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Nôm was a script formerly used in Vietnam. It involved the use of Chinese characters to write Vietnamese. The Van Ban bell, engraved in 1076, has the earliest known example of a Nôm inscription. The earliest surviving Nôm literature dates from the 13th century. The best-known work of Vietnamese literature is The Tale of Kieu by Nguyen Du, written in Nôm in the early 19th century. The script was in common use until the 1920s, when it was replaced by the Vietnamese alphabet, a form of the Latin alphabet.

Language issues

Chinese characters are used to write various languages in China and elsewhere, including Mandarin, the most widely spoken language in China, Cantonese, spoken in Hong Kong and southern China, and Classical Chinese, traditionally used for formal writing. The characters were formerly used in Korea and in Vietnam. Japan uses a mix of Chinese characters and native phonetic script. Even characters that retain their original meaning in all languages may be read in various ways. The character 十 is given as shí in Chinese romanization (pinyin), in Japanese romanization (Hepburn), sip in Korean romanization (Revised Romanization), and thập in the Han-Viet system used in Vietnam. In all these languages, the meaning of the character is “ten.”


Modifiers normally come before the noun in Chinese, but follow the noun in vernacular Vietnamese. Chinese texts published in Vietnam often included a line-by-line translation into Nôm. Even when the same characters appear in both languages, the order is different. Many Chinese phrases gained currency as loan words. Later, the word order could be reversed to correspond to normal Vietnamese syntax. The word "Vietnam" is from Chinese Nányuè (南越), meaning “Southern Yue”. In Han-Viet, the same characters are read as Nam Việt. The word order was reversed in modern times. In Chinese, the phrase “Chinese characters” is written 漢字. This is romanized as hànzì in pinyin, kanji in Japanese, hanja in Korean, and Hán tự in Han-Viet. In modern Vietnamese, they are chữ Hán.

Character construction

The majority of the characters used in Nôm are of Chinese origin, selected because they have an appropriate pronunciation or meaning. For example, the character used to write the word "Nôm" (喃) is pronounced nán in Chinese and means “chattering.” The fit between the Chinese character and the Vietnamese word is not always exact. The word "Nôm" does not have any negative connotation in Vietnamese, but rather suggests plain talk, something easy to understand.

Nôm includes thousands of characters not found in Chinese. In contrast, Japan developed only a few hundred native Chinese-style characters, Korea just a handful, none of which were ever commonly used. These characters were created by authors who combined pre-existing elements. One element, called the radical, indicates the character's meaning, or at least a semantic category. The other element, called the remainder, gives pronunciation. For example, the reading ba is indicated by the character 巴. In Chinese, this character indicates the same sound as in Vietnamese, but its meaning is unrelated: "to long for." For the character 𠀧 (⿺巴三), horizontal lines are added to indicate that the meaning is "three." "Father" is also ba, but written as 爸 (⿰父巴). "Turtle" is con ba ba (昆蚆蚆; ⿰虫巴). Most Chinese characters were created by the same method. As the correspondence between sound and meaning is different in Vietnamese than it is Chinese, the same approach could result in two quite different character sets.

When a character is read as Vietnamese, it is romanized according to its Nôm reading. When it is read as Chinese, it can be romanized into Vietnamese as Han-Viet, or into English as pinyin. Codepoints are hexadecimals assigned by Unicode. Characters in extensions B and later are assigned codes with five-digit hex, while codes assigned earlier consist of four digits. The V0, V1, and V2 characters were extracted the from two dictionaries published in the 1970s. Although the V3 and V4 characters are variants found only in manuscripts, they are nonetheless part of the Unicode set. As the V4 characters are in Extension C, they render only if an appropriate font is installed.

Character Radical Remainder Nôm Han-Viet Pinyin English Codepoint V Source Status in China
𤤰 vua bố king U+24930 V0-3D5C None
𠊚 người ngại or ài people U+2029B V0-3032 None
yêu yêu yāo to love U+5996 V1-5165 GB 2312
Việt việt yuè Vietnamese U+8D8A V1-6846 GB 2312
𠶡 trối lối lĕi sky U+20DA1 V2-704A None
chỉn or xỉn chẩn zhěn Used in bủn xỉn (stingy) U+3431 V2-8875 HDZ, Kangxi
𧹼 đỏ đô red U+27E7C V3-3836 None
Key: GB 2312-80 is the basic character set for modern Chinese. Kangxi and HDZ (Hanyu Da Zidian) are comprehensive Chinese dictionaries.

Sources: The Unicode Consortium (1991-2013), The Unicode Consortium (2012). The Nôm readings are from the Vietnamese Nôm Preservation Foundation, Han-Viet is from Hán Việt Từ Điển, and pinyin is from Purple Culture.


Chinese characters were introduced to Vietnam after the Han Empire conquered the country in 111 BC. Independence was achieved in 939, but the Chinese writing system was adopted for official purposes in 1010. The Van Ban bell, engraved in 1076, is the earliest known example of a Nôm inscription. Nguyen Thuyen, who composed poetry in the 13th century, was traditionally given credit as the creator of Nôm. However, none of his work has survived. The oldest surviving Nôm text is the collected poetry of King Tran Nhan Tong, written in the 13th century. Many Nôm documents were destroyed during the Ming occupation of 1407-1428. Nguyen Trai (1380–1442) wrote both Chinese and Nôm literature in the 15th century. Trinh Thi Ngoc Truc, consort of King Le Than Tong, is credited with a 24,000 character bilingual Chinese-to-Vietnamese dictionary written in the 17th century.

Unlike Chinese, Nôm was not studied or classified systematically for most of its history. Vietnamese authors who had studied Chinese applied the principles of Chinese writing to their native language. Although official records were generally kept in Chinese, Nôm was used under two short-lived dynasties, the Ho dynasty (1400-1407) and the Tay Son (1778–1802). In 1838, Jean-Louis Taberd wrote a Nôm dictionary that eventually gained general acceptance and wide circulation. In 1867, Catholic scholar Nguyen Truong To petitioned King Tu Duc to replace Classical Chinese with Nôm in official usage. The king did not consent to this, but he did respond with various efforts to promote Nôm. A decree was issued entitled "Please respect quốc âm [the national voice]."

In the 19th century, there was a flowering of popular literature written in Nôm, including such classics as Nguyen Du's The Tale of Kieu and the poetry of Ho Xuan Huong. Although only 3 to 5 percent of the population was literate,nearly every village had someone who could read Nôm aloud for the benefit of other villagers.

In Korea and Japan, the traditional writing system was simplified so it could be taught to the general public. These nations created only a few hundred original characters. Vietnam's educated class looked down on Nôm as inferior to Chinese, so it was not interested in doing the work required to simplify and standardize Nôm so it could be used for mass communication.

Like Chinese, Vietnamese is a tonal language. It has nearly 5,000 distinct syllables, far more than other East Asian language do. Phonetic scripts used elsewhere, including hangul in Korea and kana in Japan, do not indicate tone, so they cannot be applied to the Vietnamese language. As in Chinese, a semantic meaning is attributed to every syllable. This characteristic of the language may be can considered a result of the traditional writing system.

Beginning in the late 19th century, the French colonial authorities promoted the use of the Vietnamese alphabet, which they viewed as a stepping stone toward learning French. Language reform in other Asian nations stimulated Vietnamese interest in the subject. Following the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, Japan was often cited as a model for Asian modernization. Nationalists embraced the alphabet as quốc ngữ (the national language), and as a tool for promoting literacy. The Confucian education system was compared unfavorably to the Japanese system of public education. Nationalist writer Phan Boi Chau encouraged the young to "study in the East," meaning Japan.

The popularity of Hanoi's short-lived Tonkin Free School suggested that broad reform was possible. In 1910, the colonial school system adopted a "Franco-Vietnamese curriculum", which emphasized French and alphabetic Vietnamese. The teaching of Sino-Vietnamese characters was discontinued in 1917. On December 28, 1918, King Khai Dinh declared that the traditional writing system no longer had official status. The civil service exam, which emphasized command of Classical Chinese, was given for the last time at the imperial capital of Hue on January 4, 1919. The examination system, and the education system based on it, had been in effect for almost 900 years. China itself abandoned Classical Chinese soon afterward as part of the May Fourth Movement.

In the 1920s, the Vietnamese alphabet became the country’s dominant writing system. By the 1930s, the use of Sino-Vietnamese characters was largely restricted to books with limited woodbock printings intended for the Buddhist clergy. In more recent times, Sino-Vietnamese characters have been used mainly in calligraphy, such as wedding decorations.


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