Sino-Vietnamese vocabulary (Vietnamese: từ Hán Việt, Chữ Hán: 詞漢越, literally 'Chinese-Vietnamese words') is a layer of about 3,000 monosyllabic morphemes of the Vietnamese language borrowed from Literary Chinese with consistent pronunciations based on Middle Chinese. Compounds using these morphemes are used extensively in cultural and technical vocabulary. Together with Sino-Korean and Sino-Japanese vocabularies, Sino-Vietnamese has been used in the reconstruction of the sound categories of Middle Chinese. Samuel Martin grouped the three together as "Sino-xenic". There is also an Old Sino-Vietnamese layer consisting of a few hundred words borrowed individually from Chinese in earlier periods. These words are treated by speakers as native words. More recent loans from southern varieties of Chinese, usually names of foodstuffs such as lạp xưởng 'Chinese sausage' (from Cantonese), are not treated as Sino-Vietnamese but more direct borrowings.[1]

Estimates of the proportion of words of Chinese origin in the Vietnamese lexicon vary from one third to half and even to 70%.[2][3][4] The proportion tends towards the lower end in speech and towards the higher end in technical writing.[5] In the famous Từ điển tiếng Việt [vi] dictionary by Vietnamese linguist Hoàng Phê [vi], about 40% percent of vocabulary are of Chinese origin.[6]

It has also been theorised that Sino-Vietnamese words came from a language shift from a population of Annamese Middle Chinese speakers that lived in Red River Delta in northern Vietnam to proto-Vietic-Muong, as opposed to Sino-Xenic words coming from studious application with limited exposure to spoken Sinitic as Sino-Korean and Sino-Japanese have done.[7]

Monosyllabic loanwords

A comparison between Sino-Vietnamese (left) vocabulary with Mandarin and Cantonese pronunciations below and native Vietnamese vocabulary (right).

As a result of a thousand years of Chinese control, a small number of Chinese words were borrowed into Vietnamese, called Old Sino-Vietnamese layer. Furthermore, a thousand years of use of Literary Chinese after independence, a considerable number of Chinese words were borrowed, called the Sino-Vietnamese layer. These layers were first systematically studied by linguist Wang Li.[8][9]

Middle Chinese and Vietnamese, like most languages of the Mainland Southeast Asia linguistic area, are analytic languages. Almost all morphemes are monosyllabic and lacking inflection. The phonological structure of their syllables is also similar.[10]

The Old Sino-Vietnamese layer was introduced after the Chinese conquest of the kingdom of Nanyue, including the northern part of Vietnam, in 111 BC. The influence of the Chinese language was particularly felt during the Eastern Han period (25–190 AD), due to increased Chinese immigration and official efforts to sinicize the territory.[11] This layer consists of roughly 400 words, which have been fully assimilated and are treated by Vietnamese speakers as native words.[12]

The much more extensive Sino-Vietnamese proper was introduced with Chinese rhyme dictionaries such as the Qieyun in the late Tang dynasty (618–907). Vietnamese scholars used a systematic rendering of Middle Chinese within the phonology of Vietnamese to derive consistent pronunciations for the entire Chinese lexicon.[13] After driving out the Chinese in 880, the Vietnamese sought to build a state on the Chinese model, including using Literary Chinese for all formal writing, including administration and scholarship, until the early 20th century.[14] Around 3,000 words entered Vietnamese over this period.[15][16] Some of these were re-introductions of words borrowed at the Old Sino-Vietnamese stage, with different pronunciations due to intervening sound changes in Vietnamese and Chinese, and often with a shift in meaning.[13][17]

Examples of multiply-borrowed Chinese words
(Old > Middle)
Old Sino-Vietnamese Sino-Vietnamese
*mjəts > mjɨjH mùi 'smell, odor' vị 'flavor, taste'[18]
*pənʔ > pwonX vốn 'capital, funds' bản 'root, foundation' [18]
*wjek > ywek việc 'work, event' dịch 'service, corvee'[18][19]
*muks > mawH 'hat' mạo 'hat'[13]
*gre > giày 'shoe' hài 'shoe'[13]
*kras > kæH gả 'marry' giá 'marry'[13][20]
*bjəʔ > bjuwX vợ 'wife'[a] phụ 'woman'[13][19]
*gjojʔ > gjweX cúi 'bow, prostrate oneself' quỳ 'kneel'[13]
*rijʔ > lejX lạy 'kowtow' lễ 'ceremony'[13]
*pjap > pjop phép 'rule, law' pháp 'rule, law'[13]
  1. ^ Shorto considers vợ a native Vietnamese word, inherited from Proto-Mon-Khmer *(ʔ)boʔ "mother"; Haudricourt proposes that 婦 *bjəʔ's Old Sino-Vietnamese reflex is bụa in the compound goá bụa < Old Chinese 寡婦 kʷraːʔ-bjəʔ > Late Sino-Vietnamese quả phụ.[21][22]

Wang Li followed Henri Maspero in identifying a problematic group of forms with "softened" initials g-, gi, d- and v- as Sino-Vietnamese loans that had been affected by changes in colloquial Vietnamese. Most scholars now follow André-Georges Haudricourt in assigning these words to the Old Sino-Vietnamese layer.[23]

Sino-Vietnamese shows a number of distinctive developments from Middle Chinese:

Modern compounds

Up until the early 20th century, Literary Chinese was the vehicle of administration and scholarship, not only in China, but also in Vietnam, Korea and Japan, similar to Latin in medieval Europe.[28] Though not a spoken language, this shared written language was read aloud in different places according to local traditions derived from Middle Chinese pronunciation: the literary readings in various parts of China and Sino-Xenic pronunciations in the other countries.

As contact with the West grew, Western works were translated into Literary Chinese and read by the literate. In order to translate words for new concepts (political, religious, scientific, medical and technical terminology) scholars in these countries coined new compounds formed from Chinese morphemes and written with Chinese characters. The local readings of these compounds were readily adopted into the respective local vernaculars of Japan, Korea and Vietnam. For example, the Chinese mathematician Li Shanlan created hundreds of translations of mathematical terms, including 代數學 ('replace-number-study') for 'algebra', yielding modern Chinese dàishùxué, Vietnamese đại số học, Japanese daisūgaku and Korean daesuhak.[29] Often, multiple compounds for the same concept were in circulation for some time before a winner emerged, with the final choice sometimes differing between countries.[30]

A fairly large amount of Sino-Vietnamese compounds have meanings that differ significantly from their usage in other Sinitic vocabularies. For example:

There also a significant amount of Sino-Vietnamese compounds that are used, but the terms differ in Chinese and the other Sino-xenic languages. Such as:

English Vietnamese Chinese Japanese Korean
university student sinh viên 生員 大學生 dàxuéshēng 大学生 daigakusei 대학생 (大學生) daehaksaeng
professor giáo sư 教師 教授 jiàoshòu 教授 kyōju 교수 (敎授) gyosu
bachelor (academic degree) cử nhân 舉人 學士 xuéshì 学士 gakushi 학사 (學士) haksa
doctorate (academic degree) tiến sĩ 進士 博士 bóshì 博士 hakushi 박사 (博士) baksa
library thư viện 書院 圖書館 túshūguǎn 図書館 toshokan 도서관 (圖書館) doseogwan
office văn phòng 文房 事務所 shìwùsuǒ 事務所 jimusho 사무소 (事務所) samuso
map bản đồ 版圖 地圖 dìtú 地図 chizu 지도 (地圖) jido
clock đồng hồ 銅壺 鐘 zhōng, 時計 (literary) shíjì 時計 tokei 시계 (時計) sigye
hotel; inn khách sạn 客棧 旅館 lǚguǎn ホテル hoteru, 旅館 (traditional inn) ryokan 여관 (旅館) yeogwan
demonstration biểu tình 表情 示威 shìwēi 示威 shii 시위 (示威) siwi
autism tự kỷ 自己 自閉症 zìbìzhèng 自閉症 jiheishō 자폐증 (自閉症) japyejeung

Self-coined Sino-Vietnamese compounds

Some Sino-Vietnamese compounds are entirely invented by the Vietnamese and are not used in Chinese, such as linh mục 'priest' from 'soul' and 'shepherd',[35] or giả kim thuật (假金術 'art of artificial metal'), which has been applied popularly to refer to 'alchemy'. Another example is linh cẩu (靈狗, 'alert dog') meaning 'hyena'. Others are no longer used in modern Chinese or have other meanings.

Definition Chinese characters Vietnamese alphabet
farm 莊寨 trang trại
city 城庯 thành phố
week 旬禮 tuần lễ
to be present at 現面 hiện diện
to entertain 解智 giải trí
to lack 少寸 thiếu thốn
to be proud 倖面 hãnh diện
pleasant to the eyes 玩目 ngoạn mục
orderly; proper 眞方 chân phương
(polite, respectful) you 貴位 quý vị
traditional 古傳 cổ truyền
festival 禮會 lễ hội
legend 玄話 huyền thoại
to satisfy 妥滿 thoả mãn
polite 歷事 lịch sự
important; significant 關重 quan trọng
millionaire 兆富 triệu phú
billionaire 秭富 tỷ phú
thermometer 熱計 nhiệt kế
(mathematics) matrix 魔陣 ma trận
biology 生學 sinh học
subject 門學 môn học
average 中平 trung bình
cosmetics 美品 mỹ phẩm
surgery 剖術 phẫu thuật
allergy 異應 dị ứng
hearing-impaired 欠聽 khiếm thính
bacteria; microbe; germ 微蟲 vi trùng
to update 及日 cập nhật
data; information 與料 dữ liệu
forum 演壇 diễn đàn
a smoothie (drink) 生素 sinh tố
dojo; martial art school 武堂 võ đường
a surgical mask 口裝 khẩu trang
thermometer 熱計 nhiệt kế
television (medium) 傳形 truyền hình
broadcast 發聲 phát thanh
animation 活形 hoạt hình
subtitles 附題 phụ đề
to transcribe 翻音 phiên âm
visa 視實 thị thực
(informal) nurse; a medical assistant 醫佐 y tá
a specialist in humanities; an artist, painter, musician, actor, comic, etc. 藝士 nghệ sĩ
a singer 歌士 ca sĩ
a musician, especially a songwriter or a composer 樂士 nhạc sĩ
a poet 詩士 thi sĩ
a dentist 牙士 nha sĩ
an artist (painter) 畫士 hoạ sĩ
a member of any legislative body. 議士 nghị sĩ
prison 寨監 trại giam
victim 難人 nạn nhân
special forces 特攻 đặc công

Proper names

See also: Vietnamese exonyms

Since Sino-Vietnamese provides a Vietnamese form for almost all Chinese characters, it can be used to derive a Vietnamese form for any Chinese word or name. For example, the name of Chinese leader Xi Jinping consists of the Chinese characters 習近平. Applying Sino-Vietnamese reading to each character yields the Vietnamese translation of his name, Tập Cận Bình.

Some Western names and words, approximated in Chinese or in some cases approximated in Japanese and then borrowed into Chinese, were further approximated in Vietnamese. For example, Portugal is transliterated as Putaoya 葡萄牙 in Chinese, became Bồ Đào Nha in Vietnamese. England (Chinese: Ying-ge-lan) became Anh Cát Lợi (英吉利), shortened to Anh (), while United States became Mỹ Lợi Gia (美利加), shortened to Mỹ (). The formal name for the United States in Vietnamese is Hoa Kỳ (花旗); this is a former Chinese name of the United States and translates literally as "flower flag".

Country Chinese name Vietnamese name
Australia 澳大利亞 Úc (澳)
Austria 奧地利 Áo (奧)
Belgium 比利時 Bỉ (比)
Czechoslovakia 捷克斯洛伐克 Tiệp Khắc (捷克)
France 法蘭西 Pháp (法)
Germany 德意志 Đức (德)
Italy 意大利 Ý (意)
Netherlands 荷蘭 Hà Lan (荷蘭)
Prussia 普魯士 Phổ (普)
Russia 俄羅斯 Nga (俄)
Yugoslavia 南斯拉夫 Nam Tư (南斯)

Except for the oldest and most deeply ingrained Sino-Vietnamese names, modern Vietnamese instead uses direct phonetic transliterations for foreign names, in order to preserve the original spelling and pronunciation. Today, the written form of such transliterated names are almost always left unaltered; with rising levels of proficiency in English spelling and pronunciation in Vietnam, readers generally no longer need to be instructed on the correct pronunciation for common foreign names. For example, while the Sino-Vietnamese Luân Đôn remains in common usage in Vietnamese, the English equivalent London is also commonplace. Calques have also arisen to replace some Sino-Vietnamese terms. For example, the White House is usually referred to as Nhà Trắng (literally, "white house") in Vietnam, though Tòa Bạch Ốc (based on 白屋) retains some currency among overseas Vietnamese.

However, China-specific names such as Trung Quốc (Middle Kingdom, 中國), as well as Korean names with Chinese roots, continue to be rendered in Sino-Vietnamese rather than the romanization systems used in other languages. Examples include Triều Tiên (Joseon, 朝鮮) for both Korea as a whole and North Korea in particular, Hàn Quốc (Hanguk, 韓國) for South Korea, Bình Nhưỡng (Pyongyang, 平壤), and Bàn Môn Điếm (Panmunjom, 板門店). Seoul, unlike most Korean place names, has no corresponding hanja; it is therefore phonetically transliterated as Xê-un.


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Sino-Vietnamese words have a status similar to that of Latin-based words in English: they are used more in formal context than in everyday life. Because Chinese and Vietnamese use different order for subject and modifier, compound Sino-Vietnamese words or phrases might appear ungrammatical in Vietnamese sentences. For example, the Sino-Vietnamese phrase bạch mã (白馬 "white horse") can be expressed in Vietnamese as ngựa trắng ("horse white"). For this reason, compound words containing native Vietnamese and Sino-Vietnamese words are very rare and are considered improper by some. For example, chung cư ("apartment building") was originally derived from chúng cư 眾居 ("multiple dwelling"), but with the syllable chúng "multiple" replaced with chung, a "pure" Vietnamese word meaning "shared" or "together". Similarly, the literal translation of "United States", Hợp chúng quốc (合眾國) is commonly mistakenly rendered as Hợp chủng quốc, with chúng ( - many) replaced by chủng ( - ethnicity, race). Another example is tiệt diện (截面; "cross-section") being replaced by tiết diện (節面).

One interesting example is the current motto of Vietnam "Cộng hòa Xã hội chủ nghĩa Việt Nam / Độc lập – Tự do – Hạnh phúc", all the words are Sino-Vietnamese (獨立自由幸福).

Writing Sino-Vietnamese words with the Vietnamese alphabet causes some confusion about the origins of some terms, due to the large number of homophones in Chinese and Sino-Vietnamese. For example, both (bright) and (dark) are read as minh, thus the word "minh" has two contradictory meanings: bright and dark (although the "dark" meaning is now esoteric and is used in only a few compound words). Perhaps for this reason, the Vietnamese name for Pluto is not Minh Vương Tinh (冥王星 – lit. "underworld king star") as in other East Asian languages, but is Diêm Vương Tinh (閻王星) and sao Diêm Vương, named after the Hindu and Buddhist deity Yama. During the Hồ dynasty, Vietnam was officially known as Đại Ngu (大虞 "Great Peace"). However, most modern Vietnamese know ngu () as "stupid"; consequently, some misinterpret it as "Big Idiot". Conversely, the Han River in South Korea is often erroneously translated as sông Hàn () when it should be sông Hán () due to the name's similarity with the country name. However, the homograph/homophone problem is not as serious as it appears, because although many Sino-Vietnamese words have multiple meanings when written with the Vietnamese alphabet, usually only one has widespread usage, while the others are relegated to obscurity. Furthermore, Sino-Vietnamese words are usually not used alone, but in compound words, thus the meaning of the compound word is preserved even if individually each has multiple meanings.

Today Sino-Vietnamese texts are learnt and used mostly only by Buddhist monks since important texts such as the scriptures to pacify spirits (recited during the ritual for the Seventh Lunar month - Trai đàn Chẩn tế; 齋壇振濟) are still recited in Sino-Vietnamese pronunciations. Such as the chant, Nam mô A Di Đà Phật coming from 南無阿彌陀佛.

See also



  1. ^ Nguyễn (1997), p. 79.
  2. ^ DeFrancis (1977), p. 8.
  3. ^ Maspero (1912), p. 5.
  4. ^ Nguyễn (1997), p. 59.
  5. ^ Alves (2009a), p. 5.
  6. ^ Ky, Quang Muu (2007). "Doctoral thesis". Faculty of Linguistics, University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Vietnam National University, Hanoi.
  7. ^ Phan, John (January 2013). "Lacquered Words: the Evolution of Vietnamese under Sinitic Influences from the 1st Century BCE to the 17th Century CE" (PDF). Cornell. pp. 298–301.
  8. ^ Hashimoto (1978), p. 5.
  9. ^ Wang (1948).
  10. ^ Enfield (2005), pp. 186–188.
  11. ^ Alves (2009b), pp. 624–625.
  12. ^ Alves (2009b), pp. 624, 628.
  13. ^ a b c d e f g h i Alves (2009b), p. 625.
  14. ^ DeFrancis (1977), p. 14.
  15. ^ Nguyễn (1997), p. 38.
  16. ^ Alves (2009b), p. 626.
  17. ^ Hannas (1997), pp. 80–81.
  18. ^ a b c Hannas (1997), p. 80.
  19. ^ a b Pulleyblank (1981), p. 284.
  20. ^ Pulleyblank (1981), p. 282.
  21. ^ Shorto (2006), p. 96.
  22. ^ Haudricourt (2017), p. 23.
  23. ^ Pulleyblank (1981), pp. 281–282.
  24. ^ Pulleyblank (1984), p. 66.
  25. ^ Miyake (2003), p. 129.
  26. ^ Miyake (2003), p. 127.
  27. ^ Pulleyblank (1984), pp. 74, 92–93.
  28. ^ Nguyễn (1997), p. 37.
  29. ^ Wilkinson (2000), p. 42.
  30. ^ Wilkinson (2000), p. 43.
  31. ^ Alves (2018).
  32. ^ Ban Gu (author), Tjan Tjoe Som (translator) (1949). Po Hu T'ung - The Comprehensive Discussions in the White Tiger Hall, Volume II. Leiden: Brill. p. 457. translation: "A son has the right to avenge his father because he has the same duty towards him as the subject towards his Lord. Neither a faithful subject nor a filial son can ever be resigned [to the murder of his Lord or father], for his feelings of gratitude and obligation cannot be taken away from him." Chinese original:「子得為父報仇者,臣子於君父,其義一也。忠臣孝子所以不能已,以恩義不可奪也。」
  33. ^ "ân nghĩa" in Hồ Ngọc Đức's Vietnamese dictionary
  34. ^ "ân nghĩa" in
  35. ^ Li (2020), p. 67.


Further reading