5 Head of Cattle versus 5 Heads of Cattle: A Brief Introduction to Vietnamese


The title of this post brings up two images that are similar in language and very different in meaning: five head of cattle, grazing peacefully on the ranch, versus five heads of cattle, severed and bloody. The word head in the phrase “head of cattle” is what’s known as a classifier, a word that remains singular even when followed by a number other than one. Classifiers are rarely used in English. Rather than designating a unit of measure, they refer to something that can be counted.

Along with the obvious, the use of classifiers in Vietnamese grammar is just one way the language differs from English. Up until the seventeenth century, this language was written in Chữ-nôm, a script that looks very much like Chinese. Indeed, the language has a great many Chinese loan words, probably due to centuries-long domination by the Chinese.

During the mid-1500s, Roman Catholic missionaries began to create an orthography for Vietnamese using Latin script. Of course, it is important for a cultural group to have its own language, but the introduction of the Latin alphabet also helped distance the Vietnamese from their close connection to China, making potential conversion to Christianity more palatable. The priests used the Latin alphabet but, to capture the sounds of the language exactly, also introduced two levels of diacritics.

A diacritic is a small mark used to distinguish a letter from one with a similar sound. In a language with diacritics, such as Vietnamese, lines of text must not be placed too close together. An experienced typesetter knows not to set the leading too tightly in these languages, lest they lose the top diacritics. (The term leading comes from the time when type was set by hand and small strips of lead were used to create the distance from one line to the next.)

One function of the diacritics in Vietnamese is to indicate tones. Like Chinese, Vietnamese is a tonal language. It uses six tones: level, high rising, low/falling, dipping-rising, high rising glottalized, and low glottalized. (Glottalization, also known as a glottal stop, is created by quickly bringing the vocal cords together and then releasing them with air—think of the way we separate the syllables of uh-oh.)

In addition to tones, the diacritics in Vietnamese indicate various pronunciations of the vowels they are attached to, just as in French. For example, ô, o and ơ are very different sounds.

The two types of diacritics are combined to create the sound of Vietnamese. This is an example of Vietnamese characters produced by ScriptSource:


One level of diacritic indicates the tone; the other, the shape of the articulators which form the sound.

Why should we pay attention to this language? For one thing, it is spoken by 82 million people. For another, the Vietnamese economy is growing well. This is in spite of a terrible drought in 2016, endemic poverty, and ever-present corruption. The country is rapidly overtaking China as a less expensive manufacturing zone.

The Vietnamese middle class is rising, and their spending helps spur the economy. Internationally-branded hotels are opening and the tourist sector is growing. High-tech manufacturing is creating jobs that pay well, and people are moving into such industries as electronics, biomedical devices, and craft beer.

The economy did slow in 2016 due to the shrinkage in the mining sector. As coal prices drop worldwide and Vietnam’s mines age, there is little hope that the industry will recover. However, some economists think that other areas of the economy may make up the difference.

Two hopeful signs for the Vietnamese people are the falling infant mortality rate and the growing number of students graduating from at least primary school. Vietnam’s Socio-Economic Development Plan is focused on three areas: increasing skills in the general population, improving market conditions, and expanding infrastructure development.

An improved economy means market opportunities for US firms. Vietnam is a country to watch!

As always, when doing business in or traveling to another country, some prior knowledge of the language and culture is helpful.

Values that traditionally characterize Vietnamese culture include:

  • Ancestor veneration
  • Devotion to study
  • Handicrafts and manual labor
  • Respect for community and family values.

Some traditional Vietnamese practice a mixture of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism called Tam Giao—triple religion.

The Vietnamese currency is called the đồng, written VND and shown by the symbol “₫”. If you see hào, xu, subdivisions of the đồng,  they are old and no longer used. In 2003 the government began issuing coins in the denominations of 200, 500, 1,000, 2,000, and 5,000 đồng.    As of July 1, 2018, there are 22733 đồng to the USD.

Would you enjoy a beautiful graphic depicting Vietnamese culture?

Tembua has twenty years of experience with Vietnamese document translations. We are ready to answer your questions!

Patricia May
President/CEO
Tembua: The Precision Language Solution
pm@tembua.com