Sino-Vietnamese Vocabulary
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Sino-Vietnamese Vocabulary

Sino-Vietnamese vocabulary (Vietnamese: T? Hán Vi?t, Hán Nôm: , literally "Sino-Vietnamese words") are words and morphemes of the Vietnamese language borrowed from 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] This vocabulary was originally written with Chinese characters that were used in the Vietnamese writing system, but like all written Vietnamese, is now written with the Latin-based Vietnamese alphabet that was adopted in the early 20th century.

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".

Monosyllabic loanwords

As a result of a thousand years of Chinese control (except for brief rebellions), and a further thousand years of strong Chinese influence, two main layers of Chinese vocabulary have been borrowed into Vietnamese. These layers were first systematically studied by 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 expelling 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
? *mj?ts > mj?jH mùi 'smell, odor' v? 'flavor, taste'[12]
? *p?n? > pwonX v?n 'capital, funds' b?n 'root, foundation' [12]
? *wjek > ywek vi?c 'work, event' d?ch 'service, corvee'[12][13]
? *muks > mawH m? 'hat' m?o 'hat'[7]
? *gre > h? giày 'shoe' hài 'shoe'[7]
? *kras > kæH g? 'marry' giá 'marry'[7][14]
? *bj > bjuwX v? 'wife'[a] ph? 'woman'[7][13]
? *gjoj? > gjweX cúi 'bow, prostrate oneself' qu? 'kneel'[7]
? *rij? > lejX l?y 'kowtow' l? 'ceremony'[7]
? *pjap > pjop phép 'rule, law' pháp 'rule, law'[7]
  1. ^ Shorto considers v? a native Vietnamese word, inherited from Proto-Mon-Khmer *(?)bo? "mother"; Haudricourt proposes that ? *bj's Old Sino-Vietnamese reflex is b?a in the compound goá b?a < Old Chinese k?ra:?-bj > Late Sino-Vietnamese qu? ph?.[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 compounds

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 the so-called Sino-Xenic pronunciations in the other countries.

As contact with the West grew, Western works were translated into Chinese and read by the literati. 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 local vernaculars, including Vietnamese. For example, the Chinese mathematician Li Shanlan created hundreds of translations of mathematical terms, including ("replace-number-study") for "algebra", yielding modern Chinese dài shùxué, Japanese dai s?gaku, Korean dae suhak and Vietnamese i s? h?c.[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 s? () is widely used with the meaning "physician", while it means "doctor" or "Ph.D." in Chinese;
  • b?c ? "silver" is the Old Sino-Vietnamese reflex of Old Chinese *bra:g ? "white", cognate with later Sino-Vietnamese b?ch "white",[21] yet in Chinese ? means "thin sheet of metal" (variants: ?, ?) and ? (pinyin: ) has also acquired the meaning "platinum", whose Sino-Vietnamese name is b?ch kim, literally "white gold";
  • luy?n kim () means "metallurgy" instead of its original meaning, "alchemy";
  • giáo s? () means "teacher" in Chinese, but is now associated with "professor" in Vietnamese.
  • Club became kurabu in Japan, was borrowed to China, then to Vietnam, is read as câu l?c b?, and abbreviated CLB, which can be an abbreviation for club.
  • linh miêu () 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 m?c ( "spiritual shepherd") for pastor, or gi? kim thu?t ( "art of artificial metal"), which has been applied popularly to refer to "alchemy". Another example is linh c?u (, "alert dog") meaning hyena. Others are no longer used in modern Chinese or have other meanings.

Proper names

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 . Applying a Sino-Vietnamese reading to each character in turn yields the Vietnamese name T?p C?n Bình, which has some similarity to the Cantonese form Zaap6 Gan6-ping4.

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 became , and in Vietnamese B? ?ào Nha. England became Anh Cát L?i (), shortened to Anh (?), while United States became M? L?i Gia (), shortened to M? (?). The official name for the United States in Vietnamese is Hoa K? (); this is a former Chinese name of the United States and translates literally as "flower flag".

Country Chinese name Vietnamese name
Australia ? Úc (?)
Austria Áo (?)
Belgium B? (?)
Czechoslovakia Ti?p Kh?c ()
France Pháp (?)
Germany c (?)
Italy Ý (?)
Russia Nga (?)
Yugoslavia ? Nam T? ()

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 ?ôn 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 Tr?ng (literally, "white house") in Vietnam, though Tòa B?ch ?c (based on ) retains some currency among overseas Vietnamese.

However, China-specific names such as Trung Qu?c (Middle Kingdom, ), 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 Tri?u Tiên (Joseon, ) for both Korea as a whole and North Korea in particular; Hàn Qu?c (Hanguk, ) for South Korea, and Bình Nhng (Pyongyang, ). 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 b?ch mã ( "white horse") can be expressed in Vietnamese as ng?a tr?ng ("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 c? "apartment building" was originally derived from chúng c? "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", H?p chúng qu?c () is commonly mistakenly rendered as H?p ch?ng qu?c, with chúng (? - many) replaced by ch?ng (? - ethnicity, race).It called phonetic modulation phenomenon. Some more examples such as ti?t di?n is replaced with ti?t di?n.

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 Vng Tinh ( - lit. "underworld king star") as in other East Asian languages, but is Diêm Vng Tinh (), named after the Hindu and Buddhist deity Yama. During the H? Dynasty, Vietnam was officially known as i Ngu ( "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.

See also



  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. ^ Nguy?n (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. ^ Nguy?n (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.
  • Nguy?n, Ðình-Hoà (1997), Vietnamese, London Oriental and African Language Library, 9, John Benjamins, doi:10.1075/loall.9, ISBN 978-90-272-3809-2.
  • Nguy?n, Khuê (2009), Ch? Nôm: c? s? và nâng cao [Chu Nom: basic and advanced], Ho Chi Minh City: Vietnam National University.
  • Nguy?n, Tài C?n (1995), Giáo trình l?ch s? ng? âm ti?ng Vi?t (s? th?o) [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), "Hànyuèy? yánji?" [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 reading

  • Chiang, Chia-lu (2011). Yuènán Hànzìy?n de lìsh? céngcì yánji? [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 (). (2014). ? [Discussion on the Phonological Strata of Sino-Vietnamese as Reflected in the Distinction between Rhymes Yu (?) and Yu (?)]. Language and Linguistics, 15(5), 613-634.
  • Chiang Chia-lu (). (2018). ? [The Tonal System of Early Mandarin Chinese as Reflected in Annanguo Yiyu]. ?, 36(2), 97-126.
  • Nguyen Thanh-Tung (). (2015). [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. [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 links

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