Sino-Vietnamese vocabulary

Sino-Vietnamese vocabulary (Vietnamese: Từ Hán Việt, Chữ Nôm: 詞漢越 or Vietnamese: Hán Việt ngữ, Chữ Nôm: 漢越語, literally 'Sino-Vietnamese words') is a layer of words and morphemes of the Vietnamese language borrowed from Literary Chinese with consistent pronunciations based on Middle 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] 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".

There also an Old Sino-Vietnamese layer consisting of a few hundred words borrowed individually from Chinese in earlier periods. These words are treated by speakers as native words.

Monosyllabic loanwordsEdit

As a result of a thousand years of Chinese control (except for brief rebellions), and a further thousand years of use of Literary Chinese after independence, two main layers of Chinese vocabulary have been borrowed into Vietnamese. These layers were first systematically studied by linguist Wang Li.[2][3]

Middle Chinese and Vietnamese (like other nearby languages) are of analytic type, with almost all morphemes monosyllabic and lacking inflection. The phonological structure of their syllables is also similar.[4]

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.[5] This layer consists of roughly 400 words, which have been fully assimilated and are treated by Vietnamese speakers as native words.[6]

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.[7] After driving out 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.[8] Around 3,000 words entered Vietnamese over this period.[9][10] 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.[7][11]

Examples of multiply-borrowed Chinese words
(Old > Middle)
Old Sino-Vietnamese Sino-Vietnamese
*mjəts > mjɨjH mùi 'smell, odor' vị 'flavor, taste'[12]
*pənʔ > pwonX vốn 'capital, funds' bản 'root, foundation' [12]
*wjek > ywek việc 'work, event' dịch 'service, corvee'[12][13]
*muks > mawH 'hat' mạo 'hat'[7]
*gre > giày 'shoe' hài 'shoe'[7]
*kras > kæH gả 'marry' giá 'marry'[7][14]
*bjəʔ > bjuwX vợ 'wife'[a] phụ 'woman'[7][13]
*gjojʔ > gjweX cúi 'bow, prostrate oneself' quị 'kneel'[7]
*rijʔ > lejX lạy 'kowtow' lễ 'ceremony'[7]
*pjap > pjop phép 'rule, law' pháp 'rule, law'[7]
  1. ^ Shorto considers vợ a native Vietnamese word, inherited from Proto-Mon-Khmer *(ʔ)boʔ "mother"; Haudricourt proposes that 婦 *bjəʔ's Old Sino-Vietnamese reflex is bụa in the compound goá bụa < Old Chinese 寡婦 kʷraːʔ-bjəʔ > Late Sino-Vietnamese quả phụ.[15][16]

Wang Li followed Henri Maspero in identifying a problematic group of forms with "softened" initials g-, gi, d- and v- 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.[17]

Modern compoundsEdit

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.[18] 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 Sino-Xenic pronunciations in the other countries.

As contact with the West grew, Western works were translated into Literary Chinese and read by the literate. 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 the respective local vernaculars of Japan, Korea and Vietnam. 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, Vietnamese đại số học, Japanese dai sūgaku and Korean dae suhak.[19] 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.[20]

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 "silver" is the Old Sino-Vietnamese reflex of Old Chinese *bra:g "white", cognate with later Sino-Vietnamese bạch "white",[21] yet in Chinese means "thin sheet of metal" (variants: , ) and 鉑 (pinyin: ) has also acquired the meaning "platinum", whose Sino-Vietnamese name is 白金 bạch kim, literally "white gold";
  • luyện kim (煉金) means "metallurgy" instead of its original meaning, "alchemy";
  • giáo sư (教師) means "teacher" in Chinese, but is now associated with "professor" in Vietnamese.
  • 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.
  • linh miêu (靈貓) means "civet" in Chinese but means "lynx" in Vietnamese.

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". Another example is linh cẩu (靈狗, "alert dog") meaning hyena. Others are no longer used in modern Chinese or have other meanings.

Proper namesEdit

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 the Vietnamese name Tập Cận Bình.

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 is transliterated as Putaoya 葡萄牙 in Chinese, became Bồ Đào Nha in Vietnamese. England (Chinese: Ying-ge-lan) became Anh Cát Lợi (英吉利), shortened to Anh (), while United States 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
Australia 澳大利亞 Úc (澳)
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)
Prussia 普魯士 Phổ (普)
Russia 俄羅斯 Nga (俄)
Yugoslavia 南斯拉夫 Nam Tư (南斯)

Except for the oldest and most deeply ingrained Sino-Vietnamese names, modern Vietnamese instead uses direct phonetic transliterations for foreign names, in order to preserve the original spelling and pronunciation. Today, the written form of such transliterated names are almost always left unaltered; with rising levels of proficiency in English spelling and pronunciation in Vietnam, readers generally no longer need to be instructed on the correct pronunciation for common foreign names. For example, while the Sino-Vietnamese Luân Đôn remains in common usage in Vietnamese, the English equivalent London is also commonplace. Calques have also arisen to replace some Sino-Vietnamese terms. For example, the White House is usually referred to as Nhà Trắng (literally, "white house") in Vietnam, though Tòa Bạch Ốc (based on 白宮) retains some currency among overseas Vietnamese.

However, China-specific names such as Trung Quốc (Middle Kingdom, 中國), as well as Korean names with Chinese roots, continue to be rendered in Sino-Vietnamese rather than the romanization systems used in other languages. Examples include Triều Tiên (Joseon, 朝鮮) for both Korea as a whole and North Korea in particular; Hàn Quốc (Hanguk, 韓國) for South Korea, and Bình Nhưỡng (Pyongyang, 平壤). Seoul, unlike most Korean place names, has no corresponding hanja; it is therefore phonetically transliterated as Xê-un.


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". Similarly, the literal translation of "United States", Hợp chúng quốc (合眾國) is commonly mistakenly rendered as Hợp chủng quốc, with chúng ( - many) replaced by chủng ( - ethnicity, race). Another example is tiệt diện ("cross-section") being replaced by tiết diện. This phenomenon is known as phonetic modulation.

Writing Sino-Vietnamese words with the Vietnamese alphabet causes some confusion about the origins of some terms, due to the large number 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"). However, most modern Vietnamese know ngu () as "stupid"; consequently, some misinterpret it as "Big Idiot". 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.

Today Hán-Việt is learnt and used mostly only by Buddhist monks since important texts such as the scriptures to pacify spirits (recited during the ritual for the Seventh Lunar month - Trai Đàn Chẩn Tế) are still recited in traditional Hán-Việt.

See alsoEdit



  1. ^ DeFrancis (1977), p. 8.
  2. ^ Hashimoto (1978), p. 5.
  3. ^ Wang (1948).
  4. ^ Enfield (2005), pp. 186–188.
  5. ^ Alves (2009), pp. 624–625.
  6. ^ Alves (2009), pp. 624, 628.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i Alves (2009), p. 625.
  8. ^ DeFrancis (1977), p. 14.
  9. ^ Nguyễn (1997), p. 38.
  10. ^ Alves (2009), p. 626.
  11. ^ Hannas (1997), pp. 80–81.
  12. ^ a b c Hannas (1997), p. 80.
  13. ^ a b Pulleyblank (1981), p. 284.
  14. ^ Pulleyblank (1981), p. 282.
  15. ^ Shorto (2006), p. 96.
  16. ^ Haudricourt (2017), p. 23.
  17. ^ Pulleyblank (1981), pp. 281–282.
  18. ^ Nguyễn (1997), p. 37.
  19. ^ Wilkinson (2000), p. 42.
  20. ^ Wilkinson (2000), p. 43.
  21. ^ Alves (2018).


  • Alves, Mark J. (2001), "What's So Chinese About Vietnamese?" (PDF), in Thurgood, Graham W. (ed.), Papers from the Ninth Annual Meeting of the Southeast Asian Linguistics Society, Arizona State University, Program for Southeast Asian Studies, pp. 221–242, ISBN 978-1-881044-27-7.
  • ——— (2007), "Categories of Grammatical Sino-Vietnamese Vocabulary" (PDF), Mon-Khmer Studies, 37: 217–229.
  • ——— (2009), "Loanwords in Vietnamese", in Haspelmath, Martin; Tadmor, Uri (eds.), Loanwords in the World's Languages: A Comparative Handbook, De Gruyter, pp. 617–637, ISBN 978-3-11-021843-5.
  • ——— (2018), Chinese Loanwords in the Vietnamese System of Color Terms, doi:10.13140/RG.2.2.24707.81449.
  • DeFrancis, John (1977), Colonialism and language policy in Viet Nam, Mouton, ISBN 978-90-279-7643-7.
  • Enfield, N.J. (2005), "Areal Linguistics and Mainland Southeast Asia" (PDF), Annual Review of Anthropology, 34 (1): 181–206, doi:10.1146/annurev.anthro.34.081804.120406.
  • Hannas, William C. (1997), Asia's Orthographic Dilemma, University of Hawaii Press, ISBN 978-0-8248-1892-0.
  • Hashimoto, Mantaro J. (1978), "Current developments in Sino-Vietnamese studies", Journal of Chinese Linguistics, 6 (1): 1–26, JSTOR 23752818.
  • Haudricourt, André-Georges (2017) [1954], How to reconstruct Old Chinese (1954) (draft), translated by Jacques, Guillaume, pp. 1–34.
  • Maspero, Henri (1912), "Études sur la phonétique historique de la langue annamite: Les initiales", Bulletin de l'École française d'Extrême-Orient, 12: 1–124, doi:10.3406/befeo.1912.2713.
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  • Nguyễn, Khuê (2009), Chữ Nôm: cơ sở và nâng cao [Chu Nom: basic and advanced], Ho Chi Minh City: Vietnam National University.
  • Nguyễn, Tài Cẩn (1995), Giáo trình lịch sử ngữ âm tiếng Việt (sơ thảo) [Studies on the historical phonology of Vietnamese (draft)], Hanoi: Viet Nam Education Publishing House.
  • Pulleyblank, Edwin G. (1981), "Some notes on Chinese historical phonology", Bulletin de l'École française d'Extrême-Orient, 69 (1): 277–288, doi:10.3406/befeo.1981.3366.
  • Shorto, Harry (2006), Sidwell, Paul (ed.), A Mon-Khmer Comparative Dictionary, Pacific Linguistics, ISBN 0-85883-570-3.
  • Wang, Li (1948), "Hànyuèyǔ yánjiū" 漢越語研究 [A study on Sino-Vietnamese], Lingnan Journal, 9 (1): 1–96.
  • Wilkinson, Endymion (2000), Chinese history: a manual (2nd ed.), Harvard Univ Asia Center, ISBN 978-0-674-00249-4.

Further readingEdit

  • Chiang, Chia-lu 江佳璐 (2011). Yuènán Hànzìyīn de lìshǐ céngcì yánjiū 越南漢字音的歷史層次研究 [Study of Phonological Strata of Sino-Vietnamese] (PDF) (Thesis). Taipei: National Taiwan Normal University. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2014-09-12.
  • Chiang Chia-lu (江佳璐). (2014). 析論越南漢字音魚虞分韻的歷史層次 [Discussion on the Phonological Strata of Sino-Vietnamese as Reflected in the Distinction between Rhymes Yu (魚) and Yu (虞)]. Language and Linguistics, 15(5), 613-634.
  • Chiang Chia-lu (江佳璐). (2018). 《安南國譯語》所反映的近代漢語聲調系統 [The Tonal System of Early Mandarin Chinese as Reflected in Annanguo Yiyu]. 漢學研究, 36(2), 97-126.
  • Nguyen Thanh-Tung (阮青松). (2015). 漢越語和漢語的層次對應關係研究 [A study of the stratal corresponding relationship between Sino-Vietnamese and Chinese] (Master's thesis). National Chung Hsing University, Taiwan.
  • Phan, John D. (2010). Re-Imagining “Annam”: A New Analysis of Sino–Viet–Muong Linguistic Contact. 南方華裔研究雑志 [Chinese Southern Diaspora Studies], 4, 3-24.
  • Phan, John, Duong (2013). Lacquered Words: The Evolution of Vietnamese under Sinitic Influences from the 1st Century BCE through the 17th Century CE (PhD thesis). Cornell University. hdl:1813/33867.
  • Vu, Duc Nghieu (2010). The integration of Chinese words into the Vietnamese language (Departmental Bulletin Paper). Research Institute for World Languages, Osaka University.

External linksEdit