Vietnamese phonology

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The phonology of Vietnamese features 19 consonant phonemes, with 5 additional consonant phonemes used in Vietnamese's Southern dialect, and 4 exclusive to the Northern dialect. Vietnamese also has 14 vowel nuclei, and 6 tones that are integral to the interpretation of the language. Older interpretations of Vietnamese tones differentiated between "sharp" and "heavy" entering and departing tones. This article is a technical description of the sound system of the Vietnamese language, including phonetics and phonology. Two main varieties of Vietnamese, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, which are slightly different to each other, are described below.

Initial consonants[edit]

Initial consonants which exist only in the Northern dialect are in red, while those that exist only in the Southern dialect are in blue.

Labial Dental/
Retroflex (Alveolo-)
Velar Glottal
Nasal m n ɲ ŋ
unaspirated (p) t ʈ c k (ʔ)
implosive ɓ ɗ
Fricative voiceless f s ʂ x h
voiced v z ɣ
Approximant l r j w
  • /w/ is the only initial consonant permitted to form consonant clusters with other consonants.
  • /p/ occurs syllable-initially only in loan words, but some speakers pronounce as /ɓ/ (as in sâm banh, derived from French champagne).
  • The glottalized stops are preglottalized and voiced: [ʔɓ, ʔɗ] (the glottis is always closed before the oral closure). This glottal closure is often not released before the release of the oral closure, resulting in the characteristic implosive pronunciation. However, sometimes the glottal closure is released prior to the oral release in which case the stops are pronounced [ʔb, ʔd]. Therefore, the primary characteristic is preglottalization with implosion being secondary.
  • /ɓ, m/ are bilabial, while /f, v/ are labiodental.
  • /t, tʰ/ are denti-alveolar ([t̪, t̪ʰ]), while /ɗ, n, l/ are apico-alveolar.[1]
  • /c, ɲ/ are phonetically lamino-palatoalveolar (the blade of the tongue makes contact behind the alveolar ridge).
  • /ʈ, c/ are often slightly affricated [ʈ͡ʂ, t͡ɕ], but they are unaspirated.
  • A glottal stop [ʔ] is inserted before words that begin with a vowel or /w/:
ăn 'to eat' /ăn/ [ʔăn]
uỷ 'to delegate' /wi/ [ʔwi]

Hanoi initials[edit]

  • d, gi and r are all pronounced /z/.
  • ch and tr are both pronounced /c/, while x and s are both pronounced /s/.
  • Some rural speakers merge /l/ and /n/ into /l/, although this is not considered standard.[1]

Ho Chi Minh City initials[edit]

  • d and gi are both pronounced /j/.
  • Historically, /v/ is pronounced [j] in common speech, merging with d and gi. However, it is becoming distinct and pronounced as [v], especially in careful speech or when reading a text. In traditional performance including Cải lương, Đờn ca tài tử, Hát bội and some old speakers of Overseas Vietnamese, it is pronounced as consonant cluster [bj], [βj] or [vj].[2] In loanwords, it is always pronounced [v]: va li [vaː˧ lɪi̯˧].
  • Historically, a distinction is made between ch /c/ and tr /ʈ/, as well as between x /s/ and s /ʂ/. However, in many speakers, these two pairs are becoming merged as /c/ and /s/ respectively.[3]
  • In informal speech, /kw/, /hw/, /ʔw/, and sometimes /ŋw/ are pronounced [w]. However, it is becoming distinct and pronounced as [kw], [hw], [w], [ŋw] respectively, especially in formal speech or when reading a text.
  • In southern speech, the phoneme /r/, generally represented in Vietnamese linguistics by the letter ⟨r⟩, has a number of variant pronunciations that depend on the speaker. More than one pronunciation may even be found within a single speaker. It may occur as a retroflex fricative [ʐ], an alveolar approximant [ɹ], a flap [ɾ] or a trill [r], especially in loanwords. Some rural speakers from Mekong Delta pronounced /r/ as [ɣ] or [j], but this is not considered formal.

Comparison of initials[edit]

The table below summarizes these sound correspondences:

Diaphoneme Hanoi Ho Chi Minh City Example
word Hanoi Saigon
/v/ /v/ /j/ or /v/ vợ   'wife' [və˨˩ˀ] [jə˨˧] or [və˨˧]
/z/ /z/ /j/ da   'skin' [za˧] [ja˧]
gia   'to add'
/r/ /r/ ra   'to go out' [ɺa˧]
/c/ /c/ /c/ chẻ   'split' [t͡ɕɛ˧˩] [cɛ˩˥]
/ʈ/ /ʈ/ or /c/ trẻ   'young' [ʈɛ˩˥] or [cɛ˩˥]
/s/ /s/ /s/ xinh   'beautiful' [sɪŋ̟˧] [sɪ̈n˧]
/ʂ/ /ʂ/ or /s/ sinh   'born' [ʂɪ̈n˧] or [sɪ̈n˧]


Vowel nuclei[edit]

Vowel chart of Hanoi monophthongs according to Kirby (2011:384)
Vowel chart of Hanoi diphthongs according to Kirby (2011:384)
Front Central Back
Centering /iə̯/ ⟨ia~iê⟩ /ɨə̯/ ⟨ưa~ươ⟩ /uə̯/ ⟨ua~uô⟩
Close /i/ ⟨i, y⟩ /ɨ/ ⟨ư⟩ /u/ ⟨u⟩
/e/ ⟨ê⟩ /ə/ ⟨ơ⟩ /o/ ⟨ô⟩
/ə̆/ ⟨â⟩
/ɛ/ ⟨e⟩ /a/ ⟨a⟩ /ɔ/ ⟨o⟩
/ă/ ⟨ă⟩

The IPA chart of vowel nuclei above is based on the sounds in Hanoi Vietnamese; other regions may have slightly different inventories. Vowel nuclei consist of monophthongs (simple vowels) and three centering diphthongs.

  • All vowels are unrounded except for the four back rounded vowels: /u, o, ɔ, uə̯/.
  • In the South, the high vowels /i, ɨ, u/ are all diphthongized in open syllables: [ɪi̯, ɯ̽ɯ̯, ʊu̯], Ba Vì [baː˧ vɪi̯˩] (listen).[4]
  • /ə̆/ and /ă/ are pronounced shorter than the other vowels. These short vowels only occur in closed syllables.
  • There are small but consistent qualitative differences between /ə̆/ and /ə/ which show up in spectral analysis. However, it has not been established that they are perceptually significant, and the difference between the two vowels may be regarded as purely quantitative.[5]
  • The vowels /ɛː/ and /ɔː/ are marginal. As with the other short/long vowel pairs, short and long /ɛ/ and /ɔ/ are only distinguished in closed syllables. For some speakers the distinction may be one of vowel quality or of the articulation of the syllable coda in addition to or instead of vowel quantity.[5]
  • /ɨ/: Many descriptions, such as Thompson,[6] Nguyễn (1970), Nguyễn (1997), consider this vowel to be close back unrounded: [ɯ]. However, Han's[7] instrumental analysis indicates that it is more central than back. Hoang (1965), Brunelle (2003) and Phạm (2006) also transcribe this vowel as central.

Closing sequences[edit]

In Vietnamese, vowel nuclei are able to combine with offglides /j/ or /w/ to form closing diphthongs and triphthongs. Below is a chart[8] listing the closing sequences of general northern speech.

/w/ offglide /j/ offglide
Front Central Back
Centering /iə̯w/ ⟨iêu⟩ /ɨə̯w/ ⟨ươu⟩ /ɨə̯j/ ⟨ươi⟩ /uə̯j/ ⟨uôi⟩
Close /iw/ ⟨iu⟩ /ɨw/ ⟨ưu⟩ /ɨj/ ⟨ưi⟩ /uj/ ⟨ui⟩
/ew/ ⟨êu⟩

/ə̆w/ ⟨âu⟩

/əj/ ⟨ơi⟩

/ə̆j/ ⟨ây⟩

/oj/ ⟨ôi⟩
/ɛw/ ⟨eo⟩ /aw/ ⟨ao⟩

/ăw/ ⟨au⟩

/aj/ ⟨ai⟩

/ăj/ ⟨ay⟩

/ɔj/ ⟨oi⟩

Thompson (1965) says that in Hanoi, words spelled with ưu and ươu are pronounced /iw, iəw/, respectively, whereas other dialects in the Tonkin delta pronounce them as /ɨw/ and /ɨəw/. This observation is also made by Phạm (2008) and Kirby (2011).


When stops /p, t, k/ occur at the end of words, they have no audible release ([p̚, t̚, k̚]):

đáp 'to reply' /ɗap/ [ɗap̚]
mát 'cool' /mat/ [mat̚]
khác 'different' /xak/ [xak̚]

When the velar consonants /k, ŋ/ are after /u, o, ɔ/, they are articulated with a simultaneous bilabial closure [k͡p̚, ŋ͡m] (i.e. doubly articulated) or are strongly labialized [k̚ʷ, ŋʷ].

đục 'murky' /ɗuk/ [ɗuk͡p̚], [ɗʊk̚ʷ]
độc 'poison' /ɗok/ [ɗə̆wk͡p̚], [ɗə̆wk̚ʷ]
đọc 'to read' /ɗɔk/ [ɗăwk͡p̚], [ɗăwk̚ʷ]
ung 'cancer' /uŋ/ [uŋ͡m], [ʊŋʷ]
ông 'man'/'grandfather' /oŋ/ [ə̆wŋ͡m], [ə̆wŋʷ]
ong 'bee' /ɔŋ/ [ăwŋ͡m], [ăwŋʷ]

Hanoi finals[edit]

Analysis of final ch, nh[edit]

The pronunciation of syllable-final ch and nh in Hanoi Vietnamese has had different analyses. One analysis, that of Thompson (1965) has them as being phonemes /c, ɲ/, where /c/ contrasts with both syllable-final t /t/ and c /k/ and /ɲ/ contrasts with syllable-final n /n/ and ng /ŋ/. Final /c, ɲ/ is, then, identified with syllable-initial /c, ɲ/.

Another analysis has final ⟨ch⟩ and ⟨nh⟩ as representing different spellings of the velar phonemes /k/ and /ŋ/ that occur after upper front vowels /i/ (orthographic ⟨i⟩) and /e/ (orthographic ⟨ê⟩). This analysis interprets orthographic ⟨ach⟩ and ⟨anh⟩ as an underlying /ɛ/, which becomes phonetically open and diphthongized: /ɛk/[ăjk̟̚], /ɛŋ/[ăjŋ̟].[9] This diphthongization also affects ⟨êch⟩ and ⟨ênh⟩: /ek/[ə̆jk̟̚], /eŋ/[ə̆jŋ̟].

Arguments for the second analysis include the limited distribution of final [c] and [ɲ], the gap in the distribution of [k] and [ŋ] which do not occur after [i] and [e], the pronunciation of ⟨ach⟩ and ⟨anh⟩ as [ɛc] and [ɛɲ] in certain conservative central dialects,[10] and the patterning of [k]~[c] and [ŋ]~[ɲ] in certain reduplicated words. Additionally, final [c] is not articulated as far forward as the initial [c]: [c] and [ɲ] are pre-velar [k̟, ŋ̟] with no alveolar contact.[11]

The first analysis closely follows the surface pronunciation of a slightly different Hanoi dialect than the second. In this dialect, the /a/ in /ac/ and /aɲ/ is not diphthongized but is actually articulated more forward, approaching a front vowel [æ]. This results in a three-way contrast between the rimes ăn [æ̈n] vs. anh [æ̈ɲ] vs. ăng [æ̈ŋ]. For this reason, a separate phonemic /ɲ/ is posited.

Table of Hanoi finals[edit]

The following rimes ending with velar consonants have been diphthongized in the Hanoi dialect, but /i/, /u/ and /ɨ/ are more open:[10]

ong, oc /awŋ/, /awk/ [ăwŋ͡m], [ăwk͡p̚]
ông, ôc /əwŋ/, /əwk/ [ə̆wŋ͡m], [ə̆wk͡p̚]
ung, uc /uŋ/, /uk/ [ʊŋ͡m], [ʊk͡p̚]
ưng, ưc, ưn, ưt /ɨŋ/, /ɨk/, /ɨn/, /ɨt/ [ɯ̽ŋ], [ɯ̽k̟̚], [ɯ̽n], [ɯ̽t̚]
anh, ach /ɛŋ/, /ɛk/ [ăjŋ̟], [ăjk̟̚]
ênh, êch /eŋ/, /ek/ [ə̆jŋ̟], [ə̆jk̟̚]
inh, ich /iŋ/, /ik/ [ɪŋ̟], [ɪk̟̚]

With the above phonemic analyses, the following is a table of rimes ending in /n, t, ŋ, k/ in the Hanoi dialect:

/ă/ /a/ /ɛ/ /ɔ/, /aw/ /ə̆/ /ə/ /e/ /o/ /i/ /ɨ/ /u/ /iə̯/ /ɨə̯/ /uə̯/
/n/ ăn an en on ân ơn ên ôn in ưn un iên ươn uôn
/t/ ăt at et ot ât ơt êt ôt it ưt ut iêt ươt uôt
/ŋ/ ăng ang anh ong âng ênh ông inh ưng ung iêng ương uông
/k/ ăc ac ach oc âc êch ôc ich ưc uc iêc ươc uôc

Ho Chi Minh City finals[edit]

Merger of finals[edit]

While the variety of Vietnamese spoken in Hanoi has retained finals faithfully from Middle Vietnamese, the variety spoken in Ho Chi Minh City has drastically changed its finals. Rimes ending in /k, ŋ/ merged with those ending in /t, n/, respectively, so they are always pronounced /t, n/, respectively, after the short front vowels /i, e, a/ (only when /a/ is before "nh"). However, they are always pronounced /k, ŋ/ after the other vowels /u, uː, o, ɔ, iː, ɨː, ɨ, aw, a, aː, ɛ, ə, əː/. After rounded vowels /aw, u, o/, many speakers close their lips, i.e. they pronounce /k, ŋ/ as [k͡p, ŋ͡m].[10] Subsequently, vowels of rimes ending in labiovelars have been diphthongized, while vowels of rimes ending in alveolar have been centralized.[12] Otherwise, some Southern speakers distinguish /k, ŋ/ and /t, n/ after /u, uː, o, ɔ, iː, ɨː, ɨ, aw, a, aː, ɛ, ə, əː/ in formal speech, but there are no Southern speakers who pronounce "ch" and "nh" at the end of syllables as /k, ŋ/.

Table of Ho Chi Minh City finals[edit]

The short back vowels in the rimes have been diphthongized and centralized, meanwhile, the consonants have been labialized. Similarly, the short front vowels have been centralized which are realized as central vowels /ă, ə, ɨ/ and the "unspecified" consonants have been affected by coronal spreading from the preceding front vowels which are surfaced as coronals (alveolar) /n, t/.[10]

ung, uc /uŋ/, /uk/ [ʊwŋ͡m], [ʊwk͡p̚]
ông, ôc /oŋ/, /ok/ [ăwŋ͡m], [ăwk͡p̚]
ong, oc /ɔŋ/, /ɔk/
anh, ach /an/, /at/ [ăn], [ăt̚]
ênh, êch /en/, /et/ [ɤn], [ɤt̚]
in ~ inh, it ~ ich /in/, /it/ [ɪ̈n], [ɪ̈t̚]
um, up /um/, /up/ [ʊm], [ʊp̚]
ưng ~ ưn, ưc ~ ưt /ɨŋ/, /ɨk/ [ɯ̽ŋ], [ɯ̽k̟̚]

The other closed dialects (Hue, Quang Nam, Binh Dinh) which have also been merged in codas, but some vowels are pronounced differently in some dialects:

Hue[13][6] Quang Nam[14] Binh Dinh[15] Ho Chi Minh City
ung, uc [ʊwŋ͡m], [ʊwk͡p̚] [ʊwŋ͡m], [ʊwk͡p̚] [ʊwŋ͡m], [ʊwk͡p̚] [ʊwŋ͡m], [ʊwk͡p̚]
un, ut [uːŋ͡m], [uːk͡p̚] [uːŋ͡m], [uːk͡p̚]
ênh, êch [ən], [ət̚] [ən], [ət̚] [ən], [ət̚] [ɤːn], [ɤːt̚]
ên, êt [eːn], [eːt̚] [eːn], [eːt̚] [eːn], [eːt̚]
inh, ich [ɪ̈n], [ɪ̈t̚] [ɪ̈n], [ɪ̈t̚] [ɪ̈n], [ɪ̈t̚] [ɪ̈n], [ɪ̈t̚]
in, it [in], [it̚] [in], [it̚] [in], [it̚]

The ông, ôc rimes are merged into ong, oc as [ăwŋ͡m], [ăwk͡p̚] in many Southern speakers, but not with ôn, ôt as pronounced [oːŋ͡m], [oːk͡p̚]. The oong, ooc and eng, ec rimes are few and are mostly loanwords or onomatopoeia. The ôông, ôôc (oong, ooc, eng, ec, êng, êc as well) rimes are the "archaic" form before become ông, ôc by diphthongization and still exist in North Central dialect in many placenames. The articulation of these rimes in North Central dialect are [oːŋ], [oːk̚] without a simultaneous bilabial closure or labialization.[16]

on, ot /ɔn/, /ɔt/ [ɔːŋ], [ɔːk]
oong, ooc /ɔŋ/, /ɔk/
ôn, ôt /on/, /ot/ [oːŋ͡m], [oːk͡p̚].
ôông, ôôc /oŋ/, /ok/
ong, oc /awŋ/, /awk/ [ăwŋ͡m], [ăwk͡p̚]
ông, ôc /əwŋ/, /əwk/

With the above phonemic analyses, the following is a table of rimes ending in /n, t, ŋ, k, ŋ͡m, k͡p/ in the Ho Chi Minh City dialect:

/ɔ/, /aw/ /o/ /u/ /ă/ /a/ /ə̆/ /ə/ /ɨ/ /ɛ/ /e/ /i/ /uː/ /ɨː/ /iː/
/ŋ/ on
/k/ ot
ong / ông
oc / ôc
Combinations that have changed their pronunciation due to merger are bolded.


Vietnamese vowels are all pronounced with an inherent tone. Tones differ in

  • pitch
  • length
  • contour melody
  • intensity
  • phonation (with or without accompanying constricted vocal cords)

Unlike many Native American, African, and Chinese languages, Vietnamese tones do not rely solely on pitch contour. Vietnamese often uses instead a register complex (which is a combination of phonation type, pitch, length, vowel quality, etc.). So perhaps a better description would be that Vietnamese is a register language and not a "pure" tonal language.[17]

In Vietnamese orthography, tone is indicated by diacritics written above or below the vowel.

Six-tone analysis[edit]

There is much variation among speakers concerning how tone is realized phonetically. There are differences between varieties of Vietnamese spoken in the major geographic areas (northern, central, southern) and smaller differences within the major areas (e.g. Hanoi vs. other northern varieties). In addition, there seems to be variation among individuals. More research is needed to determine the remaining details of tone realization and the variation among speakers.

Northern varieties[edit]

The six tones in the Hanoi and other northern varieties are:

Tone name Tone ID Vni/telex/Viqr Description Chao Tone Contour Diacritic Example
ngang "flat" A1 [default] mid level ˧ (33) ba ('three')
huyền "deep" A2 2 / f / ` low falling (breathy) ˨˩ (21) or (31) ◌̀ ('grandmother')
sắc "sharp" B1 1 / s / ' mid rising, tense ˧˥ (35) ◌́ ('to embrace')
nặng "heavy" B2 5 / j / . mid falling, glottalized, heavy ˧ˀ˨ʔ (3ˀ2ʔ) or ˧ˀ˩ʔ (3ˀ1ʔ) bạ ('to strengthen')
hỏi "asking" C1 3 / r / ? mid falling(-rising), emphasis ˧˩˧ (313) or (323) or (31) ◌̉ bả ('bait')
ngã "tumbling" C2 4 / x / ~ mid rising, glottalized ˧ˀ˥ (3ˀ5) or (4ˀ5) ◌̃ ('residue')
Northern Vietnamese (non-Hanoi) tones as uttered by a male speaker in isolation. From Nguyễn & Edmondson (1998)
Hanoi tones as uttered by a female speaker in isolation. From Nguyễn & Edmondson (1998)
Hanoi tones as uttered by a different female speaker in isolation. From Nguyễn & Edmondson (1998)

Ngang tone:

  • The ngang tone is level at around the mid level (33) and is produced with modal voice phonation (i.e. with "normal" phonation). Alexandre de Rhodes (1651) describes this as "level"; Nguyễn (1997) describes it as "high (or mid) level".

Huyền tone:

  • The huyền tone starts low-mid and falls (21). Some Hanoi speakers start at a somewhat higher point (31). It is sometimes accompanied by breathy voice (or lax) phonation in some speakers, but this is lacking in other speakers: = [ɓa˨˩].[18] Alexandre de Rhodes (1651) describes this as "grave-lowering"; Nguyễn (1997) describes it as "low falling".

Hỏi tone:

  • The hỏi tone starts a mid level and falls. It starts with modal voice phonation, which moves increasingly toward tense voice with accompanying harsh voice (although the harsh voice seems to vary according to speaker). In Hanoi, the tone is mid falling (31). In other northern speakers, the tone is mid falling and then rises back to the mid level (313 or 323). This characteristic gives this tone its traditional description as "dipping". However, the falling-rising contour is most obvious in citation forms or when syllable-final; in other positions and when in fast speech, the rising contour is negligible. The hỏi also is relatively short compared with the other tones, but not as short as the nặng tone. Alexandre de Rhodes (1651) describes this as "smooth-rising"; Nguyễn (1997) describes it as "dipping-rising".

Ngã tone:

  • The ngã tone is mid rising (35). Many speakers begin the vowel with modal voice, followed by strong creaky voice starting toward the middle of the vowel, which is then lessening as the end of the syllable is approached. Some speakers with more dramatic glottalization have a glottal stop closure in the middle of the vowel (i.e. as [VʔV]). In Hanoi Vietnamese, the tone starts at a higher pitch (45) than other northern speakers. Alexandre de Rhodes (1651) describes this as "chesty-raised"; Nguyễn (1997) describes it as "creaking-rising".

Sắc tone:

  • The sắc tone starts as mid and then rises (35) in much the same way as the ngã tone. It is accompanied by tense voice phonation throughout the duration of the vowel. In some Hanoi speakers, the ngã tone is noticeably higher than the sắc tone, for example: sắc = ˧˦ (34); ngã = ˦ˀ˥ (45). Alexandre de Rhodes (1651) describes this as "acute-angry"; Nguyễn (1997) describes it as "high (or mid) rising".

Nặng tone:

  • The nặng tone starts mid or low-mid and rapidly falls in pitch (32 or 21). It starts with tense voice that becomes increasingly tense until the vowel ends in a glottal stop closure. This tone is noticeably shorter than the other tones. Alexandre de Rhodes (1651) describes this as "chesty-heavy"; Nguyễn (1997) describes it as "constricted".

Southern varieties[edit]

Tone name Tone ID Vni/telex/Viqr Description Chao Tone Contour Diacritic Example
Quảng Nam[19] Bình Định[19] Ho Chi Minh City[20]
ngang "flat" A1 [default] mid flat level ˦˨ (42) ˧ (33) ˦ (44) ba ('three')
huyền "deep" A2 2 / f / ` low falling ˧˩ (31) ˧˩ (31) ˧˩ (31) ◌̀ ('lady')
hỏi "asking" C1 3 / r / ? mid falling-rising ˧˨˦ (324) ˧˨˦ (324) ˨˩˦ (214) ◌̉ bả ('poison')
ngã "tumbling" C2 4 / x / ~ ◌̃ ('residue')
sắc "sharp" B1 1 / s / ' high rising ˦˥ (45) ˦˧˥ (435) ˧˥ (35) ◌́ ('governor')
nặng "heavy" B2 5 / j / . low falling-rising ˧˨˧ (323) ˦˧˦ (313) ˨˩˨ (212) bạ ('at random')

In Southern varieties, tones ngang, sắc, huyền have similar contours to Northern tones; however, these tones are produced with normal voice instead of breathy voice.

The nặng tone is pronounced as low rising tone (12) [˩˨] in fast speech or low falling-rising tone (212) [˨˩˨] in more careful utterance.

The ngã and hỏi tone are merged into a mid falling-rising (214) [˨˩˦] which is somewhat similar hỏi tone of non-Hanoi Northern accent mentioned above.

Southern Vietnamese tone system from female native speaker. From Jessica Bauman et al. (2009)[21]

North-central and Central varieties[edit]

North-central and Central Vietnamese varieties are fairly similar with respect to tone although within the North-central dialect region there is considerable internal variation.

It is sometimes said (by people from other provinces) that people from Nghệ An pronounce every tone as a nặng tone.

Eight-tone analysis[edit]

An older analysis assumes eight tones rather than six.[22] This follows the lead of traditional Chinese phonology. In Middle Chinese, syllables ending in a vowel or nasal allowed for three tonal distinctions, but syllables ending with /p/, /t/ or /k/ had no tonal distinctions. Rather, they were consistently pronounced with a short high tone, which was called the entering tone and considered a fourth tone. Similar considerations lead to the identification of two additional tones in Vietnamese for syllables ending in /p/, /t/, /c/ and /k/. These are not phonemically distinct from the sắc and nặng tones, however, and hence not considered as separate tones by modern linguists and are not distinguished in the orthography.

Traditional Tone Category Register Tone name Tone ID Vni/telex/Viqr Description Chao Tone Contour by Location Diacritic Example
Hanoi Quảng Nam[19] Bình Định[19] Ho Chi Minh City[20]
bằng 平 "even" bình 平 "level" phù "high" ngang "flat" A1 [default] mid flat level ˧ (33) ˦˨ (42) ˧ (33) ˦ (44) ba ('three')
trầm "low" huyền "deep" A2 2 / f / ` low falling ˨˩ (21) ˧˩ (31) ˧˩ (31) ˧˩ (31) ◌̀ ('lady')
trắc 仄 "oblique" thượng 上 "rising" high hỏi "asking" C1 3 / r / ? mid falling-rising ˧˩˧ (313) ˧˨˦ (324) ˧˨˦ (324) ˨˩˦ (214) ◌̉ bả ('poison')
low ngã "tumbling" C2 4 / x / ~ mid rising, glottalized ˧ˀ˥ (3ˀ5~4ˀ5) ◌̃ ('residue')
khứ 去 "departing" high sắc "sharp" B1 1 / s / ' high rising ˧˥ (35) ˦˥ (45) ˦˧˥ (435) ˧˥ (35) ◌́ ('governor')
low nặng "heavy" B2 5 / j / . low falling-rising ˧ˀ˩ʔ (3ˀ1ʔ) ˧˨˧ (323) ˦˧˦ (313) ˨˩˨ (212) bạ ('at random')
nhập 入 "entering" high sắc "sharp" D1 1 / s / ' high checked rising ˧˥ (35) ˦˥ (45) ◌́ bác ('uncle')
low nặng "heavy" D2 5 / j / . low checked falling ˧ˀ˩ʔ (3ˀ1ʔ) ˨˩ (21) bạc ('silver')

Syllables and phonotactics[edit]

According to Hannas (1997), there are 4,500 to 4,800 possible spoken syllables (depending on dialect), and the standard national orthography (Quốc Ngữ) can represent 6,200 syllables (Quốc Ngữ orthography represents more phonemic distinctions than are made by any one dialect).[23] A description of syllable structure and exploration of its patterning according to the Prosodic Analysis approach of J.R. Firth is given in Henderson (1966).[24]

The Vietnamese syllable structure follows the scheme:



  • C1 = initial consonant onset
  • w = labiovelar on-glide /w/
  • V = vowel nucleus
  • G = off-glide coda (/j/ or /w/)
  • C2 = final consonant coda
  • T = tone.

In other words, a syllable has an obligatory nucleus and tone, and can have an optional consonant onset, an optional on-glide /w/, and an optional coda or off-glide.

More explicitly, the syllable types are as follows:

Syllable Example Syllable Example
V ê "eh" wV uể "sluggish"
VC ám "possess (by ghosts,.etc)" wVC oán "bear a grudge"
VC ớt "capsicum" wVC oắt "little imp"
CV nữ "female" CwV huỷ "cancel"
CVC cơm "rice" CwVC toán "math"
CVC tức "angry" CwVC hoặc "or"

C1: Any consonant may occur in as an onset with the following exceptions:

  • /p/ does not occur in native Vietnamese words

w: the onglide /w/ (sometimes transcribed instead as labialization [ʷ] on a preceding consonant):

  • does not occur after labial consonants /ɓ, f, v, m/
  • does not occur after /n/ in native Vietnamese words (it occurs in uncommon Sino-Vietnamese borrowings)

V: The vowel nucleus V may be any of the following 14 monophthongs or diphthongs: /i, ɨ, u, e, ə, o, ɛ, ə̆, ɔ, ă, a, iə̯, ɨə̯, uə̯/.

G: The offglide may be /j/ or /w/. Together, V and G must form one of the diphthongs or triphthongs listed in the section on Vowels.

  • offglide /j/ does not follow the front vowels /i, e, ɛ, iə̯/
  • offglide /w/ does not follow the rounded vowels /u, o, ɔ, uə̯/
  • with some exceptions (such as khuỷu tay "elbow"), the offglide /w/ cannot occur if the syllable contains a /w/ onglide

C2: The optional coda C2 is restricted to labial, coronal, and velar stops and nasals /p, t, k, m, n, ŋ/, which cannot cooccur with the offglides /j, w/.

T: Syllables are spoken with an inherent tone contour:

  • Six tone contours are possible for syllables with offglides /j, w/, closed syllables with nasal codas /m, n, ŋ/, and open syllables—i.e., those without consonant codas /p, t, k/.
  • If the syllable is closed with one of the oral stops /p, t, k/, only two contours are possible: the sắc and the nặng tones.
Common Vietnamese rimes [Notes]
Zero coda Off-glide coda Nasal consonant coda Stop consonant coda
/j/ /w/ /m/ /n/ /ŋ/ /p/ /t/ /k/
Vowel nucleus /ă/ ạy
/a/ , (gi)à, (gi)ả, (gi)ã, (gi)á
/ə̆/ ậy
/i/ ,
ịm, ỵm
ịp, ỵp
ịch, ỵch
/iə/ ịa, (g)ịa, ỵa
iệu, yệu
iệm, yệm
iện, yện
iệng, yệng
iệp, yệp
iệt, yệt
/ɨə/ ựa
/uə/ ụa
Labiovelar on-glide followed by vowel nucleus /ʷă/ oạy, (q)uạy
oặm, (q)uặm
oặn, (q)uặn
oặng, (q)uặng
oặp, (q)uặp
oặt, (q)uặt
oặc, (q)uặc
/ʷa/ oạ, (q)uạ
oại, (q)uại
oạo, (q)uạo
oạm, (q)uạm
oạn, (q)uạn
oạng, (q)uạng
oạp, (q)uạp
oạt, (q)uạt
oạc, (q)uạc
/ʷɛ/ oẹ, (q)uẹ
oẹo, (q)uẹo
oẹm, (q)uẹm
oẹn, (q)uẹn
oạnh, (q)uạnh
oẹt, (q)uẹt
oạch, (q)uạch
/ʷə̆/ uậy
/ʷə/ uợ
/ʷe/ uệ
/ʷi/ uỵ
/ʷiə/ uỵa
Tone a /a/, à /â/, á /ǎ/, /a᷉/, ã /ǎˀ/, /âˀ/ á /á/, /à/

^ Notes:

  • Less common rimes may not be represented in this table.
  • The nặng tone mark (dot below) has been added to all rimes in this table for illustration purposes only. It indicates which letter tone marks in general are added to, largely according to the "new style" rules of Vietnamese orthography as stated in Quy tắc đặt dấu thanh trong chữ quốc ngữ. In practice, not all these rimes have real words or syllables that have the nặng tone.
  • The IPA representations are based on Wikipedia's conventions. Different dialects may have different pronunciations.


Below is a table comparing four linguists' different transcriptions of Vietnamese vowels as well as the orthographic representation. Notice that this article mostly follows Han (1966), with the exception of marking short vowels short.

comparison of orthography & vowel descriptions
Orthography Wikipedia Thompson[6] Han[7] Nguyễn[25] Đoàn[26]
i/y i i i i
ê e e e e
e ɛ ɛː ɛ a ɛ
ư ɨ ɯː ɨ ɯ ɯ
u u u u u
ô o o o o
o ɔ ɔː ɔ ɔ ɔ
ơ ə ɤː ɜː əː ɤː
â ə̆ ʌ ɜ ə ɤ
a a æː ɐː ɐː
ă ă ɐ ɐ ɐ a

Thompson (1965) says that the vowels [ʌ] (orthographic â) and [ɐ] (orthographic ă) are shorter than all of the other vowels, which is shown here with the length mark [ː] added to the other vowels. His vowels above are only the basic vowel phonemes. Thompson gives a very detailed description of each vowel's various allophonic realizations.

Han (1966) uses acoustic analysis, including spectrograms and formant measuring and plotting, to describe the vowels. She states that the primary difference between orthographic ơ & â and a & ă is a difference of length (a ratio of 2:1). ơ = /ɜː/, â = /ɜ/; a = /ɐː/, ă = /ɐ/. Her formant plots also seem to show that /ɜː/ may be slightly higher than /ɜ/ in some contexts (but this would be secondary to the main difference of length).

Another thing to mention about Han's studies is that she uses a rather small number of participants and, additionally, although her participants are native speakers of the Hanoi variety, they all have lived outside of Hanoi for a significant period of their lives (e.g. in France or Ho Chi Minh City).

Nguyễn (1997) has a simpler, more symmetrical description. He says that his work is not a "complete grammar" but rather a "descriptive introduction." So, his chart above is more a phonological vowel chart rather than a phonetic one.


  1. ^ a b Kirby (2011:382)
  2. ^ Thompson, Laurence C. (July 1959). "Saigon Phonemics". Language. 35 (3): 454–476. doi:10.2307/411232. JSTOR 411232.
  3. ^ Phạm (2008:35)
  4. ^[bare URL PDF]
  5. ^ a b Kirby (2011:384)
  6. ^ a b c Thompson (1965)
  7. ^ a b Han (1966)
  8. ^ From Nguyễn (1997)
  9. ^ Although there are some words where orthographic ⟨c⟩ and ⟨ng⟩ occur after /ɛ/, these words are few and are mostly loanwords or onomatopoeia
  10. ^ a b c d Phạm (2006)
  11. ^ Kirby (2011:383)
  12. ^ Phạm, Andrea Hòa (2013), "Synchronic evidence for historical hypothesis – Vietnamese palatals", Linguistic Association of Canada and the United States Forum, 39
  13. ^ Vương H., Lễ (1992). "Các đặc·điểm ngữ·âm của tiếng Huế". Nguyễn Tiến Hải blogspot. Retrieved 9 April 2020.
  14. ^ Hoa Pham, Andrea. "Ngôn ngữ biến đổi và số phận của nguyên âm /a/ trong giọng Quảng Nam. [Issue in language change and the phonemic status of /a/ in Quang Nam dialect]". Ngôn Ngữ. số 6, 2014.
  15. ^ Lê T. H., Mai. "Âm sắc, trường độ và giải pháp cho hệ thống nguyên âm thổ ngữ Bình Định". Ngôn Ngữ. số 10, 2016.
  16. ^ Nguyễn Văn, Loan (2012). "Khảo sát địa danh ở Hà Tĩnh (The investigation of Hà Tĩnh province's toponyms)". Luận án Tiến sĩ Ngữ văn, Trường Đại học Vinh.
  17. ^ Phạm (2003:93)
  18. ^ For example, Nguyễn & Edmondson (1998) show a male speaker from Nam Định with lax voice and a female speaker from Hanoi with breathy voice for the huyền tone while another male speaker from Hanoi has modal voice for the huyền.
  19. ^ a b c d Nguyễn Văn, Lợi (2018). "Sự hình thành cách ghi thanh điệu chữ Quốc ngữ [The formation of tone spelling in the National Script]". Văn hóa Nghệ An. Retrieved April 21, 2020.
  20. ^ a b Huỳnh Công, Tín (2003). Tiếng Sài Gòn [The Saigon dialect]. Cần Thơ: Chính trị Quốc gia - Sự thật. pp. 70–77.
  21. ^ Baumann, Jessica; Blodgett, Allison; Rytting, C. Anton; Shamoo, Jessica. "The ups and downs of Vietnamese tones". University of Maryland Center for Advanced Study of Language.
  22. ^ Phạm (2003:45)
  23. ^ Hannas (1997:88)
  24. ^ Henderson (1966)
  25. ^ Nguyễn (1997)
  26. ^ Đoàn (1980)


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External links[edit]