|The language of Vietnam falls very strangely on the ears of most
westerners. The average American is intrigued when he first hears the
unusual sounds of spoken Vietnamese. Among the reasons is that the
language spoken by the ethnic Vietnamese is tonal; the meanings of words
are radically altered when the tones in which they are spoken are
changed. As a consequence there is a strange, almost musical quality in
The language seems to have originated among the Muong tribesmen of North and central Vietnam and was probably an amalgamation of Thai and Chinese dialects. It remained for a Roman Catholic missionary priest, Father Alexander of Rhodes, to formalize it as a speech and writing style called Quoc-Ngu in about 1651. The Centre' du Rhodes in Saigon is a memorial to this priest who did so much for the country.
Vietnamese is monosyllabic and may be written in either Chinese characters or the more popular national script. It is far from being the only language in South Vietnam. The tribal or highland Vietnamese speak a large variety of languages and are often unable to communicate with each other. Some of these tribal dialects are tonal while others are nontonal; some can be written but others have no written form.
Still, the unusual qualities and seeming complexities of the Vietnamese language should not deter a person from learning as much of it as possible. A land and a people become much more understandable, and relationships with them much more enjoyable, when their language is comprehended and spoken.
A number of Marines and sailors have become quite proficient in Vietnamese during their tours of duty. Phonetic listings of many helpful words and phrases are available and a number of the Vietnamese people are glad to exchange language lessons in order to learn English. It's a good way to have some fun, and a superb way to form some interesting and rewarding friendships.
Courtesy of the 1967 USMC Unit Leaders Personal Response Handbook