Why you should care

This is why Vietnamese is (much) easier for Westerners to read than Chinese.

Alexandre de Rhodes gets all the credit, but his Portuguese predecessors did the donkey work. Today, Western travelers in rural parts of China are met by signposts and storefronts filled with alienating logograms, or characters. But if they cross the border into Vietnam, they’re greeted by a far more welcoming alphabet. Abundant accents aside, the words look so familiar that they may even be tempted to give pronouncing them a try, and they have Catholic missionaries to thank.

The Vietnamese writing system known as chữ Quốc ngữ (“national language script”) was developed by these missionaries in the 17th century, using Latin script, Portuguese orthographic conventions and nine diacritics (accents) to create additional sounds or denote tones. The French Jesuit missionary Alexandre de Rhodes, author of the first Portuguese-Tonkinese-Latin dictionary, is widely credited as the inventor of the script. But, as professor George Dutton from the UCLA department of Asian languages and cultures points out, the use of Portuguese orthography is a “dead giveaway that the true pioneers of the script were not French.”

De Rhodes had not even been born when the Jesuits were expelled from Japan in 1587, when the missionaries began spreading out across Asia. Tonkin, as northern Vietnam was then known, was “an afterthought mission,” writes Hung T. Pham in Composing a Sacred Space. Most of the early Jesuits were from Portugal, but their number also included Germans, Italians, Spaniards and at least one Frenchman.

The Vietnamese alphabet can be taught in a matter of months, and once learned there are no orthographical irregularities.

The Jesuits’ primary goal? To evangelize the Vietnamese. Unlike their counterparts in South America and Africa, the Tonkinese Jesuits encountered an elaborate, bureaucratic state governed by a well-established monarchy. This meant that they had to tread very carefully and focus their efforts on disenfranchised sections of society. Despite the challenges, says Dutton, the number of converts in Tonkin by 1639 was estimated at about 80,000. Less than 30 years later, there were perhaps 350,000 Vietnamese Catholics, and it wasn’t just a fad: Visit the coastline between Hai Phong and Ninh Binh today and you’ll encounter hundreds of churches and a deeply established Catholic tradition. Countrywide, Vietnamese Catholics still comprise around 7 percent of the total population.


Alexandre de Rhodes

Source Creative Commons

When the Jesuits arrived in Tonkin, classical Chinese was reserved for formal documents, while Chữ Nôm — a rendering of Vietnamese vernacular based on the Chinese script — provided a less highfalutin alternative. Chữ Nôm served as a very useful transitional communications tool for the Jesuits, allowing them to spread the word rapidly while remaining relatively inconspicuous. But the vernacular’s shortcomings soon became clear, Dutton explains. Not only were there significant regional differences, but knowledge of the full character-based Chinese system was required to read and write. “The price of admission was too high,” he says.

So the missionaries started looking for alternative ways to reach the masses. As French scholar Roland Jacques points out, three Portuguese Jesuits should be given at least as much credit for the development of chữ Quốc ngữ as de Rhodes. Francisco de Pina, who arrived in Vietnam in 1617, quickly became fluent in the language — by 1623 he had already “made a little treatise about the orthography and tonalities of this language.” Building on de Pina’s pioneering efforts, Gaspar do Amaral developed a Tonkinese-Portuguese dictionary, while António Barbosa worked on a Portuguese-Tonkinese equivalent. Unfortunately, none of these handwritten documents were ever found, but de Rhodes acknowledges all three of them in the prologue to his dictionary, published in 1651.

This is not to say that de Rhodes — who, when he arrived in Hanoi in 1620 likened the language to “the singing of the birds” and confessed to “losing all hope of ever being able to learn it” — does not deserve plenty of brownie points. All three Portuguese missionaries died before they were able to finish their projects, and de Rhodes systematized and standardized what they had started in one volume that allowed for triangulation between Latin, Portuguese and Vietnamese. What’s more, he also published a second book, the Catechismus, an explanation of Christianity aimed at a Vietnamese audience.


Nevertheless, says Dutton, chữ Quốc ngữ played second fiddle to Chữ Nôm well into the 18th century, and suspicions about the Latin script’s colonial heritage lingered for at least another hundred years after that. In the early 20th century, when Vietnamese intellectuals debated the future of education in French Indochina, it was eventually agreed that chữ Quốc ngữ presented the fastest route to literacy.

The Vietnamese alphabet can be taught in a matter of months, and once learned there are no orthographical irregularities. Everyone agreed that chữ Quốc ngữ offered an avenue to rapid literacy, but substantial concerns remained about the long-term viability of the script. Scanning Vietnamese newspapers of the time, says Dutton, shows that many prominent thinkers felt the new script would not be able to capture the breadth and nuance of modern life and that ultimately French would have to be adopted as the national language.

But history has proven them wrong. Close to 100 million people use chữ Quốc ngữ on a daily basis, and Vietnam has developed a literary culture to rival the best. And today, while grade schoolers in Vietnam play ball with their friends, their Chinese counterparts will likely hear mothers imploring them to study the 3,000 characters required to read a newspaper in their mother tongue.

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