Sino-Vietnamese vocabulary in a patriotic slogan

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Poster in Saigon:

Nationalist message with Communist flag--Saigon

Communist flag with a nationalist message, "FIRMLY PROTECT THE OWNERSHIP OF VIETNAMESE SEA AND ISLANDS."

This is outside a community education center. Among the classes and lectures advertised on the banner is a talk on "GENDER EDUCATION."

Eric Henry points out that, of the ten words in the slogan, seven are simply Chinese words with Vietnamese pronunciations:

Bảo vệ vững chắc chủ quyền biển dảo Việt Nam.

bảo = 保 ("ensure; insure guarantee"); vệ= 衛 ("guard; defend; protect"); chủ = 主 ("owner; lord; host"); quyền = 權 ("right; authority; power"); dảo = 島 ("island"); việt = 越 (name of an ancient state and its people); and nam = 南 ("south").

Of the three words that don’t appear to be Chinese, “vững” means “stable, secure”; “chắc” means “for sure,” and “biển” means “sea, ocean.”

The proportion of Chinese to Vietnamese words (70%) is typical of a Vietnamese sentence or paragraph.

I would add that, of the seven Sino-Vietnamese morphemes in the slogan, despite the fact that they are written separately in Vietnamese, in Sinitic six of them would form three disyllabic words:

bǎowèi 保衛 ("defend; protect; safeguard")

zhǔquán 主權 ("sovereignty; sovereign rights; dominion")

Yuènán 越南 ("Vietnam")

Moreover, the average length of a word in Mandarin is almost exactly two syllables.  I suspect that the average length of a word in Vietnamese would be roughly the same, though perhaps slightly less.  Apparently, however, Vietnamese speakers / writers don't think their language has words, only syllables, but I'd be happy to be enlightened further on this matter.

The figures would be roughly similar for Korean (around 60% Sino-Korean vocabulary in South Korea, with English words rapidly gaining in colloquial usage [source]) and Japanese (around 60% Sino-Japanese vocabulary in a modern Japanese dictionary, but only about 18% of words used in speech [source]).

There are other interesting aspects to the poster as a whole.  Eric writes:

I am rather astonished to see the slogan “Bảo vệ vững chắc chủ quyền biển đảo Việt Nam (Firmly protect the ownership of Vietnamese sea islands) on a placard publicly displayed in Vietnam. The current regime in Vietnam behaves in general like China’s obedient little puppy and treats its own citizens with contempt. The regime has chosen not to protest China’s take-over of the South China Sea; therefore it doesn’t want any other entity within the country, individual or collective, to protest either — to make such a protest is to show “disloyalty to the party.”

As Nguyễn Hưng Quốc (a Vietnamese-Australian literary scholar) puts it:

Chính Quyền Việt Nam hiện nay không tin vào chủ nghĩa xã hội, không tin vào chủ nghĩa tư bản, và cũng không tin vào lý thuyết kinh tế thị trường theo định hướng xã hội chủ nghĩa: họ chỉ tin vào tiền, nhất là tiền trong túi họ. Họ không bảo vệ giai cấp vô sản, không bảo vệ đất nước, không bảo vệ độc lập, không bảo vệ tự do: Họ chỉ bảo vệ chính quyền. Họ không chống Mỹ, không chống Trung Quốc, không chống lại nước nào cả. Họ chỉ chống lại nhân dân.


Those who administer the government of Vietnam these days don’t believe in any ideology. They don’t believe in socialism, don’t believe in capitalism, and don’t believe in a market economy with socialist characteristics. They believe only in money, especially money in their own pockets. They don’t safeguard the proletariat, they don’t safeguard the country, they don’t safeguard independence, they don’t safeguard freedom; they safeguard only the government. They don’t resist the United States, they don’t resist China. They resist only one thing: the people.

Here’s another trenchant observation by Nguyễn Hưng Quốc:

Khi chính phủ hèn, họ muốn cả nước hèn. (translation: When the government is cowardly, they want the whole country to be cowardly.)

The bit about a “gender education” course on the placard is also astonishing and praiseworthy. Overall my assessment is that these two elements — islands and gender education — are coming “from below,” not “from above.”

Steve O'Harrow adds:

This is indeed an interesting look into the underlying dynamics of today's Viet Nam.  The venue is the South, the wall painting is amateur, all of which points to a rising nationalist sentiment on the part of civil society rather than any official position.  But that it has been allowed to occur and is still up and running also tells us something about the localauthorities and the possibility that what some see as monolithic Communist Party control is not the whole story.

Steve further remarks:

The amazing part is that the motorcyclist actually stopped on the road to make his call — in Hawaii, our moped students keep on going (wearing flip-flops & no helmet) while phoning (and sometimes smoking) — so do skateboarders, but they have no brakes.

Here's another colorful expression of Vietnamese patriotism, a coloring book featuring Vietnam's claim to the Paracel and Spratly Islands:

Contested islands coloring book--Saigon

"Sea Islands My Nation".

As a colleague of mine trenchantly put it:  "They have been fighting the bastards for 2000 years."

Selected readings


  1. James said,

    November 12, 2018 @ 11:21 pm

    "Simply Chinese words with Vietnamese pronunciations"?

    Many Vietnamese words, such as 'Bảo vệ' or 'chủ quyền', etc. can be traced back to old Han. They are not "simply Chinese words with Vietnamese pronunciations". Similar words exist in Mandarin, Korean, Cantonese and Japanese can also be traced to old Han.

    English equivalents like "protect' or "sovereignty" can be traced to old Latin. They are not simply Italian words with English pronunciations. Similar words in French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese can be traced to old Latin.

  2. AntC said,

    November 13, 2018 @ 5:55 am

    of the ten words in the slogan, seven are simply Chinese words — including the name of the Country itself. Really? Isn't at least 'Viet' a pre-Han name? You would take away their own ethnonym?

    In the same way, "English" is a Germanic word with an, um, English pronounciation. "America" is an Italian word/name with an American(?) pronounciation. "New York", or at least "York" is a Latin name (Eboracum) corrupted through Viking/Norse (Jor+vik), …

    As James points out: is saying that seven tenths of the words 'are' Chinese any different to saying that (insert large percentage) of English words 'are' Latin/Romance?

    "The northern part of Vietnam was part of Imperial China for over a millennium" says wikipedia. Then it's no surprise. Imperial China doubtless imposed its cultural and military hegemony just as it's doing today in Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, the North Borneo Sea, etc, etc. Are we going to find you exhibiting signs from Lhasa or Urumqi laden with Chinese words?

    And I think we might find (following Professor Mair's researches) that if the Chinese scribal class weren't such arrogant shitheads who so effectively erased history with their writing system, some (insert large percentage) of Chinese words are also from other languages "with Chinese pronounciation".

    Professor Mair: I am disappointed at your attitude. Doesn't every language consist largely of words inherited/borrowed/adapted? You have no right to denigrate some language as 'simply' consisting of some other language's words, as if the much put-upon Viets were incapable of coming up with vocabulary for themselves.

  3. cliff arroyo said,

    November 13, 2018 @ 7:15 am

    ". Apparently, however, Vietnamese speakers / writers don't think their language has words, only syllables"

    As a not tremendously successful learner of Vietnamese I would say that Vietnamese definitely has words, but that trying to build a writing system for Vietnamese around words is not the optimal solution.

    Think of the English "every day" vs "everyday" and multiply it by a few hundred so that every sentence is liable to force the writer to choose..

  4. David Morris said,

    November 13, 2018 @ 7:21 am

    Further to James' comment, I instantly figured Korean 도 (do, island) and 남 (nam, south) as cognate, and the there may be more.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    November 13, 2018 @ 8:08 am

    "I am disappointed at your attitude."

    No denigration intended whatsoever. Only trying to do my duty as a language specialist.

    I have often pointed out that English consists mostly of French words introduced by Norman Vikings after 1066. And much of my research on Sinitic shows how it received tremendous inputs from other languages, all the way from the Bronze Age to the present day.

    Where is there a pure language?

  6. Andrew said,

    November 13, 2018 @ 10:39 am

    I should start to learn Vietnamese :)

  7. Victor Mair said,

    November 13, 2018 @ 3:16 pm

    From Steve O'Harrow:

    With all due respect for Eric, a good friend and fine scholar, I hasten to
    note that, if we use his yardstick for what is a "Vietnamese word" & what
    is a "Chinese word," we get into the proverbial "sticky wicket." First, were
    we to do likewise in English, would we draw the line at, say, "conscience"
    as really "French (nay 'Latin')" and say only "agenbite of inwit" can count
    as truly "English? I think the words he names "Chinese" have truly become as "Vietnamese" as "conscience" has become English. Secondly, if we're sending the lexical police to root out all those "immigrant words", we had better be aware there are Sinitic loans in Vietnamese that are so deep as to prove very hard to detect. I think they predate certain consonant shifts from voiced to voiceless initials. Thus the word "buồn" (to have a feeling, often unpleasant) came in so early that it retains the voiced initial and it was borrowed a second time after the voiceless shift as "phiền" ("annoy, disturb"), originally derived from the Chinese 騙 (piàn "to cheat). Yet I'm willing to bet you'd be hard-pressed to find any Vietnamese speaker (but a professional lexicographer) who wouldn't say "buồn" is "100% genuine Vietnamese" word that has nothing to do with Chinese. My 2 đồng . . .

  8. Victor Mair said,

    November 13, 2018 @ 3:19 pm

    From Eric Henry:

    Hi Steve,

    Your post was of interest to me—you are always knowledgeable and sensitive when dealing with Vietnamese-related topics. I wanted to respond sooner, but was heavily distracted by a Chinese project (also tightly related to words).

    Here are the rough and ready rules I go by when discussing Vietnamese words:

    I call words that are easily recognizable by native speakers as being of Chinese origin “Sino-Vietnamese,” or, somewhat hyperbolically, “Chinese.” These are words that either 1) came into the language in Tang times or 2) words that came into the language in later eras, but still observe the sound conventions that appear in the Tang-era lexicon. As for words of Chinese origin that most native speakers would not recognize as being from Chinese, I call them “Vietnamese words of Chinese origin,” not Sino-Vietnamese.

    An example of this is the pair “khiếu” — “kêu,” to call, summon. The character for khiếu is 叫. “Khiếu” is not used at all in ordinary Vietnamese speech (it may appear in a Sino-Vietnamese compound or two, but no examples come to mind). Vietnamese speakers, in general would have no difficulty in recognizing “khiếu” as a Sino-Vietnamese word. So that’s how I too refer to it. The word “kêu” occurs all the time in Vietnamese speech. Just as much as “khiếu,” it derives from the word 叫, but most speakers are not conscious of this. I therefore refer to “kêu,” not as Sino-Vietnamese, but as "a word of Chinese origin.”

    The whole business of tracing the Chinese origins of various moss-covered loan words, such as “buồn,” is of great interest to me. “Buồn” is a naturalized word if there ever was one. “Phiền” is pretty naturalized too, but at least it's related in a standard way to Chinese “fán” 煩, so I’m willing to cal it “Sino-Vietnamese."

  9. Victor Mair said,

    November 13, 2018 @ 3:22 pm

    From Steve O'Harrow:

    G'Day Eric,

    An interesting and perfectly acceptable disquisition on the subject. I think your general analysis is correct and I may have taken your initial use of 'Chinese' in your post a bit awry. As to whether native speakers of Vietnamese would recognize, say, 'khiếu' as SIno-Vietnamese, & yet defend 'kêu' as truly Vietnamese, I think it would depend on the level of that person's education. Obviously, some professor at VNU would see the distinction right away – would a young fisherman on the Mekong do likewise? I rather doubt it. Just as the Average American would say
    that 'dancing' is 'normal talk' but 'terpsichore' is snobbish 'show off talk,' without any idea of Greek derivation, our man-in-the-street in Qui Nhơn would probably come up with something similar when confronted with such a fine distinction. But for us 'language fans' it's grand fun . . .

  10. Matt Kosko said,

    November 13, 2018 @ 3:45 pm

    If three of the words are Vietnamese without a Chinese origin, is there an entirely Vietnamese way of writing the poster’s slogan?

  11. Scott P. said,

    November 13, 2018 @ 4:50 pm

    If three of the words are Vietnamese without a Chinese origin, is there an entirely Vietnamese way of writing the poster’s slogan?

    If there were, it would probably read much like the short story "Uncleftish Beholding" does in English.

  12. Jenny Chu said,

    November 14, 2018 @ 12:25 am

    1. It is my understanding that a lot of words entered Vietnamese from [some topolect of] Chinese during the first millennium B.C.E. (example: đại học / university) but others entered more recently, often from Mandarin – political vocabulary among others (example: hiện đại hoá / modernization). We can compare this to older English borrowing of words from Latin ("paternal") vs modern adoption of Italian terms (espresso).

    2. Do Vietnamese people think there are "words" in Vietnamese? Certainly literate Vietnamese people think there are – it is reflected in written capitalization. Example: Ngân hàng Nhà nước (State Bank) is not written Ngân Hàng Nhà Nước in mainstream publications like Thời báo Kinh tế Việt Nam (Vietnam Economic Times) (which is itself another example). However, Thời báo Kinh tế Việt Nam is abbreviated TBKTVN and not TKVN.

    Now, are today's educated Vietnamese somehow the victims of their grandparents having the old European-influenced hyphenization system foisted upon them (in the old days it would have been Ngân-hàng Nhà-nước)? Not sure I want to get into that … but whatever the reason, yes, many Vietnamese people think the language has words.

  13. Quyết said,

    November 15, 2018 @ 2:56 pm

    ""Simply Chinese words with Vietnamese pronunciations"?

    Many Vietnamese words, such as 'Bảo vệ' or 'chủ quyền', etc. can be traced back to old Han. They are not "simply Chinese words with Vietnamese pronunciations". Similar words exist in Mandarin, Korean, Cantonese and Japanese can also be traced to old Han."

    Indeed! For example, off the top of my head the name Diệp (葉)…
    Hà Nội [ziəp̚˧˨ʔ]
    Huế [jiəp̚˨˩ʔ]
    Hồ Chí Minh City [jip̚˨˩˨]
    …in my opinion rembles the Middle Chinese [ɕiᴇp̚] more than most other, more modern dialects of Chinese.

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