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Vietnamese is written with Latin letters with additional diacritics marking the tones and different vowels. This writing system is called ch Quc Ng (National Script). Ch Quc Ng was first developed in the 16th century by Catholic missionaries from Portugal, France, Italy and Spain. In the 17th century, it was completely systemized for the first time in Alexandre De Rhodes’s Vietnamese-Portuguese-Latin dictionary.

As you have noticed, each syllable in Vietnamese sounds somehow melodic. This is because Vietnamese is a tonal language, which means that each syllable has a tone. In the standard variety, there are six tones. In English, we can use tone on phrases and sentences to express surprise, to emphasize or to question (think of how the meaning of the word “really” changes if you say it with a rising tone vs. a falling tone). Differently, in tonal languages like Vietnamese, tones actually change the meanings of words and are an essential part of speaking and understanding the language. The tones are marked in writing with diacritics, above or under the vowels. The only tone that has no marking is the high flat tone. Below is a visual representation of the six tones with their traditional Vietnamese names below them.

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Let’s take a look at how the tones work with an example syllable la:

Tone ngang la a high flat tone to shout
Tone sc la a rising tone leaf
Tone huyên la a falling tone, also sometimes spoken as a low flat tone to be
Tone nng la a short abruptly falling tone ended by glottalization* strange
Tone hoi la a low broken tone with a low falling-rising melody (except in the middle of the phrase, where it is spoken without the rising part) exhausted
Tone nga la a high broken tone that begins a bit higher than tone 2, then is glottalized*, then rises abruptly. unclean

* Glottalization refers to a constriction of the throat. In English, there is a glottal stop (that is, not just a constriction but a closing of the throat) in the middle of the two syllables in the phrase “uh-oh.”

You may have noticed that there are several other diacritics than those above. These diacritics indicate qualities of the vowels they go with. For example, the diacritic ^ in ng (an older man, grandfather) sounds like the o in long, while the o in ong (bee) is a more open vowel like o in hot. You will learn further differences between the vowel diacritics in the next lessons.

Now let’s get some practice with listening to the tones. Listen to the following words that share the same syllable, but differ in their tones:

ma ghost

ma cheek

ma but

ma rice plant

ma grave

ma appearance

ba three

ba uncle

ba grandmother

ba any

ba bait

ba waste

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