Nguyen Phuc Khoat, the first southern king

01

Dec
2021

Pronunciation and spelling of Vietnamese names

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This book does not include Vietnamese diacritical marks, which are an integral part of the Vietnamese alphabet. Some diacritics indicate tones and some indicate particular vowel or consonant sounds. Jesuit missionaries invented the Vietnamese alphabet in the seventeenth century, largely in reference to Portu- guese phonology. Consequently, readers who do not know Vietnamese but are  familiar with European languages will not go far wrong in sounding out most pronunciations in Vietnamese. However, readers may be interested to know how to pronounce certain common names in Vietnamese history that have unexpected sounds. For example, Ly is pronounced “lee”; Le is pronounced  “lay”; Tran rhymes with “bun”; Mac is pronounced “mock”; Hue is pro- nounced “way.”

One consonant sound that may pose particular challenges to non-Vietnamese readers is the initial “ng” sound in Ngo and Nguyen, which is a nasalized “guh” made in the back of the throat, somewhat similar to the “ng” sound in “bingo” (which rhymes with Ngo). For Nguyen, this sound is combined with “we” and “in” to produce “ng-we-in,” spoken as one syllable. When “ng” is combined with an “h” as in the name of the tenth-century ruler Duong Dinh Nghe, a “y” sound is added to the consonant cluster, producing a sound something like “Ngyay.”

Without diacritics, the distinction between two consonants formed from the letter “d” is lost. The “hard d,” indicated by a horizontal dash through the vertical line in either the upper (D) or lower (d) case letters, is pronounced as if in a European language. The “soft d” is indicated by the absence of that horizontal dash; northern Vietnamese pronounce it like a “z” and southern Vietnamese pronounce it like a “y.” For example, Duong Dinh Nghe contains both a soft and a hard “D” and is pronounced “Zoong Dinh Ngyay” by northerners and “Yoong Dinh Ngyay” by southerners. Another example is the name of the president of the first Republic of Vietnam (Ngo Dinh Diem, 1955–1963), which also contains both kinds of “d,” being pronounced “Ngo Dinh Ziem” by northerners and “Ngo Dinh Yiem” by southerners. On the other hand, the name of the tenth-century king Dinh Bo Linh is pronounced about the way it looks in English by both northerners and southerners.

One orthographic convention that I observe is that I spell Hanoi, Saigon, Cholon, Dalat, and Vietnam rather than Ha Noi, Sai Gon, Cho Lon, Da Lat, and Viet Nam, which is how these are rendered in the Vietnamese language. My  reason for doing so, while leaving other Vietnamese place names in their Viet- namese forms, is that these names have been absorbed into common English  usage without the space between syllables and without the capitalization of the second syllable.

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