224th Meeting – Tuesday, June 18th  2002

'Why do the Vietnamese write the way that they do? 

The answer is a highly charged political issue.'

A talk by Dr. Roland Jacques

 The full text of Dr. Roland Jacques' talk:

During a previous visit to Bangkok, I was discussing the merits of various scripts; Asia has so many different ones, with a friend. When he referred to the “American alphabet”, I was not astonished, but rather utterly shocked. What flashed through my mind were the Etruscan monuments visited in my Roman days; those BC tombs where it is possible to take in the missing link between Greek letters and Latin block letters. I’m afraid my shock showed all too clearly, and I had some rather un-diplomatic words for my friend. Eventually, I had to come to terms with the fact that this “American standard” kind of thing is exactly the way many Asians perceive today’s world. I must say, however, that during the years I have spent in Vietnam, I've never heard this kind of talk. In this regard too, there is a Vietnamese exception in Asia. Within Eastern, Southern and South-eastern Asia, Malaysian and Vietnamese are the only major languages, the national languages, or official languages, which in everyday life use a Latin-like alphabet.

The Vietnamese would be entitled to call their own script “the French letters” because it was the French colonial regime which first obliged the Vietnamese administration to use a Latin-like alphabet. That was obviously to suit their own ignorance of the ideograms. The decree introducing what is known today as Quôc Ngü in the state-run competitive examinations was signed by the French Governor, Paul Doumer, in 1898; the test became compulsory in 1909. Finally, in 1917, an imperial decision, made by a puppet emperor of Vietnam, whose strings the French were pulling, abolished the traditional teaching based on Chinese. It was replaced by a new programme with two core subjects: the Vietnamese language, written as Quôc Ngü, and French. At the same time, the history of the early French presence in Indochina was being written, mainly by priests of the Missions Étrangères de Paris and later by French army officers. Some titles also appeared in Vietnamese for use in schools. In this colonial context, Quôc Ngü can be resolutely traced back to a 17th century Jesuit missionary, Alexandre de Rhodes; who was not born French but was then and there declared a Frenchman. This is the start of what I’ve called ‘the myth’ of Alexandre de Rhodes.

The Latin alphabet used to write Vietnamese is known neither as “the American letters” nor as “the French letters”. This very distinctive script, with its two layers of diacritics stacked above and below the vowels or hooked onto them, is called “Quôc Ngü.” The phrase means exactly “the national language”—mind you, I am saying “language”, not script. And this again is exactly the way the Vietnamese perceive it. If any of you have given it a real try, you’ll have noticed that the vague familiarity of the alphabet, apparent to a European traveller, doesn’t make things really easier. It may even be more confusing. There are many examples of this, like ‘süa chua’ for yoghurt, and ‘süa chüa’ for repair. For a Vietnamese, watching with some amusement as the foreigner struggles with this, this it is definitely “our stuff”, not “theirs”.

To understand this paradoxical situation, it is necessary to go back to the state of affairs that existed before the Europeans arrived in Vietnam in the 16th century, and also to understand some of the key historical events that occurred between 1615 and 1954. 1615 marks the arrival of the first Jesuit missionaries, sent by Portuguese Macao, in Vietnam. 1954 is the date of the Geneva agreements that would result in two independent Vietnamese states.

The linguistic situation in 17th century Vietnam

Chinese and Sino-Vietnamese

To make things easier, I won’t touch upon ethnic minorities, who make up 15-20% of Vietnam's population. “Vietnamese” is a modern name for the tongue spoken by the majority of the population, the kinh, who traditionally live in the lowlands with a rice-based agriculture. The dialects spoken by the kinh are closely related, having similar phonetics, tones, and vocabulary. Where there are differences they do not hinder an almost perfect listening comprehension across the country. In the 17th century, Vietnam had a common spoken language, and the missionaries were well aware of this. They referred, for instance, to “the Cochinchinese or Tonkinese language,” or to “the Tonkinese language or Annam,” always making it clear that these names covered one and the same reality. Vietnamese is a monosyllabic and tonal language; its genetic affinities with neighbouring languages are currently under discussion. I won’t enter into this here. It will be enough to say that Vietnamese can in no way be considered as one of the Chinese dialects.

For many centuries, Vietnamese and Chinese coexisted in the country, the latter being deemed the only language of education and culture. Chinese had been imposed by dint of China's domination and remained the country’s only official language from the time of independence in the 10th century till the dawn of the 20th century. Two attempts at giving Vietnamese an official status, in the early 15th century and again in the late 18th during the Tây Sön revolution, eventually failed.

The form of Chinese in official use in Vietnam is mostly referred to as Sino-Vietnamese or Hán-Viêt. This phrase describes not a mixture of the two languages but a duality. Written Hán-Viêt is identical to the classical written language of China; winners of the central literate competitions of Vietnam could take part, on an even footing, in the competition organised at the imperial court of China. The phonetics, however, differ quite considerably from any of the standard languages of China. A common origin can be presumed, but they started to evolve separately as early as the beginning of the second millennium, making oral understanding between Chinese proper and Sino-Vietnamese impossible.

If Sino-Vietnamese is proper to Vietnam, it is not a native or natural tongue. It is considered as foreign by most Vietnamese. However, paradoxically, 80-85% of the text in a standard Vietnamese economic journal is written using Sino-Vietnamese words and phrases. In poetry, it would be much less, but there is no way you can draw the line. The most striking difference is in syntax, so much so that the vast majority of the Vietnamese today cannot analyse or make sense of a Sino-Vietnamese sentence, even if written in the familiar Quôc Ngü.

Going back to the 16th and 17th century, Sino-Vietnamese could not be used as a means of communication with the majority of the population. The language was limited to a privileged minority of literate people, and is rightly referred to as “the language of the literati.” A privilege that was perfectly consistent with the Confucian teaching about the quân tü or superior man, who plays a leading role in society, and the thân tü or ordinary man. Another paradox, however, is that Hán-Viêt wasn’t exclusively confined to a tightly closed ghetto. It served, even at that time, as a word pool; a source of semantics and monosyllabic units, from which the Vietnamese language, the language of ordinary people, freely borrowed to enrich its own lexicon. Without this, Vietnamese would remain, if not a dialect, at the very least a weak language.

Sino-Vietnamese (or Chinese) owes its prestige and protracted life in Vietnam to its status as a written language. Its written form is made of so-called ideograms, or sinograms: each character expresses a morpho-syllable, that is to say, a unit that has a meaning. The elements of each character, when isolated, do not offer any pattern of successive articulations. The second articulation (which analyses these meaningful units in successive phonemes) cannot be deduced from the written glyphs, so that pronunciations are known only through tradition. This fact gives significant weight to teaching as 'a knowledge' being handed down from teacher to student. The written codification of Chinese has a very long and rich history. It is the privileged vehicle of an age-old tradition of thought and social organisation, Confucianism. The influence of Confucianism is basically coterminous with the spread of the Chinese language and characters. Because it enjoyed an official position, the continued existence of Confucian ideology was ensured by the study of the Chinese classics, which were the basis of all teaching. The ancient literature of Vietnam was mainly written in Chinese. This brought to Vietnamese the rigidity of the Chinese literary canons, and hence a definite resistance to any novelties.

The Nôm

A second element in the Vietnamese language situation at the beginning of the 17th century is summarised in the word Nôm. This name is a dialectal rendering of Nam, which means ‘South’ and is part of the name of the country. I should say part of the self-understanding of the country, since Vietnam kind of needs to define itself against the background of China, the ‘North.’ Thus in traditional medicine, there is a clear-cut distinction made between thuôc nam, Southern medicine, and thuôc bac, Northern medicine, the former being akin to witchcraft and popular beliefs, and the latter identical with time-honoured Chinese art of medicinal healing.

When Vietnam became independent at the end of the first millennium, its people gradually became more aware of their own national culture. The quasi exclusivity of Chinese as the vehicle of thought met with opposition. The Vietnamese language asserted itself slowly but surely. A major move began from a merely oral to a written language. In this context the phrase ‘quôc âm’ ‘the national speech’ was sometimes used for the spoken language of Vietnam, but the problem was with the written language. Thus the term ‘Nôm’ came to refer to the language of the Vietnamese people as it is written using syllabic glyphs. The complete phrase is ‘chü Nôm,’ the ‘Southern characters’, which may convey some condescension as in the case of thuôc nam. The phrase is generally translated today as ‘demotic characters,’ with reference to ancient Egypt, but this is not a good comparison. The Nôm system, as a literary medium based on Chinese ideograms, goes back to the second half of the 13th century. It must be said that, until the 19th century, there was no universally accepted standard for Nôm so spelling was left to the personal genius of each writer.

For the 17th century, most historians mention a “limited growth” of Nôm in Vietnam. The relative lack of success was due to the fact that the ‘demotic’ script was ‘popular’ only in name. Understanding of this form of written Vietnamese was even more demanding than understanding Chinese characters. The correct usage of Nôm required a fair knowledge of the Chinese characters, and of the Sino-Vietnamese language. Thus a very large number of Vietnamese-speakers had no real possibility of becoming literate in Nôm.

A few theoretical notions about Nôm help in understanding this situation. The late Professor Thanh Lãng, a Catholic priest who specialised in 17th century Nôm, drew up statistics listing six different types of characters:

-                    Type 1: Chinese characters with identical pronunciation and meaning as in Sino-Vietnamese (12-17%)

-                    Type 2: Chinese characters with the same pronunciation and a totally different meaning (13-15%)

-                    Type 3: Chinese characters with one or more pronunciations, different from the Sino-Vietnamese pronunciation but more or less analogous, and with a different meaning (55-60%)

-                    Type 4: Chinese characters read according to their proper meaning, but corresponding to Vietnamese words of a totally different pronunciation (2-3%)

-                    Type 5: Characters peculiar to Nôm juxtaposing two Chinese characters, one for the meaning (type 4), and the other indicative of the pronunciation (type 2 or 3) (11%?);

-                    Type 6: Characters peculiar to Nôm combining two Chinese characters selected for their meaning (type 4), but corresponding to a Vietnamese word of a totally different pronunciation (less than 0.7%)

Specifically Nôm characters not listed as Chinese characters represented, at that time, little more than 10% of the total. This proportion will attain at most 31% for books in Nôm printed in the 20th century, after the standardisation begun under the emperor Tü Düc was completed. The complexity of this script is such that, in the 17th century, some characters stood for 10 different morpho-syllables. The same morpho-syllable can be represented by up to 18 different characters. Chinese characters and Nôm form two intersecting and intertwined sets.

In the early 17th century there was no official teaching of Nôm. Its use was an art transmitted from master to pupil, in literate milieus sensitive to the Vietnamese national values, particularly to the oral literature. With the gradual loss of prestige of the Confucian ideology in Vietnam, literati open to innovation grew in number. Creative writing in Nôm flourished mainly in the 18th century, producing some of the greatest classics of Vietnamese literature. But in the 1620s, this was still in its earliest stages.

The Catholic missionaries and the languages of Vietnam

Facts and fancy

There are a couple of facts about the attitude of the missionaries to the question of languages and scripts, that are little known. Or rather, the situation has either been appraised on the basis of the 20th century evolutions, or on an incomplete, if not biased, gathering and assessment of source material. Since I first went to Vietnam, I have been collecting thousands of pages of unpublished sources, and I wish I had several life-times to make use of them. The book published last week is an effort to put straight some of the historical records.

I must say that this task should obviously be taken over by the Vietnamese themselves. However, there are still several obstacles to this, which include pro-French or anti-French stances and pro-Christian and anti-Christian prejudices, and the attitude of Confucianism, perpetuated by the Vietnamese post-Confucian society, towards the transmission of memory. In this the ideal is to serve a social and educative purpose, not to establish a so-called objective truth. Western people have something similar with political correctness, but it is probably stronger in Vietnam.

One example of my plea for a deeper scrutiny of sources comes in handy here. The attitude of the first generation of Christian missionaries in Vietnam towards the traditional teaching of Confucianism is supposed to have been entirely negative. There is even a group of Confucian devotees in the diaspora who wish the Catholic Church to apologise for it. One more sin!

The original Latin text written by Alexandre de Rhodes, quoting from the manuscript, says: “We never thought of forbidding our Christians to study and read the books of this Confucius (neque Christianis nostris interdicendum putavimus omni usu aut lectione librorum hujus Confucii). They contain many advices about human morals and political government that are very close to our own teachings; this helps a lot to substantiate the Christian dogmas.” The author goes on from there to say that he is not a saint, but for sure a most noble master of talent and doctrine, “nobilissimum… magistrum ingenii ac doctrinae.”

The first published edition, an Italian translation made by Roman Jesuits, shows a clear shift of attitude: from a counter-reformation perspective, there was a patent need for apologetics to prove that the Roman faith was the only true one. This is the result: “Confucius teaches also not to take away alien property, and many other observances that are rather confirming our faith. For this reason, our Christians need only an advice that they should make a selection between this teaching and that teaching (a’ novelli christiani non fà mestiere d’essere in altro avvertiti, se non che insegnamento da insegnamento vadan sciegliendo).” From there on, the text says that for sure, Confucius is not a saint but a scoundrel: “Adunque fù scellerato, non santo.”

As a matter of fact, for as long as Portuguese Jesuits ruled them, the Catholic missions in Vietnam favoured Chinese studies. These men were quite aware that Vietnamese culture could not do without it. However, they did not endorse the state policy of Confucian elitism, nor did they follow the schooling tradition. In Vietnamese tradition, candidates were entrusted to private masters or to schools. Only the Chinese language was allowed and the rules were stringent. Study of the Chinese Classics was the foundation of the system; thus the official Confucian ideology was handed on, and the candidates’ orthodoxy guaranteed. Christian missions made use of Chinese for two purposes: to build upon the prestige of Confucian moral teachings, expurgated from their agnosticism, and to develop the conceptual tools necessary to express as exactly as possible Christian dogmas.

However, contrary to what happened in China, the missionaries in Vietnam never fully came to terms with Sino-Vietnamese because they had to master spoken Vietnamese to be understood. In the manuscript reports I perused, they give various excuses for this lack of knowledge. Francisco de Pina, a Portuguese Jesuit who was the first European ever to be fluent in Vietnamese, writes: “In fact, if I had paid myself a tutor to learn the language and the script, today I would be a fully qualified worker. In the meantime, for this precise reason, I do not know the script, which is an unfortunate deficiency.” Thus the missionaries had to rely on converts: among the first Vietnamese Catechists we know about, who were the literati. They went on studying the Chinese characters and the classical texts, and teaching them to their fellow catechists.

Christian use of Nôm or Christian Nôm

After 1660, the French vicars sent by Paris and Rome took over. They had a different approach. The famous Rites controversy took a heavy toll on the Vietnam mission. So Chinese was gradually discarded, but never totally. The first Christian literature in Vietnamese was written in Nôm. However, since the European missionaries could not master Chinese, Nôm was also, a fortiori, out of reach for them. They had to rely on a dual system of Nôm plus alphabetic transliteration. Many manuscripts show the way they worked, with texts written on parallel lines. Francisco de Pina explained how he gathered linguistic documents to compose his Vietnamese grammar. Literati then read and dictated these texts to be written in alphabetical script. Within this pattern of cooperation, these newly converted masters made a critical contribution as well. Beyond the technical service of reading and diction, they were, more than anyone else, able to help the missionary understand the cultural and ideological implications of the Vietnamese texts.

This is the origin of the Latin-based alphabet that was to replace Nôm. Its origin must be firmly traced back to Pina. With very few modifications, this alphabet has become Quôc Ngü, for all practical purposes, the only written language used in Vietnam to this day. The intervention, some would say interference, of Europeans in the history of the Vietnamese language is interpreted in drastically different ways.

In one of the most authoritative books on the history of Vietnam, Lê Thành Khôi writes: “The main object of this new device was the dissemination of religious propaganda. The major obstacle to the expansion of Christianity was the vast reach of the Confucian teachings. To get to the soul of the masses, the missionaries had to contend with the Chinese culture and the ideograms, which symbolised it. They worked to devise an effective means to help people get beyond the script then in general use. And they were successful when they invented Quôc Ngü, which transcribes Vietnamese using the Latin alphabet accompanied by diacritic signs to indicate the different tones. The converts who used Quôc Ngü could no longer read Chinese, the only language used for public transaction as well as for most of the literary production. The political impact of this event is easy to grasp: it contributed to making the Catholic Vietnamese, for a long while, into a social entity separate from the national community.” In the same way, others argue that Nôm belongs, by its nature, to the Vietnamese nation because it adequately expresses their soul. Introducing a Latin script is a betrayal of that soul.

This line of thought raises questions that are vital to understand the history of Vietnam after the arrival of Christianity. They must be addressed openly and forthrightly. Was Quôc Ngü devised in order to create a Christian ghetto, where converts were to be sheltered from unwanted cultural influences conveyed through the ideograms? Did the Christians fight against the language of ideograms, thus cutting themselves off the national community? Taking the situation in the 17th century into consideration, as I described it, the answer is definitely ‘no’ to both questions.

Since the discovery of a large Christian literature in Nôm, the arguments which suggest that Quôc Ngü, allegedly the language of the Christian ghetto, was devised in opposition to Nôm, purportedly the language of the “good” Vietnamese (“lüöng dân”), are totally futile. At its beginning the Romanised script had a merely complementary position; it was used as a common ground on which Vietnamese and European Christians could communicate. But evidence found in the archival treasures shows that Nôm was also used extensively as the common medium for dialogue between Christian and non-Christian Vietnamese throughout the nation. The extant Christian literary production in Nôm in the 17th century consists of 4,200 pages containing 1,200,000 ideograms, whereas the only two works printed in Quôc Ngü in the 17th century, those published under the name of Alexandre de Rhodes, barely amount to 700 pages. In this way, the contribution of Christianity to the knowledge of 17th century Nôm is patently evident.

The situation changed slightly in the 18th century when the use of Nôm, together with the spread of unorthodox ideas, was prohibited. Christianity was not the main target but was included in the prohibitions. This marks the beginning of a period of violent persecution against European priests, which lasted from 1723 to 1860. The use of Quôc Ngü was first encouraged to circumvent the prohibition of Nôm and provide a means of communications that ordinary police could not decipher. When things became easier for Catholics after the French occupation, books of prayer for ordinary Christians were again printed in Nôm until about 1930.

Some authors have tried, and are still trying, to discredit this Christian production by referring to it as "Christian Nôm”; a kind of ghetto gibberish unworthy of the great Vietnamese tradition. In one of the many pots and pans I have on my personal stove, there are several thousand pages of evidence given by sworn witnesses about the persecutions. They were written in Quôc Ngü by sworn notary and signed by the witnesses. The latter, with the exception of priests, invariably used Nôm. The depositions are most interesting because they are everyday Vietnamese, spoken by people from various social backgrounds. Except for the books of prayer and edification, these are the oldest authentic Vietnamese texts in prose that are extant. They show very clearly that the so-called ‘Christian Nôm’ was in fact the way Vietnamese people expressed themselves in the 17th and 18th century. All this is a priceless treasure for all those you want to study the language.

The origins of Quôc Ngü

Historical facts about the origin of Quôc Ngü are mostly accepted without question rather than studied in depth. Sweeping statements need to be examined. Thus, Quôc Ngü is widely believed to be either the creation of a “lone genius, Alexandre de Rhodes,” working all by himself; or else, “the common work of European—Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese missionaries,” and to have borrowed a bit from each of their languages. Such inaccurate statements confuse the issue, blurring the main features and specific character of this outstanding achievement. Quôc Ngü cannot be understood as a one-man job by a kind of demiurgic figure.

From the first days of my training in Vietnamese at the Institute of Oriental Languages in Paris, I was convinced that there was more to this than met the eye. I was determined to get a closer look at the sources, which for the most part remain unpublished. I was convinced that serious research might greatly challenge and destabilise this traditional view. Five years ago, at an international conference held in Lisbon on Portuguese Orientalism and Arabism, I raised the question: Do we need to rewrite history about the Romanisation of the Vietnamese language? My answer, which aroused conflicting reactions, was a definite yes. To substantiate my claim, I was aware that I possessed three uncommon assets: a working knowledge of Vietnamese, Portuguese and Latin: I knew enough Latin to make sense of old 17th century manuscripts. My first trip to Lisbon actually revealed forgotten treasures, untouched for ages. The book published by Orchid press last week—Portuguese pioneers of Vietnamese linguistics—is a direct product of these discoveries, and I am happy to make them available to the general public.

If I sum up my conclusions, the creation of the Quôc Ngü, the national script of Vietnam, can only be understood as being, by and large, the work of the Portuguese, and part of a whole body of similar intercultural initiatives. It should therefore be totally dissociated from the colonial question.

Francisco de Pina, the first pioneer, made an initial fundamental decision to use the notation system which was in use for Portuguese, as a basic tool for the Vietnamese language. The generation of pioneers that followed him upheld this decision. In other words, Portuguese phonetics was used as an analytical tool and the main reference for Vietnamese phonetics. Without doubt, this statement needs be qualified in several ways. Ignoring it altogether when interpreting the data of early Quôc Ngü would deprive any research of the required accuracy.

For a full century before Vietnamese became the object of systematic studies, the Portuguese had had to deal in a much more general way with the study of oriental languages. They brought this tried and tested experience to Vietnamese to provide a model, a method and some practical gear. In this regard, Pina had already undergone some relevant technical training for the task he was undertaking.

In my book, you’ll find a facsimile of two manuscripts; a third one is saved for my next book. The first one is an 18th century copy of a letter that Pina wrote in Hôi An (Central Vietnam near Dà Nang) in early 1623. My book is a kind of tribute to Pina as he fully deserves the title of ‘pioneer of Vietnamese linguistics’. The main topic of his letter is to explain in detail the status of his work in linguistics, and to outline his future plans. I like this letter very much because, to my knowledge, it is the only instance of a thorough discussion on this topic. Many theories have been published about the purpose—the overt and covert agendas—of those missionaries who devised the Vietnamese alphabet. I say, let them speak for themselves!

The Jesuítas na Ásia collection at the national library of the Palacio da Ajuda, in Lisbon, comprises 60 volumes or 30,000 pages. The copies are the work of a team of amanuenses that worked in Macao, from around 1750 to 1762. They copied all the available archives ranging from 1541 to 1747; two centuries of the Far East, from Japan to Indonesia. Since most of the originals are lost, this collection is one of the main sources for information on the Portuguese presence in the Far East. This manuscript (in Roland's hand) from that collection, was generally overlooked because it is a letter without a precise date or an addressee. But a thorough study yields definite information.

Giving each one his due

Pina was born in the city of Guarda (in Beira Alta, Portugal) in 1585. In his early 20's, he was sent to Macao to complete his studies in the East, and study Chinese and Japanese. He spent eight years in Vietnam, until his accidental death in December 1625. Pina was a workaholic with little or no tolerance for lazy colleagues, as his letter shows. He loved Vietnam and the Vietnamese culture, and detested the half-breed city of Hôi An where anything went—you could get by there with half Japanese and half Vietnamese or half Chinese and half Portuguese.

Pina wanted to hire the best language teachers he could find, but for lack of money he never could. Instead, he relied heavily on the help of young Vietnamese students. He taught them Portuguese and they taught him Vietnamese. This circumstance is both unfortunate and very fortunate. The bad side is the kind of divorce existing between the two scripts of Vietnamese. People who could use only the Latin alphabet could not reach into the treasures of literature. Pina was well aware of this shortcoming. On the other hand, fully trained masters of language were likely to deviate the course of studies towards the Chinese classics. The youngsters who were Pina’s masters, though they knew the characters, had an open mind. Thus the circles practicing the newly devised script were not overloaded or overwhelmed by Chinese influences and gave the proper Vietnamese cultural tradition full opportunity. And from our point of view, this is most fortunate.

The re-appropriation of the Vietnamese treasures of traditional literature was to be done by several generations of Vietnamese pioneers, starting with Thây Doàn in the 1660’s and ending in the late 19th century with Trüöng Vinh Ky. In this way, Pina’s plan of action was totally fulfilled only two or three centuries after his premature death. With the campaigns of alphabetisation launched by Hô Chí Minh, Quôc Ngü, the national script, became the common property of all Vietnamese, thus permanently abolishing the privileges of the literati caste.

If Francisco de Pina did not have direct access to Vietnamese literature, he had other assets that made his contribution unique. Pina was Portuguese, and as such, he was the bearer of a long-standing tradition of linguistic studies. I see two sides to this: one is the study of exotic languages, represented by Henrique Henriques’ Cartinha in Tamil (ca. 1550) and José de Anchieta’s Grammar of the Tupi-Guarani language of Brazil (1595). Closer to him and more relevant to his work, we have João Rodrigues Tçuzzu’s Grammars of the Japanese language. Rodrigues was Pina’s master in Macao, and Pina was familiar with the earlier Japanese grammar published in 1604. There is little wonder that he had definite ideas about how to approach a language.

The second asset that Pina built upon in the field of linguistics was the work done by the early grammar scholars of Portugal. I’ll make special mention of three of them: João de Barros’ Grammar of the Portuguese language (ca. 1540), Duarte Nunes de Leão’s Orthographia (rules of spelling) (1576); and Pêro Magalhães de Gândavo’s Rules in teaching the way of writing Portuguese. My book shows how much modern Quôc Ngü is indebted to all these Portuguese pioneers, in spite of the fact that they didn’t know Vietnamese! My line of argument is that only a Portuguese scholar could achieve this fully.

Pina made one major blunder: he died too early, merely 40. He saw neither the success of what he had initiated, nor the first books using the new script, which were printed 26 years later.

What about Alexandre de Rhodes?

I have been accused of throwing mud at a hero, Alexandre de Rhodes, who, some would say, was the greatest of the Catholic missionaries in Vietnam. Actually, the first time my name appeared in print on the cover of a book, the book was written against my revisionist ideas. Contrary to my contention that the true pioneers of Quôc Ngü were Portuguese, there is the fact that the dictionary, grammar and catechism published in Rome in 1651 bear the name of Rhodes, who was not a Portuguese. Rhodes is the most famous of the disciples of Pina, but not the only one by far.

Here I was greatly helped by the discovery of a third manuscript: A Method to learn the language of Tonkin. This again is an 18th century copy of a 17th century original, which was lost. Unfortunately, the amanuensis didn’t know Vietnamese. If we allow for this circumstance, he did a very decent job. My method here was to systematically compare these pages with the grammar bound with Rhode’s dictionary. There are many similarities, as well as some striking differences, between the two. To sum things up, the scholar is brought to postulate that we have two parallel texts, written by authors who edited, at the same time, a common original. Although both the final texts are in Latin, the original must have been in Portuguese. It was developed by several Portuguese scholars, and I would say mainly by the greatest of them, Gaspar do Amaral, during the twenty years following Francisco de Pina’s death.

In my book, I am editing and commenting on this manuscript. One of the most original features is the description of musical tones. This shows real genius. On the other hand, Rhodes’ simplified version of the same shows that he knew little about what a tone really was. My research has established that the unpublished work Manuductio ad Linguam Tunckinensem was authored by a German-speaking Swiss, who had taught Latin grammar in Portuguese. His Portuguese name is Onófrio Borges, a translation of Honufer Bürgin. He left his work unfinished, but when he died it was saved for posterity. It went unnoticed because his competitor’s work went in print. As such, it is very important since it allows a glimpse behind the scene, and a better understanding of the method of the Portuguese pioneers of Vietnamese linguistics.

On a lighter note, I’ll just make a mention of the last pages of the manuscript. They include a list of offensive words and phrases “often used by the Tonkinese”—I’m not stating this as a fact, but merely reading from the manuscript; "a list of words and phrases with possible obscene double-meanings"—just like the bad words your mother taught you not to say. The reason for their inclusion in the manuscript, it is explained, is that priests should know about them in order to take confessions. Really, these Portuguese pioneers were thorough when they wanted!

Then I discovered the third manuscript, actually the second in chronological order, which is dated 1632, and still unpublished. This one is an original, in the handwriting of Alexandre de Rhodes, but the letter of presentation explains that it had been prepared by a committee. It contains a three-language vocabulary, Japanese, Chinese and Vietnamese, with some remarks on phonetics and grammar. Several defects are visible, mostly in a new emphasis on the common elements between the three languages. For instance, Vietnamese is pictured as a language with a four-tone system, “just as Chinese”. My deductions: Rhodes, who lived in Macao from 1630 to 1640, was out of touch with Vietnam and had a limited and inadequate knowledge of Vietnamese. But he was working at it. For sure, he never claimed: ‘I’ve done it myself.’ He loved to write, but always in Latin or Portuguese; his books in French were translated by others. Perusing his books and the manuscripts he left, you won’t find a Vietnamese sentence, except for one single quotation from the mouth of his beloved disciple, the Blessed Catechist André, a youth of 19 who is the first Christian martyr of Vietnam.

The Dictionary and Catechism published by Rhodes were first two books printed in Quôc Ngü, and they remained the only ones for about two centuries. They have one major flaw, which most authors either fail to see or ignore altogether. They don’t include the Chinese or Nôm characters, which were indispensable at the time, except that is for the missionaries who could not make sense of them. When the French bishop Pigneaux and seven literate catechists compiled the monumental dictionary called Dictionnarium Annamitico-Latinum in 1772, they repaired this unfortunate omission, and the plans of Francisco de Pina came one step further towards conclusion. But when Taberd had this dictionary printed in India in 1838, for lack of Chinese fonts, the characters were again omitted. This regrettable circumstance helped in giving rise to the ghetto theory, of a Christian community cutting itself away from the national community.

Lately, Vietnam officially rehabilitated Alexandre de Rhodes. They now praised him for the great service he did the Vietnamese national community in giving it a very efficient tool to freely express its soul, independent from the Chinese language and tradition. I must say that one of Rhodes' landmark qualities was his unlimited praise for the Vietnamese people. Earlier sources depict them almost invariably as a gang of thieves, as unreliable, untrustworthy and treacherous people. Rhodes, on the contrary, found no defects. When it comes to the young converts that he organises as a group of catechists, he insists that they were angels. He didn’t live long enough to be disappointed. His naïve appreciation wins him the hearts, even of the many Vietnamese who consider Christianity and the papists as a plague or as a pain in the wrong place.


I would not take anything away from this newly found praise for Rhodes, finally purified from die-hard colonial ambiguities. But I wish also that two special groups of people be acknowledged. First, the Portuguese pioneers, who in the early 17th century brought enthusiasm and intensity to their research on the language. Second, their Vietnamese co-workers, who were heirs to the rich culture heritage of their people, already several thousand years old. No single person and neither of these groups could have done what they did in isolation. To achieve the results we profit from today, they had to have co-operated in a steady and determined alliance. Their efforts yielded Quôc Ngü, that splendid Romanised script which has survived the test of the centuries. This immense achievement, teamwork of a surprisingly brief period of time, merits limitless praise. The names of most of the Vietnamese collaborators have unfortunately been lost. Neither can the specifics of their contribution be clearly delineated through documentary evidence.

In the 17th century, Quôc Ngü was intended by the foreign missionaries as a vehicle for teaching Christianity to the Vietnamese. It was devised with a true respect for all that was good in their traditional ways of worship. But it also offered a means of entering into general dialogue with them and their cultural values. Quôc Ngü was the instrument through which this liberating interchange could be undertaken. This hope was also at work in the Vietnamese collaborators, both in the educated converts from Confucianism and in those who were grounded in Nôm literature. Also the gifted young Vietnamese who, educated in the ideographic script and under instruction in the new writing, i.e. the Romanised script in the process of development, were already beginning to sense its power as a tool for general exchange between the cultures.

In this, the most conformist communist interpretations have a point. The feudal ruling class, so they say, used Nôm both to shore up their independence from China and their power over the common people. Introducing an easy to use and efficient script was empowering the people to master their own destiny. I am not saying that the Catholic missionaries of the 17th century introduced Marxist dialectics into Vietnam. But by creating an alphabetic script, they unwittingly and unwillingly paved the way for all kinds of new ideas, including ideas of freedom. When the French colonial rule eventually imposed Quôc Ngü, they signalled the beginning of the end of their colonial era because what they gave into the hands of the Vietnamese was the best means for thinking freely.

Today Quôc Ngü has taken over as the national written language of Vietnam, the language of every social rank and stripe. The Vietnamese people rightly treasure it as their own. Little or no vestige remains of its religious origins. The creators of this national language are an example of amazing intercultural collaboration. They were the originators for Vietnam of a priceless national heritage and of an instrument, without equal, for social development.