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 (Saigon), are described below.
- 1 Initial consonants
- 2 Vowels
- 3 Final stops
- 4 Tone
- 5 Syllables and phonotactics
- 6 Notes
- 7 References
- 8 Bibliography
- 9 External links
Initial consonants which exist only in the Hanoi dialect are in red, while those that exist only in the Saigon dialect are in blue.
- /w/ is the only initial consonant permitted to form consonant clusters with other consonants.
- /p/ occurs syllable-initially only in loan words, and is mostly converted into /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.
- /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]
- /s, z/ are laminal.
- d, gi and r are all pronounced /z/.
- ch and tr are both pronounced /c/, while x and s are both pronounced /s/.
- /s/ is apical.
- d and gi are both pronounced /j/.
- Historically, /v/ is pronounced [j], merging with d and gi. However, it is becoming distinct and pronounced as [v].
- Historically, a distinction is made between ch /c/ and tr /ʈ/, as well as between x /s/ and s /ʂ/. However, these two pairs are becoming merged as /c/ and /s/ respectively.
- 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].
Comparison of initials
The table below summarizes these sound correspondences:
Diaphoneme Hanoi Saigon Example word Hanoi Saigon /v/ /v/ /v/ or /j/ vợ 'wife' [və˨˩ˀ] [və˨˧] or [jə˨˧] /z/ /z/ /j/ da 'skin' [za˧] [ja˧] gia 'to add' /r/ /r/ ra 'to go out' [ra˧] /c/ /c/ /c/ chẻ 'split' [cɛ˧˩] [cɛ˩˥] /ʈ/ /c/ or /ʈ/ trẻ 'young' [cɛ˩˥] or [ʈɛ˩˥] /s/ /s/ /s/ xinh 'beautiful' [siŋ̟˧] [sɨn˧] /ʂ/ /s/ or /ʂ/ sinh 'born' [sɨn˧] or [ʂɨn˧]
Front Central Back Centering /iə̯/ ⟨ia~iê⟩ /ɨə̯/ ⟨ưa~ươ⟩ /uə̯/ ⟨ua~uô⟩ Close /i/ ⟨i, y⟩ /ɨ/ ⟨ư⟩ /u/ ⟨u⟩ Close-mid/
/e/ ⟨ê⟩ /ə/ ⟨ơ⟩
/o/ ⟨ô⟩ Open-mid/
/ɛ/ ⟨e⟩ /a/ ⟨a⟩
The IPA chart of vowel nuclei above is based on the sounds in Hanoi Vietnamese; other regions may have 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/.
- /ə̆/ and /ă/ are pronounced short — shorter than the other vowels.
- While there are small consistent spectral differences between /ə̆/ and /ə/, it has not been established that they are perceptually significant.
- /ɨ/: Many descriptions, such as Thompson, Nguyễn (1970), Nguyễn (1997), consider this vowel to be close back unrounded: [ɯ]. However, Han's instrumental analysis indicates that it is more central than back. Hoang (1965), Brunelle (2003) and Phạm (2006) also transcribe this vowel as central.
/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⟩ Close-mid/
/ew/ ⟨êu⟩ –
/oj/ ⟨ôi⟩ Open-mid/
/ɛw/ ⟨eo⟩ /aw/ ⟨ao⟩
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] đục 'muddy' /ɗuk/ → [ɗuk͡p̚], [ɗuk̚ʷ] độc 'poison' /ɗok/ → [ɗə̆wk͡p̚], [ɗə̆wk̚ʷ] đọc 'to read' /ɗɔk/ → [ɗăwk͡p̚], [ɗăwk̚ʷ] ung 'cancer' /uŋ/ → [uŋ͡m], [uŋʷ] ông 'man' /oŋ/ → [ə̆wŋ͡m], [ə̆wŋʷ] ong 'bee' /ɔŋ/ → [ăwŋ͡m], [ăwŋʷ]
Analysis of final ch, nh
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 predictable allophonic variants 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]. 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, 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.
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
ong, oc /ɔŋ/, /ɔk/ → [ăwŋ͡m], [ăwk͡p̚] ông, ôc /oŋ/, /ok/ → [ə̆wŋ͡m], [ə̆wk͡p̚] anh, ach /ɛŋ/, /ɛk/ → [ăjŋ̟], [ăjk̟̚] ênh, êch /eŋ/, /ek/ → [ə̆jŋ̟], [ə̆jk̟̚]
With the above phonemic analyses, the following is a table of rimes ending in /n, t, ŋ, k/ in the Hanoi dialect:
Merger of finals
While the variety of Vietnamese spoken in Hanoi has preserved finals faithfully from Middle Vietnamese, the variety spoken in Saigon has drastically changed its finals. Rimes ending in /k, ŋ/ and /t, n/ were merged except after /ɛ, ɔ/; in these rimes, /k, ŋ/ is the underlying phoneme while [k͡p, ŋ͡m] occurs after rounded vowels /u, o/ and [t, n] occurs after front vowels /i, e/. Subsequently, vowels in labial-velar rimes became diphthongized while vowels in alveolar rimes became centralizedin a similar fashion to the Hanoi dialect.
Table of Saigon finals
ong, oc /ɔŋ͡m/, /ɔk͡p/ → [ăwŋ͡m], [ăwk͡p̚] ông, ôc /oŋ͡m/, /ok͡p/ → [ə̆wŋ͡m], [ə̆wk͡p̚] anh, ach /ɛn/, /ɛt/ → [ăn], [ăt̚] ên, êt /en/, /et/ → [ə̆n], [ə̆t̚] in, it /in/, /it/ → [ɨn], [ɨt̚]
With the above phonemic analyses, the following is a table of rimes ending in /n, t, ŋ, k, ŋ͡m, k͡p/ in the Saigon dialect:
|Combinations that have changed their pronunciation due to merger are bolded.|
Vietnamese vowels are all pronounced with an inherent tone. Tones differ in
- contour melody
- 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.
In Vietnamese orthography, tone is indicated by diacritics written above or below the vowel.
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.
The six tones in the Hanoi and other northern varieties are:
Tone name Tone ID Description Chao Tone Contour Diacritic Example ngang "level" A1 mid level ˧ (33) (no mark) ba ('three') huyền "deep" A2 low falling (breathy) ˨˩ (21) or (31) ` bà ('lady') sắc "sharp" B1 mid rising, tense ˧˥ (35) ´ bá ('governor') nặng "heavy" B2 mid falling, glottalized, short ˧ˀ˨ʔ (3ˀ2ʔ) or ˧ˀ˩ʔ (3ˀ1ʔ) ̣ bạ ('at random') hỏi "asking" C1 mid falling(-rising), harsh ˧˩˧ (313) or (323) or (31) ̉ bả ('poison') ngã "tumbling" C2 mid rising, glottalized ˧ˀ˥ (3ˀ5) or (4ˀ5) ˜ bã ('residue')
- 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".
- 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: bà = [ɓa˨˩]. Alexandre de Rhodes (1651) describes this as "grave-lowering"; Nguyễn (1997) describes it as "low falling".
- 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".
- 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".
- 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".
- 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".
This section needs expansion. You can help by adding to it. (January 2011)
The Southern variety is similar through all tones except for the nặng and ngã tones; the nặng tone is pronounced [˨˧], while the ngã tone is merged into the hỏi tone.
North-central and Central varieties
This section needs expansion. You can help by adding to it. (May 2008)
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.
An older analysis assumes eight tones rather than six. 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.
Syllables and phonotactics
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). 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).
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.
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.
|Zero coda||Off-glide coda||Nasal consonant coda||Stop consonant coda|
|/a/||ạ, (gi)à, (gi)ả, (gi)ã, (gi)á
|/iə/||ịa, (g)ịa, ỵa
|Labiovelar on-glide followed by vowel nucleus||/ʷă/||oạy, (q)uạy
|Tone||a /a/, à /â/, á /ǎ/, ả /a᷉/, ã /ǎˀ/, ạ /âˀ/||á /á/, ạ /à/|
- 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 Han Nguyễn Đoàn i/y i iː i i i ê e eː e e e e ɛ ɛː ɛ a ɛ ư ɨ ɯː ɨ ɯ ɯ u u uː u u u ô o oː 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 aː 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.
- Kirby (2011:382)
- Thompson (1965)
- Phạm (2008:35)
- Kirby (2011:384)
- Han (1966)
- From Nguyễn (1997)
- Although there are some words where orthographic ⟨c⟩ and ⟨ng⟩ occur after /ɛ/, these words are few and are mostly loanwords or onomatopoeia
- Phạm (2006)
- Kirby (2011:383)
- Phạm, Andrea Hòa (2013), "Synchronic evidence for historical hypothesis – Vietnamese palatals", Linguistic Association of Canada and the United States Forum, 39
- Phạm (2003:93)
- 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.
- Phạm (2003:45)
- Hannas (1997:88)
- Henderson (1966)
- Nguyễn (1997)
- Đoàn (1980)
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