Vietnamese is a language with a very long and complex history, and a language which has survived dominance by two very different empires – the Chinese and the French – to retain its individuality.
The history of the Vietnamese language can be broken up into six basic periods: Pre-Vietnamese, Proto-Vietnamese, Archaic Vietnamese, Ancient Vietnamese, Middle Vietnamese, and Modern Vietnamese. It’s slightly alarming, isn’t it, to see ‘Ancient Vietnamese’ listed fourth in the list. This gives you some small idea of how old this culture is. So old, in fact, that the Pre-Vietnamese period is one of those language periods that is controversial, because linguists can’t really agree on what exactly the language that eventually gave birth to Vietnamese was. To be fair, many of these pre-historical languages are nothing more than theory, but in some cases linguistic experts at least agree generally on the theory. Pre-Vietnamese is still under discussion.
Proto-Vietnamese is the first version of the language that can be called Vietnamese. This is the version of the language that existed before China came to dominate the country and the culture, the language which spread from northern Vietnam as that culture and society conquered southwards.
Beginning in the 2nd century CE, the Han Dynasty of China conquered and ruled Vietnam until the 10th century AD. A thousand years of Chinese rule had an unalterable effect on the language, and many Chinese words and rules of grammar were of course adopted. This is the version of Vietnamese called Archaic Vietnamese. What’s interesting about Vietnamese is that these Chinese words were altered or ‘vietnamised’ to better suit the Vietnamese language, as opposed to the language altering more in favour of Chinese. This robust resistance to change has made Vietnamese a survivor in world history despite the many trials the country and people have endured.
Vietnam maintained its independence for the next nine centuries, although it was frequently unstable and engulfed in civil war. During this time the language continued to evolve into Ancient Vietnamese, experiencing what’s known as ‘tone splits’ that saw the number of tones utilised in the spoken language increase from three to six. This process ended around the 17th century, when Middle Vietnamese stabilised as the new language.
France and Modern Vietnamese
When France gradually conquered Vietnam in the late 19th century, the same process that happened with Chinese happened with French: French words were adopted, altered, and ‘vietnamised’. This resulted in what we now call Modern Vietnamese, the language which has remained stable all through the wars of the 20th century and the reconstruction of a unified, stable Vietnam.