Vietnam Academy Of Social Sciences

Language and Writings of Vietnam’s ethnic minorities (General Issues)


Publication year: 2013

Due to historical and geographical conditions, Vietnam was the crossroads of migrations, the meeting and great place for tribes, ethnics from various languages and cultures to gather.

Vietnam is a multi – national country. According to the population investigation in 2009, Vietnam had the population of 85,846,997 with 54 ethnic groups. Kinh people is the majority with population of 73,594,427 which accounted for 85,6% of whole nation’s population.

Together with the character of diversified ethnic groups, Vietnam is also a country with multi – languages when 54 groups speaking various languages. The question is, however, how many languages are spoken by Vietnam’s 54 ethnic groups and what is the linkage between groups and language. These two questions are two different issues which mean that Vietnam could only gather information about the number of ethnic groups and population of each group in whole country through population investigation at all levels such as communes, provinces, cities and regions.  The language, however, we could have not identified the origins of some languages yet, for example, are they independent ones or only the distortion language from a local language. Hence, there is not the correct figure of how many languages are spoken in Vietnam.

In the fourth quarter of 2013, Vietnam Encyclopedia Publishing House has published a book entitled “Language and writing characters of Vietnam’s ethnic minorities (General Issues)” edited by Dr. Nguyen Huu Hoang of Vietnam Encyclopedia Publishing House. The book is a part of the research work at Ministry level on “Languages of ethnic minorities in Vietnam – The 1st period: 2011 – 2012” of the author. The book aims to systemize, summarize and basically introduce the basic knowledge about all languages of ethnic minorities in Vietnam, so that readers could explore the beauty as well as diversification of these languages.

Apart from the Introduction, the book has 7 chapters as followed: Chapter 1: Ethnic groups and languages of ethnic minorities in Vietnam; Chapter 2: Linguistic situation of ethnic minorities in Vietnam; Chapter 3: The picture of languages in Vietnam in South East Asia ; Chapter 4: The original relationship of ethnic minorities’ language in Vietnam; Chapter 5: The characteristic of linguistic typology of ethnic minorities in Vietnam; Chapter 6: The writings of ethnic minorities in Vietnam; Chapter 7: The language policy of Vietnamese’s Communist Party and Government towards ethnic minorities’ languages and writings.

Chapter 1 focused on discussing issues related to the concepts of ethnics, ethnic minorities, languages of ethnic minorities and the similarities of their languages. The concept of “ethnic” is confirmed as similar as the definition of “people”. It is the human community built in history due to their mutual characters of language, culture as well as the idea of the unity and differentiation with other communities. Apart from language, there are various criteria to show the similar values as well as how to differentiate with others such as traditional art, customs and ethic values through generations which has created the cultural characteristics. Language and culture are the main criteria to unite and differentiate people groups, and, language is the internal factor to connect member of a people group. Hence, the criteria to recognize a people group includes the unity of langue, idea of that people group and the group name. So when talking about Vietnamese people group, it could be understood as a stable people community which has been developed through years in a country, working in an economy, having same cultural values, speaking a language and led by a Government. But when talking about one of 54 ethnic groups of Vietnam it means we are mentioning to a community which has same group name, speaks same language, and is connected by cultural values to build up the character of a people group. Then if discussing about the language of ethnic minorities in Vietnam, it is the talks about languages of 53 ethnic groups, excluding Kinh people, who are living inside Vietnam and are parts of Vietnamese community people.  

Chapter 2 discussed about the picture of linguistic situation in Vietnam. According to authors, there are a large number of languages to join in linguistic circumstances due to the differences of number of people using these languages. There is, for example, languages spoken by millions of people while some other languages are used by few hundreds of people; languages have also been used together for a long time of history so the multi – languages and bilingual are quite popular; The population ability and different growth opportunities led to the different roles, functionalities of languages. Some languages are not only used for family communication but also for communicating with other ethnic groups in a same region. And there is language even used by all groups and appeared in education, laws and diplomatic purpose. Therefore, languages, which have outstanding role in Vietnam, are basically native ones; Vietnamese is now widely used by ethnic communities and learning Vietnamese has become a demand of all ethnic groups. The ethnic minorities always have the idea of maintain, conserve and promote the role of their own language. But it is essential to see the fact of some languages of groups which have small population are in danger of losing its functionality or no longer in use,

Chapter 3 is analysis of authors related to the language of Vietnam in the South East Asian situation. For authors, the socio – economic changes have led to the migrations and the contact of languages has been always happened in last decades. The progress of dividing language and culture led to the progress of gathering languages as well. Division and gathering have created new languages, as a result, the picture of South East Asian languages has been highly diversified after thousands years of changes. As a part of South East Asia, belonging to a centre where was the place to form the agricultural civilization, locating between mainland and islands, between Chinese civilization at the north and Indian civilization at the south, Vietnam’s languages and people have been strongly influenced by all economic, cultural and linguistic changes in the region. The diversified picture of Vietnam’s language is a part of the whole linguistic picture of South East Asian as well as a small picture described whole region

.Chapter 4 focused on discussing the original relationship of Vietnamese ethnic minorities’ language. Based on the theoretical foundation and language classification method via original relationship and the identification of the linguistic system in Vietnam, including Austro-Asiatic language, Tai – Kadai language, Austronesia language, Miao – Yao language, and Sino – Tibetan language,  authors have concluded the original relationship (also known as relative relationship) of language is the relationship of language source and history. Two languages are considered to having the original relationship if they are in one of the two following cases: (a) Both languages have the original source from a third language and they are the evolution of the later period. Vietnamese and modern Miao, for example, are the evolution of the Proto Viet – Miao in the later period; (b) One of two languages is the evolution of the other language. The modern Chinese, for example, is the evolution of the ancient Chinese. Based on the original relationship, languages are divided into linguistic systems with smaller groups and detailed branches which contain many layers inside including local languages. By learning linguistic systems, readers could access to information related to the history of definitions as linguistic system, the classification of languages’ origin, languages of linguistic systems, and basic characteristics of each linguistic systems so on.

Chapter 5 contains information of the geometry of ethnic minorities’ languages in Vietnam. By analysis and evaluation, authors proved that all languages of Vietnamese ethnic, including minorities and Vietnamese, are classified as a single language. Among these languages, the character of shapelessness is the most important and has influence on all other characteristics. It, however, is a mutual feature so it does not have value of classification. Therefore, it is necessary to base on another character which could be able to point out the opposite status such as single syllabic and polysyllabic word in order to classify languages in Vietnam. According to these two statuses, there are two groups which are isolated syllable and non – isolated syllable. There is geographical distribution In accordance with the above differentiation: In Vietnam, languages which are considered as “ancient ones” mostly used in South and Eastern South while languages, which are modern, basically used in North and Western North of Vietnam, and the “new languages” are used in Northern pole and Western North pole.

Chapter 6 contains information related to writings of ethnic minorities. They are the situation of using writings of ethnics; writing types; some issues of writing characters of ethnic minorities.  The writing types are rather diversified in regard of origins, the formation, self – formation and divided into two groups: (1). The traditional writing system; (2). The new writing systems.  In order to ensure the characteristic of these linguistic systems in new circumstance, writings and languages of ethnic minorities should correctly and fully reflect their features so that the local people could quickly and easily learn and master how to write and read their languages. Besides, languages of ethnic minorities should be familiar with the national language then keep the advantages, remove the disadvantages of the national writing. It is necessary to have an agreement of how to write syllables in regard of the characteristics of all languages and allow removing the unnecessary signals.

Chapter 7 is for Party’s and Government’s policies to languages and writings of ethnic minorities only. This chapter has provided solutions and recommendations related to theories, practices and organizations through researches on policies and the implementation of these policies in recent time. Authors provided some specific solutions to these issues as followed: (1). To bring language and writings of ethnic minorities in public information, particularly in education; (2). To identify languages and writings of which ethnic minorities should be in the priority list of being used for public information as well as education at schools; (3). To do research and complete some existing sets of writing characters which are linked with the national languages as well as suitable with the current information technology; (4). To develop more programs, studies and teaching methods of languages and writing for ethnic and those who want to study ethnic minorities’ languages; To have a proper plan and regulations for editing and publishing textbooks as well as reference books in ethnics’ languages or bilingual. Also, it is important to increase the frequency of using languages and writings of ethnics in public media; (5). To collect, research and encode some traditional writing characters then conserving and using them.

This book is expected to be an useful reference for readers. 

Pham Vinh Ha

Author :
  • Dr, Nguyen Huu Hoanh (Chief Editor)