Hanoi

01

Dec
2021

Language

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A large proportion of the modern Vietnamese vocabulary derives from Chinese, but linguists categorize the Vietnamese language as a member of the Mon-Khmer  family of languages. Although available comparative data for studying Vietnam- ese with other Mon-Khmer languages are limited, there is an abundance of  materials documenting the historical relationship between Chinese and Vietnam- ese. Linguists continue to develop new methods for analyzing such data, and  developments in Sino-Vietnamese historical linguistics enable new ways of theo- rizing how the Vietnamese language came to be. Building upon the work of  scholarship in French and Chinese in the early twentieth century and of Japanese  scholarship more recently, linguists are beginning to appreciate the great com- plexity of the relationship between speakers of the Chinese and the Vietnamese  languages; both the speakers and the languages are products of great changes during the past two millennia from which documentation of this relationship exists.

Sino-Vietnamese historical linguistics has tended to focus attention upon words from the classrooms in which what we call Literary Chinese was taught for more than two millennia. This was the language of education, scholarship, literature, and government in both China and Vietnam until the turn of the twentieth century. While Literary Chinese in its written form has changed relatively little through the centuries, the phonologies of Literary Chinese have changed significantly in accordance with changes in spoken languages. Advances in phonological analysis enable greater understandings of the realms of spoken languages that have interacted with Literary Chinese. Literary Chinese, as the written form of the prestige language, was an aspect of a larger world of  language contact between speakers of languages that we now identify as con- tributors to modern Chinese and Vietnamese. Modes of speaking Literary Chi- nese can be thought of as literary registers that became aspects of prestige  versions of vernacular forms of language.

For over a millennium, up until the tenth century, speakers of Han-Tang Chinese accumulated in what is now northern Vietnam. Imperial government was based in the area of modern Hanoi where the most critical mass of Chinese speakers concentrated. During the thirty to forty generations of this time, the Chinese speakers developed their own regional version of Chinese, for which one modern linguist, John Duong Phan, has found evidence and that for convenience can be called Annamese Middle Chinese. It is possible that this was simply a dialect of a broader Southern or Southwestern Middle Chinese of that time.

The non-Chinese-speaking lowland population spoke a language that linguists call Proto-Viet-Muong, the most eastern member of the Mon-Khmer languages that at that time prevailed in the plains drained by the Mekong and the Menam. Proto-Viet-Muong can be imagined as having spread north at some earlier time from the passes linking the Mekong and Ca River valleys. During the ten centuries of imperial rule, many Chinese words were borrowed into spoken  Proto-Viet-Muong and we can reasonably conjecture that there was a signifi- cantly high level of bilingualism among primary speakers of both languages.

Beginning in the tenth and eleventh centuries, when the governing connection with Chinese dynasties was broken, there were no longer regular infusions of Chinese speakers from the north and local kings appeared. The population of Annamese Middle Chinese speakers was increasingly concentrated in the Red  River plain where political authority was based. As the diglossic situation col- lapsed, speakers of Annamese Middle Chinese gradually shifted into Proto-Viet- Muong, bringing with them a critical mass of vocabulary and grammatical  particles, thus giving rise to the Vietnamese language as we categorize it today, the speakers of which at that time were called Kinh, meaning the people of the “capital” in the region of Hanoi. On the other hand, the speakers of various forms of Proto-Viet-Muong who did not participate in this “shift,” namely those in the plains of the Ma and Ca Rivers, were eventually driven from the lowlands by the Kinh speakers, who referred to them as Trai, or “outpost” people; in the twentieth century, French ethnographers and colonial administrators identified the descendents of these people as Muong. The Kinh–Trai distinction is first mentioned in historical records from the mid thirteenth century, although it surely existed prior to that time; this is also the time when the writing of  Vietnamese poetry is first documented and when the last generation of Vietnam- ese princes who spoke Chinese are known to have lived.

In the fifteenth century, two decades of Ming Chinese rule introduced new pronunciations for words already existing in Vietnamese from the Han-Tang/ Annamese Middle Chinese experience. Some later Vietnamese scholars viewed the Ming pronunciations as less correct than the older forms. This is an example of a common phenomenon during the long history of Sino-Vietnamese interaction: Chinese words once absorbed by Vietnamese would be “re-borrowed” from a later version of the Chinese language with new pronunciations and sometimes modified semantic fields. The rejection of Ming pronunciations was part of a general reaction among educated Vietnamese to the memory of Ming rule. Nevertheless, from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries, during which Vietnamese began to flourish as a literary language, writers adopted or invented many classroom-inspired Chinese words to bejewel and elevate the vernacular in a process of “relexification.”

A further complication is that, beginning in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Vietnamese speakers in what is now central and southern Vietnam began to develop regional versions of the language as a result both of normal  language change and of contact with non-Vietnamese speakers. In central Viet- nam, many Cham speakers began to speak Vietnamese, and, in the late seven- teenth century, a large wave of Ming Chinese refugees into the south also had a  linguistic impact.

This new understanding of the Vietnamese language as arising from a long  history of Sinic bilingualism gives formative significance to the centuries of Chi- nese rule that is more plausible than the well-established cliché of “a thousand  years of Chinese domination” that imagines an already existing Vietnamese identity surviving many generations of participation in Sinic civilization while being fundamentally uninfluenced by it. It also requires a major shift in our view of Vietnamese history and culture away from the scheme of an ancient and enduring Vietnamese identity claimed by modern nationalists. Vietnamese culture and language came into existence as the result of a merging of what linguistic evidence reveals as speakers of Annamese Middle Chinese and Proto-Viet-Muong.

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