China and Vietnam are neighboring countries that have a long history together. During the time, the Chinese culture and language had a massive influence on Vietnam. There are many similarities between the Chinese and Vietnamese languages, but there are also differences between them.
After reading this article, you will learn more about the two languages and will be able to differentiate them.
The Chinese language influenced the Vietnamese language in 1,000 years when the ancient Chinese people colonized the Vietnamese people. This historical event started from 111 BC to 938 AD. However, the Vietnamese language has its own origin, and it was not originated from the Chinese language.
The Vietnamese and Chinese languages belong to two separate language families. Vietnamese is part of the Austroasiatic language family, also known as Mon–Khmer, which is a large language family of Mainland Southeast Asia. Vietnamese has its sibling called Khmer, the national language in Cambodia. Chinese is part of the Sino-Tibetan language family, together with Burmese and the Tibetic languages.
A long time ago, a group of people in the central of Vietnam and the east of Laos moved to the north of Vietnam, communicated with local people there, and then created the Viet-Muong language. The language then was influenced by the traditional Chinese language and developed its tones from no tone to three, then eventually six tones. Vietnamese people also created their own writing system called Chữ Nôm, based on Chinese characters, in order to describe the Viet-Muong vocabulary. When some Western Catholic missionaries went to Vietnam, they created Latin-based characters to learn the Vietnamese language. The Roman characters then became the national writing system in Vietnam, called Chữ Quốc Ngữ. This explains why the Vietnamese alphabet has Roman letters while other neighboring countries use their own writing styles such as Chinese, Lao, Thai, and Korean.
There are five main dialects in Vietnamese. The three most popular dialects are Northern Vietnamese, Central Vietnamese, and Southern Vietnamese. The dialects are different in pronunciation and vocabulary, while they use the same writing system, which is Chữ Quốc Ngữ, the modern Vietnamese writing system.
There are two main varieties in Chinese, traditional Chinese (aka Yue) and simplified Chinese (aka Mandarin). Mandarin is the official national language spoken in the China mainland and Taiwan. Mandarin is also called the Standard Chinese, which was based on the Beijing dialect. The traditional Chinese is also called Cantonese, widely spoken in Hongkong and Macau, and partially in Guangdong province. Mandarin and Cantonese have different tones (4 tones in Mandarin and 6 tones in Cantonese), and many different words.
Because the traditional Chinese language has influenced the Vietnamese language, there are a number of Chinese-Vietnamese words used in daily conversation in Vietnam. These phrases are called Từ Hán Việt in Vietnamese and Sino-Vietnamese vocabulary in English.
Although Vietnamese people created many native Vietnamese words, as known as Từ Thuần Việt, the Sino-Vietnamese vocabulary is still used sometimes in the modern Vietnamese language.
For example, these words are native Vietnamese words: 'vợ' (wife), 'chồng' (husband), 'con' (children), 'gà' (chicken), 'trứng' (egg). These Sino-Vietnamese phrases are still used in Vietnam: 'học sinh' (in Chinese: 學生, student), 'bác sỹ' (in Chinese: 博士, doctor), 'hôn nhân' (in Chinese: 婚姻, marriage).
Chinese languages (Mandarin and Cantonese) and Vietnamese language are tonal languages. There are six tones in Vietnamese, with five tone marks. Mandarin has four tones, while Cantonese has six tones. The languages have some common tones such as high rising tone, neutral or mid-level tone. A high-broken tone is available only in the Vietnamese language.
Both Chinese and Vietnamese languages are monosyllabic, which means every word has a single syllable. This is different from English as English words have one, two, or more syllables.
There are two ways to read Chinese sentences. The traditional way is to read from top to bottom. A sentence is written in a column instead of a row. You will need to read from the right column to the left column. This doesn't change the meaning of the sentence because each Chinese word has its own meaning. Nowadays, Chinese is written in rows and from left to right. This requires learners to read from left to right in a row.
Vietnamese is written and read from left to right and in a row, as same as English.
The Chinese writing system consists of hieroglyphs, meaning each Chinese word has its own meanings. There is no Chinese alphabet like in Vietnamese or English. However, the Chinese language has a system of strokes from which a Chinese word is created. In order to understand a Chinese newspaper, you need to learn and remember 2,000 - 3,000 Chinese characters (or words). An educated Chinese person knows about 8,000 words.
The modern Vietnamese writing system consists of almost all letters from the Latin alphabet, except letter f, j, w, z, and some new letters such as ă, â, đ, ê, ô, ơ, ư. Not all words in Vietnamese have their meanings, which means they need to be combined with another word to form a meaningful phrase.
Both Chinese and Vietnamese languages have SVO sentence structures. A basic sentence has the form of subject + verb + object.
The sentence structures are different in these languages when the time, location, and time duration jump in. Below are how a Chinese and Vietnamese sentence is structured:
In Vietnamese: Subject + Verb + Object + Time, or Time + Subject + Verb + Object
In Chinese: Subject + Time + Verb + Object
In Vietnamese: Subject + Verb + Object + Location
In Chinese: Subject + Location + Verb + Object
In Vietnamese: Subject + Verb + Object + Time duration
In Chinese: Subject + Verb + Object + Verb + Time duration
Because of the difference between Vietnamese and Chinese languages, a Vietnamese native speaker who was born in a Vietnamese family in Vietnam cannot understand nor speak Chinese as their first language. They can speak and understand Chinese as a second language if they learn Chinese.
However, there is an exception. The Vietnamese people living in some areas in Vietnam, such as district 5 in Ho Chi Minh city, speak Cantonese as their first language. The reason is that they are Chinese-Vietnamese who have been living in Vietnam for a long time. About 1.13% of the Vietnamese population are Chinese-Vietnamese.
Besides the similarities between Chinese and Vietnamese languages, there are many differences, as mentioned earlier. The Vietnamese language was not originated from the Chinese language but was influenced by it. The two languages actually belong to separate language families, and their writing systems are totally different. If you want to learn more Vietnamese, Mandarin, or Cantonese, try out the Ling App with entertaining games.