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The introduction of vietnamese tones final

Tran Hong Lam – 8CHA

Vietnamese, the official language of Vietnam, is spoken natively by approximately
ninety million people in Vietnam as well as by some three million overseas. Characteristically,
Vietnamese is a tonal, analytic, monosyllabic language. Because of this, it has been argued
that the Vietnamese originated from the Sino-Tibetan dialect group and the tones also share
characteristics with the ones of this language group. Later studies came to the conclusion that
the Vietnamese derived from the Austronesian languages. In the course of cultural intercourse
Vietic language borrowed words from Chinese language, leading to the use of tones to express
the loanwords. The tones of the Vietnamese language therefore not only share the mutual
characteristics with the languages groups in the region, but also characterized by its own
distinctive features, which has played an important role in the development of phonological
theory. This essay will reviews the definition, origin, characteristics, distribution rules as well
as the functions of the Vietnamese tones.
The first issue of the essay considered to be examined is the term “Tone”, which is
defined as the use of pitch in language to distinguish lexical or grammatical meaning that is to
distinguish or to inflect words (Yip, 2002). In other word, tone, in linguistics, is a variation in
the pitch of the voice while speaking. The word tone is usually applied to languages (called
tonal languages) in which pitch serves to help distinguish words and grammatical categories
i.e., in which pitch characteristics are used to differentiate one word from another word that is
otherwise identical in its sequence of consonants and vowels. For example, “co” in

Vietnamese may mean either “palm” (cọ) or “grass” (cỏ) depending on its pitch. In these
languages, pitch is a property of words, however actually it is not absolute pitch but relative
pitch. Tonal languages usually make use of a limited number of pitch contrasts (R.L. Trask,
2004). These contrasts are called the tones of the language. The domain of the tones is usually
the syllable. There are two main types of tone languages: register-tone, or level-tone,
languages and contour-tone languages. Register-tone languages use tones that are level; i.e.,
they have relatively steady-state pitches, which differ with regard to being relatively higher or
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Tran Hong Lam – 8CHA

lower. This is characteristic of many tonal languages in West Africa. In contour-tone
languages at least some of the tones must be described in terms of pitch movements, such as
rises and falls or more complex movements such as rise–falls. This is characteristic of many
tone languages of Southeast Asia (Yip, 2002).
The second matter of the essay is that Vietnamese tones were originated through the
periods of monosyllablization and language interference during the first six centuries of the
Christian era. Originally, Vietnamese was a toneless language (A. Haudricourt, 1954); in its
word, there were affixations, initial consonant clusters, ending consonants articulated at
pharynx and glottis or made in the manner of fricative. The development of Vietnamese tonal
system was caused by the syllabic simplification at the beginning of Christian era. To become
monosyllabic language, the sounds like [-h], [-s], and [-Ɂ] disappeared, and three tonal types
were made as a compensation for this. Firstly, the disappearance of [-Ɂ] ending consonant
produced the tonal type of “sắc” and “nặng”. Secondly, the [-h] ending sound faded into the
tonal type of “ngã” and “hỏi”. Lastly, open phonemes has become the tonal type of “ngang”
and “huyền”. (Nguyễn Văn Phúc, 2006). At the end of the time that the ethnic of Kinh and
Muong sharing the common in language and the beginning of the period that Vietnamese
separated from Muong, due to the influence of Chinese domination (the Tang Dynasty), the
early Vietnamese sounds changed. At this time, most of the initial consonants in Vietnamese
are voiceless, while the ones in Sino language are mainly voiced. Many Chinese words, then
were loaned to Vietnamese, must become voiceless. In order to preserve their features in term
of pitch, the initial voiceless consonants in Chinese words, transferred into Vietnamese ones,
were in high pitch (ngang, sắc, hỏi), while the initial voiced consonants in Chinese, turned to
initial consonants in Vietnamese words must belong to the group of low tones (huyền, ngã
nặng). Accordingly, from the three tonal types, 6 tones were derived (Nguyen Ngoc San,
2003; Nguyễn Tài Cẩn, 1995). Thus, the Vietnamese language originally was not a tonal
language, but in the development of Vietnamese, 6 tones were created that include tone
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“ngang” or tone 1, tone “huyền” or tone 2, tone “ngã” or tone 3, tone “hỏi” or tone 4, tone
“sắc” or tone 5, and tone “nặng” or tone 6.
Thirdly, Vietnamese tones are characterized by four major criteria that consist of tune
(âm điệu), vocal range or register (âm vực), strength (cường độ), and length (trường độ).
Firstly, Tune is characterized by the variance of fundamental acoustic frequency in the process
of pronouncing a syllable. This variance is called the tune line. Based on this feature,
Vietnamese tones can be divided into 2 major groups: leveling (bằng), and non-leveling (trắc).
Tones having flat tune or low falling are put into leveling group that consists of tone 1 and
tone 2, while tones like [3, 4, 5, and 6] are non-leveling tones. Their graphs are complicated
and vary in a wide range. Generally, tone 5 is described as high (or mid) rising, tone 6 is
constricted falling, while there is a variance in the tune of tone 3 and 4. Thus tone 5 and 6 are
linear, whereas tone 3 and tone 4 are not (Đoàn Thiện Thuật, 1977). Secondly, Vocal range
can be understood as the average height or pitch of tone in pronouncing syllables. Vietnamese
tones can belong to either high vocal range (bổng/cao), or the low one (trầm, thấp). The tones
[1 - 3 - 5] are in the group of high vocal range; while the tones [2-4-6] belong to low vocal
range (Nguyễn Đình Hòa, 1997). Within the same vocal range, there is the difference in pitch
between tones. That means, taking the high vocal range into an account, tone 1 differentiates
from tone 3 and tone 5 in term of pitch property; tone 1 is leveling while tone3 and tone 5 are
varied. Similarly, in low vocal range of tone [2 - 4 - 6], tone 2 differentiates from tone 4 and
tone 6 in the same criteria. In other words, tones in the same vocal range differentiate from
each other in tune. Thirdly, Strength is a secondary characteristic. On the experimental data,
Hoàng Cao Cương (1986) considered that there is a decrease in strength of tones 3, 4, 5, 6, but
the strength of tones 1, and 2 are the same when pronouncing. Other researcher of linguistics
(Mai Ngọc Chừ, Vũ Đức Nghiệu, Hoàng Trọng Phiến, 1999) noted that the strength of tones 1
and 2 remains weak and flat, while Thompson (1967) divided tonal criteria according to the
tenseness (căng) and laxness (chùng). Tenseness and laxness are correlative to high and low
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strength respectively. Lax tones are tones 1 and 2, and tense tones are the remains. Lastly,
length of tones is also an auxiliary criterion, and a quantitative one. There are two duration
types of Vietnamese tonal length: the long duration in open syllable (ending without /p, t, k,
ch/) and the short one in closed syllable (ending with /p, t. k, ch/). The tone 5 and tone 6 are
able to appear in short duration of the tonal length that syllables end with voiceless, plosive
consonants. The tones [1, 2, 3, and 4] need the long shape of the tonal length in order to
express completely their tune.
Fourthly, the distribution rules of Vietnamese tones are revealed in monosyllables,
reduplicative words, and poetry. Firstly in monosyllables, the tones are expressed
simultaneously with other phonemes in the syllable. Their expressions are therefore affected
syllable phonemes. The distribution of the tones must be considered in relation with the
syllable components. Tone 1 and tone 2 are flat tones. This feature requires a certain degree of
the tonal length in order to expose their characteristic. Thus these tones never appear in the
syllables ending with voiceless consonant. While tone 5 and tone 6 are not flat but their pitch
only changes in one way, either raising (tone 5) or falling (tone 6), and they are not as
complicated as tone 3 and tone 4 in term of pitch. That means one-way feature in changing
pitch of tone 5 and tone 6 make them be able to appear in syllable ending with voiceless,
plosive consonants like /p, t, k, ch/. Secondly, the distribution of the double reduplicative
words obeys the rules that the first syllable must be in the same vocal range with the second
syllable. There are two vocal ranges for these tones. The high vocal range is for the tones 1, 4,
5, and the low one is for the tones 2, 3, and 6. That means: if the first syllable have tone 1
inside, the second syllable can only be characterized by tones 1, or 4, or 5. Similarly, if one
syllable has tone 2, the other only have tone 2, 3 or 6. This is in accordance with the syllable
division by the pitch of the sound (phù-high, trầm-low) in rules traditional poetry. Last but not
least, the distribution rule in poetry depends on tune rule and rhyme rule. In the traditional
poetry, tones are distributed following the tune rules in which the tonic of the previous line of
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Tran Hong Lam – 8CHA

a poem and the tonic of the following line of the poem, which are rhymed together, must be in
the same tune. Additionally, if in a line of a poem having two syllables, which are rhymed,
one syllable is rhymed with the tonic of the previous line, the other have to be in accordance
with the tonic of the following line. The two syllables are not necessary in the same tune.
However, they are must be in different vocal range if they in are same tune. The poem with
the title “Thương vợ” by Tế Xương, which is a kind of “Tang” poetry (thơ Đường luật), can
be taken as an example. In this poem, the syllables 2, 4, 6, and 7 of each line have to follow
the tune rule, while the ending syllables of line 1, 2, 4, 6 and 8 are rhymed. The tune rule for
this poem is leveling rule (luật bằng) because the tonic syllable, which are the ending
syllables of line 1, 2, 4, 6, and 8, are leveling, in other word they use either tone 1 or tone 2.
Quanh năm buôn bán ở mom sông
Nuôi đủ năm con với một chồng
Lặn lội thân cò khi quãng vắng
Eo sèo mặt nước buổi đò đông.
Một duyên hai nợ âu đành phận
Năm nắng mười mưa dám quản công.
Cha mẹ thói đời ăn ở bạc!
Có chồng hờ hững cũng như không!
Another example of using the tune rule and rhyme rule in Vietnamese poetry is the extract of
“Truyện Kiều” by Nguyễn Du, which was written in the sin-eight-word distich metre ( thể thơ
lục bát).
Trăm năm trong cõi người ta,
Chữ tài chữ mệnh khéo là ghét nhau.
Trải qua một cuộc bể dâu,
Những điều trông thấy mà đau đớn lòng.
Lạ gì bỉ sắc tư phong,
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Tran Hong Lam – 8CHA

Trời xanh quen thói má hồng đánh ghen.
Cảo thơm lần giở trước đèn,
Phong tình có lục còn truyền sử xanh.
Rằng năm Gia Tĩnh triều Minh,
Bốn phương phẳng lặng, hai kinh vững vàng.
The sin-eight-word distich metre is a Vietnamese kind of poetry, in which the tones of 2 nd
word, 6th word, (and 8th word of the eight-word line) are leveling, while the 4 th word is nonleveling. This kind is rhymed in the way that the 6 th word of a six-word line is rhymed with
the 6th word of the following eight-word line, and the 8th word of this line is rhymed with the
ending word of the following line. Additionally, they belong to leveling tune. Although the 6 th
word and the 8th word of an eight-word line are leveling, they are deferent in term of vocal
range. However, the composition of modern poems is no longer strictly regulated as the
composition of traditional poems was, but it still based on the similarity of tune when
syllables are rhymed in lines of poems.
Lastly, Vietnamese tones have two main functions including the distinguishing
function and expressive function. In terms of the former one, there have been many studies of
linguistic types, and the linguistic divisions in these works are also somewhat different. But in
general, world languages are divided into two basic types, analytic languages and synthetic
languages in morphological typology. Vietnamese language is an analytic language with full
of features of the type of the languages. It is obvious that Vietnamese tones have
the function of meaning differentiation. Everyone knows "CA có quai" (camug) is not "CA có đuôi” (cá-fish), or "CA có cuống" (cà-a kind of fruit
related to tomato), or "CA có đôi" (cạ-couple). Probably because of the
obviousness scholars usually only provide a few pairs of minimalist words
like ca / cá / cà / cạ mentioned above in the research and textbooks of
Vietnamese phonetics. It seems that the distinct function of the tones is so
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Tran Hong Lam – 8CHA

clear that nothing needs to discuss more. But there are two aspects that
need to emphasize. Firstly, if the stress in other languages is only worth to
distinguish the meaning of the polysyllabic words, the Vietnamese tones
even participates in the distinction of the monosyllabic vocabulary in
Vietnamese. As we all know, Vietnamese is an analytic, monosyllabic
language. Vietnamese syllables play important roles in phonology as well
as morphology. This is clearly expressed in the way of speaking and writing
by

single

syllable

of

the

Vietnamese.

Unlike

in

the

European

inflectional/fusional languages (ngôn ngữ biến hình) where the stress is
always attached to the word in order to distinguish the word units in
polysyllabic words, the tones in Vietnamese are always attached to
monosyllabic words. Thanks to these characteristics, the Vietnamese
easily recognize and distinguish the basic differences between the simple
language units such as the example mention above. Secondly, if the word
stress in other languages only contributes to the meaning differentiation at
a few words, the Vietnamese tones are largely involved in the Vietnamese
word units (accounting for 86.51%) (Vo Xuan Hao, 2009). The tone is not
the same as the stress in inflectional languages. In these languages, word
stress can be fixed or free, and its role is limited and blurry in terms of
meaning distinction. We sometimes encounter a few pairs of words, where
the stress actually implements its distinct function. It is not enough if only the
distinguishing meaning function of Vietnamese tones is considered to study. Another function
of Vietnamese tones is expressive one. In many cases it seems that Vietnamese people have
similar feelings between pairs of words such as: “bấp bênh” and “bập bềnh” (unstable),
“đôm đốp” and “đồm độp” (like the sound of falling rain), or “cót két” and “cọt kẹt” . It is
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Tran Hong Lam – 8CHA

difficult to express the feeling that deepens in the senses of native speakers in a straight way.
According to the survey by Vo Xuan Hao (2009) of the tones in the reduplicative words based
on the Vietnamese dictionary of reduplicative words (Từ điển từ láy tiếng Việt) there are 5488
reduplicative words; accounting for 29.14% of these words there are 1598 “homonym”
reduplicative words, in which a syllable is only distinguished by the tone from the other.
According to the statistics presented above, the ability to express the acoustic characteristics
of the high / low pitch and the continuity of producing (fracture / non-fractal) characteristics
in reduplicative words is commented by the author that in the kind of reduplicative words,
tones belong to the high vocal range (1, 3, and 5) often depicts short, weak, steady,
resounding, deafening and continuous sounds. If the bass feature of sound is not well
presented by the tones in high vocal range, this feature is clearly expressed by the tones in low
vocal range (2, 4, and 6). Tones are in low vocal range often describing short, weak, steady,
non-resounding, bass, and continuous sounds. Ability to describe the characteristics of the
sound is also quite clear according to the leveling/ non-leveling criteria. Vietnamese tones not
only have the distinguishing function of word meaning, but also are able to express the feeling
sense of words. The expressive function of Vietnamese tones is mainly expressed in terms of
pitch and continuity in tonal producing. In short, the differences between tones with other
tones in these criteria have caused the ability to express the sense of word.
In summary, in the research, author has based on previous
theoretical as well as experimental studies of Vietnamese linguists on
Vietnamese tones in order to clarify the definition, origin, characteristics,
distribution rules and functions of Vietnamese tones. Vietnamese tones are
supra-fractal syllables, and they play important roles in the phonology
Vietnamese language, a type of monosyllabic language. Vietnamese tones
not only share similar features with the tones of other languages in the
region but also have their own characteristics.
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Tran Hong Lam – 8CHA

References
In Vietnamese
Đoàn Thiện Thuật. (1977), Ngữ âm tiếng Việt, Hà Nội: Nhà Xuất Bản Đại Học và Trung Học
Chuyên Nghiệp,.
Hoàng Cao Cương. (1986), “Điệu tính và phi điệu tính trong thanh điệu tiếng Việt”, Những
vấn đề ngôn ngữ học về các ngôn ngữ phương Đông. tr. 64 - 70.
Mai Ngọc Chừ, Vũ Đức Nghiệu, Hoàng Trọng Phiến. (1999), Cơ sở ngôn ngữ học và tiếng
Việt, Hà Nội, Nhà xuất bản Giáo dục.
Nguyễn Đình Hòa (1997), Vietnamese-Tiếng Việt không son phấn, Philadelphia: John
Benjamins Pub.
Nguyễn Ngọc San. (2003), Tìm hiểu lịch sử qua tiếng Việt, Hồ Chí Minh: NXB Đại học sư phạm
Nguyễn Tài Cẩn (1995), Giáo trình lịch sử ngữ âm tiếng Việt, Hà Nội: Nhà xuất bản Giáo dục
Nguyễn Văn Phúc. (2006), Ngữ âm tiếng Việt thực hành, Hà Nội: NXB ĐHNN
Võ Xuân Hào. (2009), Giáo trình ngữ âm tiếng Việt hiện đại, Quy Nhơn: Trường Đại học Quy
Nhơn,
In English

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Tran Hong Lam – 8CHA

Haudricourt, André-Georges. (1954). “De l’origine des tons en vietnamien.” Journal Asiatique
242: 69–82. English translation by Marc Brunelle: “The origin of tones in Vietnamese”
Thompson, Laurence. (1967), The history of Vietnamese final palatals, Language 43, No1
Trask, Robert. (2004), A Dictionary of Phonetics and Phonology, New York, Routledge.
Yip,Moira. (2002), Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics, Cambridge: CUP.

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