Pronouncing the Vietnamese Language

To be able to speak Vietnamese while traveling in Vietnam is, of course, immensely advantageous. But the average visitor is not likely to know more than a few words or phrases, if any. However, it can be useful to at least know how to pronounce the language when you see it written on road signs, maps, menus, shop signs and business cards.

The quốc ngũ writing system for the Vietnamese language, based on the Latin alphabet, was the work of French and Portuguese missionaries in the 17th century. Alexander de Rhodes gets the credit for putting it into its final form. The quốc ngũ system dispenses with the letters f, j w and z and adds three new ones, adapted from existing letters, for sounds not represented by other letters. It uses diacritical marks both for pronunciation and as tone indicators.

Vowels a as the a in father

â like the u in cup

ă a sound halfway between a and â

e like the ai in main

ê as the e in get

i as the i in machine

o like the aw in law

ơ like the French eu or the u in measure

ô as the o in hope

u as the u in reduce

ư a deeper u, like the German ü

y like the ee in meet

Combined vowels are both pronounced as if single, except for the combination iêu, which sounds close to the yo in yo-yo. Initial o and u in combined vowels sound like w; e.g.

oa like the wa in wash

uy like the wee in week

Most consonants are pronounced as in English. Exceptions are:

d like the z in zoo

đ like the d in dog

gi like the z in zone

kh aspirated k, from the back of the throat

nh like the ni in onion, or the Spanish ñ

ph as the ph in philosophy

r like the z in zipper

th strongly aspirated t

tr like the tch in snatch

x like the s in sunny

Exceptions and changes in sounds

--ch at the end of a syllable pronounced like kh

--ach pronounced as if spelled aikh

--nh the preceding vowel is nasalized

--anh pronounced as if spelled ainh

Tone marks

No tone marker indicates mid-tone.

´ rising tone

` falling tone

̉ rising-falling tone

~ falling-rising tone

. (under the vowel) low tone

In actual day-to-day conversation, with people speaking quickly, the rising and the falling-rising tones sound similar, like an inflection at the end of a question. The falling, rising-falling and low tones sound close, a dropping of the voice. The mid-tone is an even sound without any inflection.

Southern dialect differences

c close to the g in gun

ch like j in jar (except at the end of a syllable)

d like the y in yarn

gi also like the y in yarn

r like the r in red

s like the sh in shutter

tr like the tr in train

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