There is a movement called Vietnamese2020 that aims to substantially reform the writing system by the year 2020. The main change would be to group syllables into words. As the advocates of this change point out, most words in Vietnamese are disyllabic (the same is true of Mandarin). The proponents of the reform believe that, among others, it would reap the following benefits:
1. achieve greater compatibility with the needs of information processing systems
2. comport better with the findings of cognitive science
3. put the kibosh on the false notion of monosyllabism, which they say is unnatural and does not exist in real languages
I myself had these additional thoughts:
1. Would the adoption of polysyllabism (i.e., linking of syllables into words) in Vietnamese obviate the need for so many diacritics (i.e., reduce homonymy)? Without knowing the precise details of Vietnamese romanization, the plethora of diacritical marks has always led me to suspect that the script may be fraught with redundancy and overspecification, especially if the basic unit of grammar were taken to be the word rather than the syllable. The fact that many Vietnamese in their casual writing omit the diacriticals and are still able to make themselves understood (see below) underscores this possibility.
2. Would the adoption of polysyllabism make indexing, dictionary compilation, etc. easier and more user-friendly? This has certainly been the case with Romanized Chinese and Japanese (e.g., in dictionaries and encyclopedias arranged according to alphabetical order by words), and I suspect that the same would be true of Korean as well.
I ran these proposals and ideas by a number of Western specialists in Vietnamese language and culture. Their reactions were, to put it mildly, unenthusiastic.
Bill Hannas notes that this sort of proposal has been around for a few decades at least, and that the following line in the proposal does not offer much hope for adoption: "In practice, while awaiting official orthography guidelines, hopefully, from a governmental body such as a national language academy, …"
Eric Henry states:
This is the first time I ever encountered this proposal. The article doesn't make it clear whether this idea has any government backing or not. To me the idea of pretending that Vietnamese compound expressions are unitary words in the same sense that "asparagus" or "daffodil" are words seems silly and artificial. The Vietnamese used to use hyphens to accomplish the same purpose; thus fangfa 方法 ("method") was "phương-pháp," and so on. Then people discovered that they could get along fine without hyphens, and that the absence of hyphens gave the page a pleasantly uncluttered look. Conjoining syllables in the manner proposed seems to me a way of reverting to hyphens [VHM: without the hyphens]. But then it's natural to be attached to whatever one is habituated to—and I happen to be habituated to un-conjoined syllables.
To which I replied, "ex cept in Eng lish".
I don't see how polysyllabism could reduce the need for diacritics. Vietnamese people of course write to each other all the time with no diacritics and can still figure out 98% of the text, but everyone knows and feels that this is just a makeshift. It would perhaps be nice to eliminate the need for the circumflex and the half moon by inventing a few special vowel signs—but I don't see how the tone marks themselves could be represented in spelling (cf., for comparison, luomazi [National Romanization for Mandarin]: han, harn, haan, hann)—that would just be a nuisance, especially since Vietnamese has, not four, but six tones. Vietnamese orthography has already (i.e., centuries ago) made a move in the direction of new vowel symbols with the letters "ư" and "ơ."
Maybe a Vietnamese equivalent of DeFrancis's ABC Chinese dictionary could be created. It might be wonderfully useful for some purposes, as the ABC dictionary is wonderfully useful for some purposes. But I haven't really thought this through.
Another correspondent replied:
This has nothing to do with the government. It looks to me like it's the work of some overseas Vietnamese linguistics grad student or (former grad student) who has now gone slightly crazy because of the "East Sea/South China Sea/Really Far South Mongolian Sea. . ." issue.
The author has several pages. Another one (hocthuat.org) has a long study that argues for the linguistic connections between Vietnamese and Chinese, but it now has the following disclaimer:
STATEMENT OF RENUNCIATION OF THE SINITIC CAMP
Here comes a painful decision. I would like to renounce my long standing belief in what I have elaborated in this electronic publication about Sinitic Vietnamese. That is to say, I no longer believe in what I used to see as vestiges of sinitic linguistic elements in Vietnamese vocabulary stock that are postulated in my research paper. The reason for my taking this course of action is, admittedly, politically motivated because I do not want my work later to serve for unforeseen evil purposes, especially in the face of Chinazi's overt actions trying to impose its hegemonism onto today's Vietnam. My blood is boiling with revulsion and hatred after seeing a series of unrolling events currently taking place in the East Vietnam Sea. Civilized people mostly see that those behaviors could only be committed by warmongers, descendants of those same savages as vividly and accurately described in "The Ugly Chinaman" 醜陋的中國人 by Bo Yang 柏楊. Don't take me wrong, though both matters not related, given the fact that my blood is genetically embedded with Chinese DNA.
For Heaven's sake, please forgive me for all what I have been laboring on hitherto. I would appreciate your understanding and ask that you take this unstate [sic] moment of truthfulness as a statement of my renunciation of the sinitic camp and I shall accept all consequences thereof. My apology to my fellow scholars, too, and yet, if you still need to read my writings for some reason, focus instead on the antithesis of what is discussed herein, that is, "de-sinitize" them by taking the opposite view. You may still quote any material in this paper but remember to annotate your citation with this statement accordingly. You could post your comments and questions on Ziendan TiengViet.
It so happens that another language movement in Vietnam going on right now is called English2020; it aims to make all school leavers proficient in English by that year.
Steve O'Harrow comments:
There is an "English 2020″ project being spearheaded by Professor Nguyen Ngoc Nhung on behalf of the SRVN Ministry of Education & Training that aims to make English language instruction available in a broad range of fields at the secondary and tertiary levels [by 2020]. It is the only domestic national-level language-related initiative I know of at this time in Viet Nam. One might be forgiven for suspecting that the proposers of the Vietnamese2020 movement stole the name "2020″ from the Ministry of Education & Training English initiative.
The article you link here looks rather "iffy," to say the least. In reality, it is probably a scheme put on line by some Viet Kieu ["overseas Vietnamese"] someplace outside of the country itself. In my opinion, after my 50 years of Vietnamese language teaching and research in Viet Nam, Europe and America, there is a zero chance of this spelling movement taking hold. Why? Because the current system works well. It is known and used by nearly 90 million people.
The Vietnamese populace is already one of the most literate in Southeast Asia and it has been literate for a very long time. They are not likely to change what works well.
"If it ain't broke, don't fix it." And believe me, they won't.
What is endlessly interesting to this observer over the years is that for a long time now, the handful of folks who identify themselves as Vietnamese but who live overseas, are of the impression that what they cook up in the cafés of Paris or the campuses of the USA is going to have some magic impact on the millions and millions of Vietnamese who are actually living their day-to-day lives in Viet Nam itself. There are all kinds of looney ex-pats out there and each one has a fantastic plot to do something, reform the language, overthrow the government, invent a perpetual motion machine that serves pho on the side. They're constantly going around appointing each other prime minister of governments in exile or re-claiming the Nguyen Dynasty throne. Mind you, founding a new goofy religion actually works sometimes - as long as you are really in Viet Nam, that is.
But if you are abroad, "fuhged-daboudit," [especially if you live in Brooklyn].
Responding to my technical questions about the possible value of a polysllabic approach to Vietnamese writing, Steve remarked:
Short answer: NO Longer answer: I really do not know enough about the
technology of information processing, etc. to be 100% sure and I do know
that many Vietnamese disagree on which words are polysyllabic & which
are not [Chinese loans are easier to judge, but Mon-Khmer vocabulary is
another question and mixed lexemes are even fuzzier]. The main obstacle
to information processing at this point in time seems to be the fact that we
do not have decent optical character recognition programs, due to a lack
of typographic consistency and the fact that Vietnamese printing in the past
has been all over the map. However, none of the "fixes" will eliminate the
need for the diacritics and there is a lot of misunderstanding among those
folks who do not actually read/speak Vietnamese which marks are diacritical
[only the five tone marks] and which are integral parts of letters [hooks, bars,
and circumflexes]. A Vietnamese native speaker does not see, say, the
letters "o" and "ô" or "e" and "ê" as being "o with / without a circumflex" or "e with / without a circumflex" – rather s/he conceives of them simply as completely distinct
letters, as different as we would think of "e" and "o" in English. The folks
whom this system confuses are mainly foreigners, so who gives a damn?
A 2nd point would be that there is a lot of disagreement on what constitutes
a "word" in Vietnamese. Is "Không quân" [Airforce] one or two words? I
really don't think we are going to come to any substantial agreement in the
foreseeable future and I really don't think it matters a whole helluva lot, at
least not to the Vietnamese reading public
Again, the main point is that the current Vietnamese writing system
works well for Vietnamese people in Viet Nam itself, so any substantial
changes would likely be counter-productive. Just remember the old US
saying: IF IT AIN'T BROKE, DON"T FIX IT! – it is just as true in VN as
it is in the US. Tinkers be damned.
Finally, just before I was about to make this post, I received these brilliant remarks from a Vietnamese specialist who wishes to remain anonymous:
If Vietnamese were written as words, and not as syllables, there would be less need for diacritics (tones and "special"–in the sense that they lack Western alphabet equivalents–letters) because an equivalent amount of information (cues) is provided by the word division.
By adding information up front of one sort, you get by with less information of another sort. Word division in orthography means that society and its individuals have invested resources in an upgraded system that rewards users with greater clarity for less effort. You put the effort in at the beginning–deciding the rules and learning them.
We don't specify every phonological detail in English writing because we don't need them to get to meaning. The reader, if s/he cares about it, can supply those details later, after accessing the word-meaning. Often an unambiguous pronunciation is possible only after the word has been retrieved from one's mental lexicon. It surely does not derive from the successive letter-sounds. By the same logic, written Vietnamese words would be overspecified if they included all the diacritics in use at present.
Because indicating tone in computerized writing is such a bother, Vietnamese usually just leave them out of their informal correspondence, such as emails. The messages can still be understood, albeit with some difficulty. Word division would restore the missing redundancy.
Information technology, and indexing in particular, depend on having "tokenized" units, usually at the word level. Most of the tokenizing work is done already in languages with word division. For CJV (not K), however, a tokenizing function is needed.
It all comes down to the same rule: you can pay the cost once up front (create and learn rules for word division) or in perpetual installments.
It is remarkable that, although Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese have four different writing systems, they all are vexed with the problem of whether or not to join syllables into words. That, I believe, is the result of the latter three still retaining vestigial traces or influences of the Chinese characters. But even character writing could adopt word spacing if enough of its users would agree to follow such a norm.
[A tip of the hat to Jonathan Smith and thanks to Liam Kelley and Michele Thompson]