely populated Red River Delta and the traditionally poorer provinces of Nghe An, Ha Tinh and Quang Binh have continued to move South to look for better economic opportunities. Additionally, government and military personnel are posted to various locations throughout the country, often away from their home regions. More recently, the growth of the free market system have resulted in business people and tourists traveling to distant parts of Vietnam. These movements have resulted in some small blending of the dialects but more significantly, have made the Northern dialect more easily understood in the South and vice versa. It is also interesting to note that most Southerners, when singing modern/popular Vietnamese songs, would do so in the Northern accent. This is true in Vietnam as well as in the overseas Vietnamese communities.

Writing system

Currently, the written language uses the Vietnamese alphabet (quốc ngữ or "national script", literally "national language"), based on the Latin alphabet. Originally a Romanization of Vietnamese, it was codified in the 17th century by a French Jesuit missionary named Alexandre de Rhodes (1591–1660), based on works of earlier Portuguese missionaries (Gaspar do Amaral and António Barbosa). The use of the script was gradually extended from its initial domain in Christian writing to become more popular among the general public.

Under French colonial rule, the script became official and required for all public documents in 1910 by issue of a decree by the French Résident Supérieur of the protectorate of Tonkin. By the end of first half 20th century virtually all writings were done in quốc ngữ.

Changes in the script were made by French scholars and administrators and by conferences held after independence during 1954–1974. The script now reflects a so-called Middle Vietnamese dialect that has vowels and final consonants most similar to northern dialects and initial consonants most similar to southern dialects (Nguyễn 1996). This Middle Vietnamese is presumably close to the Hanoi variety as spoken sometime after 1600 but before the present. (This is not unlike how English orthography is based on the Chancery Standard of late Middle English, with many spellings retained even after significant phonetic change.)

Before French rule, the first two Vietnamese writing systems were based on Chinese script.

 

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