Thursday, September 22, 2011

Vowels and diphthongs

English has some words - “diet”, “poem”, “dial” etc – in which two vowels appearing together are pronounced in separate syllables. Vietnamese has no equivalent; when two vowels appear together, the result is a single-syllable diphthong. This may be an evenly-stressed diphthong (eg. “nói” (to speak) is pronounced like the start of English “noise”), or it may sound almost exactly like one of the vowels (usually the first) on its own. In the latter case, the diphthong will generally be pronounced longer than the solitary vowel (eg. “tiêm” (to inject) is pronounced like “tim” (heart) except slower).

Be aware that this is only a guide – these are pronunciations which are approximately correct and should be comprehensible to a native speaker of Vietnamese, but native pronunciation will often be far more complicated (as well as varying wildly depending on factors such as geographical region). Take these pronunciations as your starting point, and adapt to however your Vietnamese friends and/or teachers speak.


Varies somewhat depending on context, between 'a' as in “ban” and 'u' as in 'fun'. Usually 'a' as in "ban".

ai, ay, ăy, ây

'ai' as in “main”.

ao, au, âu

'a' as in “cart” run into 'oo' as in “foot”. The combination doesn't seem to occur in most English dialects. All other permutations of 'a', 'ă', 'â' and 'o', 'u' should work the same if examples exist.


'u' as in “mutt”.


'a' as in “far”. This is technically the same shape as 'ă', but generally longer.


'e' as in “men”.


'ai' as in “hair”, 'e' as in 'den' – varies only in length, except for some diphthongs.

i, y

'i' as in “bin”, usually. Sometimes pronounced like 'u' as in “fur” (but shorter). Examples include “mình” (me) and “thích” (to like). When either letter appears alone after a consonant and has a lengthening tone on it, eg. Mỹ (USA) or tỉ (billion), the resulting syllable is pronounced as if there were an 'a' between the consonant and the vowel.

o, ô

'o' as in “fog”.

oi, ôi

'oi' as in “boil”.


Somewhere between 'a' as in “far” and 'u' as in “fur”. Varies slightly within that range.


'oo' as in “foot”.


'u' as in “fur”, usually. Note that in some words lengthened by tones, eg. ngư (language), this letter becomes a diphthong – 'u' as in “fur” merging into a vowel somewhere between 'oo' as in “foot” and 'o' as in “moss”. The precise details of the second half aren't important, but it is important to pronounce a diphthong.


'u' as in “fur”.

Friday, September 16, 2011


The following letters:
b, c, g, h, k, l, m, n, p, q, t, v

are basically pronounced the same in Vietnamese as in English (though 'c' is always hard - “cold”, not “cider”).

The letter 'd' is pronounced like English 'y' in the standard Northern form of Vietnamese, and pronounced like 'z' in the Southern dialect (which is also quite common). Pronounce it like 'y', but also recognise the Southern 'z' pronunciation – you will hear it.

The letter 'đ' is pronounced like English 'd'.

The letter combination 'gi' is pronounced exactly like Vietnamese 'd' – English 'y' in the North and 'z' in the South.

The letter combination 'kh' is pronounced almost exactly like 'k'. The subtle difference is beyond the scope of this primer.

The letter combination 'ng' is pronounced exactly the same as in English, but in Vietnamese it often appears at the start of a word. To get used to this, try saying “singer” and then repeating it without the “si”.

The letter combination 'nh' is pronounced 'ny'. For speakers of British or Australian English, this is the sound at the beginning of words such as “new” and “numerous”; for speakers of American English, it is the sound at the beginning of “nyah”.

The letter 'r' is pronounced like the English 'r' in the North, but is pronounced 'z' in the South.

The letter 's' is pronounced 'sh' in Northern Vietnam, and 's' in Southern Vietnam.

The letter 'x' is pronounced like the English 's'.

The above pronunciations are not all phonetically precise, but they are at least fairly accurate. They are all perfectly adequate for everyday conversational use of the language, though advanced students may develop more nuanced pronunciations of some.

Stopped consonants in Vietnamese are not particularly important in speaking. Especially at the ends of words, such consonants (c,k,p,t) are very often dropped or mispronounced by native speakers - “việc” and “Việt”, for instance, are often pronounced interchangeably (though there is no particular reason why a student of Vietnamese shouldn't pronounce them correctly). Note also that when 'nh' appears at the end of a word it is pronounced almost exactly like 'n'.

See also Vowels.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Types of diacritics (funny marks)

There are two different types of diacritics (funny marks). The first type makes letters into different

letters, and the second type is actual tone marks. Here's the first type:
-Hats: 'a', 'ă' and 'â' are all different letters. So are 'e' and 'ê', and 'o' and 'ô'.
-Horns: 'o' and 'ơ' are different letters. So are 'u' and 'ư'.
-Stroke: 'd' and 'đ' are different letters.
These marks don't combine – a letter can't have both a hat and a horn, for instance.

For a complete listing of letters, and how to pronounce them all, see Vowels and Consonants.

For a complete listing of tones and how to pronounce them, see Tones and pronunciation


This project is intended as a Vietnamese language primer of sorts – a brief explanation of how the language works, including explanations of the things which tend to confuse people who are learning Vietnamese as a foreign language. At initial time of writing (September 2011) I am an Australian uni student studying my second year of Vietnamese. I have a keen interest in analytical linguistics, and I know first-hand which aspects in particular can confuse a foreign student of Vietnamese.

I hope that this primer will allow adults (and suitably motivated adolescents) to more easily gain an understanding of the Vietnamese language. I see this primer as being best used in conjunction with a good bilingual dictionary or two (I recommend for a start the excellent and very cheap Collins Gem Vietnamese-English pocket dictionary), and followed by some practice with native speakers of Vietnamese. A particular target audience for this primer, should it turn out to be useful, will be the worldwide diplomatic community – it would of course be very helpful if diplomats were able to master a language such as Vietnamese to an acceptable fluency in significantly less time than the currently-required year or two.

Table of Contents

Writing and Speaking
Vowels and diphthongs
Tones and pronunciation
Musicality/laziness principle

Words and sentences
Adjectives are special verbs
Softening and strengthening adjectives
Adjectives you should know
Adverbs you should know
The verb "to be" is sometimes omitted
Inflection, or why “am” and “is” are both “là”
Verbs you should know
Spaces in words
Nouns you should know
Pronouns and kinship terms
Conjunctions you should know
Prepositions you should know
Polite particles
Other words you should know
Sentence structure and word order
Specific patterns, what they mean and how they work

Construction of multi-digit numbers
Ordinal numbers and days of the week
Expressions equivalent to "a few" etc, and how they work