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Similarities between Japanese, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Korean

09.11.08 | admin | In Cantonese, Korean, Mandarin, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese

A Japanese-speaker learning Vietnamese or a Vietnamese-speaker learning Japanese will both notice that a lot of words in the other language seem to correspond with words in their native language. And both the Japanese-speaker and Vietnamese-speaker ought to know that the corresponding words (cognates) are part of the Chinese-derived vocabulary that make up about half or more of both languages’ vocabularies. This is much like English where around half of our words come from French or Latin, especially words for the sciences and legal terms. The Korean language also falls in the group of languages with heavy Chinese influence.

And when you compare the Mandarin language spoken today with the Chinese-derived words in either Japanese or Vietnamese you’ll find that the words in those two more closely resemble each other than their modern counterparts in Mandarin. This is because the Middle Chinese language spoken at the time the Japanese and Vietnamese were importing technology, culture, and vocabulary from the Chinese has changed a lot since becoming the Mandarin dialect spoken today in Beijing and taught all over China. The Middle Chinese language spoken back then in some cases more closely resembles Shanghainese or the Min dialect.

So when you look at a Việt-Hán dictionary and look at the Chinese-derived words at first they may seem dissimilar but then you will notice a pattern that corresponds to the difference between how the Vietnamese imported the original pronunciation of the Chinese and how that Chinese pronunciation changed into modern Mandarin. For example, Mandarin has less syllable endings than other Chinese dialects. In Vietnamese, all syllables end with either a voiceless stop (/k/, /p/, /t/) or a nasal (/n/, /m/, “ng”). Standard Korean has the same set of final consonants plus the flap “r”. Compare this to English where syllables can end in any consonant, not to mention consonant clusters. Mandarin Chinese only allows the two nasals /n/ and “ng” (we’ll forget about “er” for now). This is much reduced from Middle Chinese and it’s worth noting that Cantonese today as well as the Hakka dialect retains exactly the same endings as Vietnamese. In Japanese all syllables are open by the way they define syllables but for this discussion we can say that some syllables end in a nasal, which is always written using the N character but can be any nasal (/n/, /m/, “ng”) depending on the following syllable (likewise, you’ll notice in English that words with the prefix in- only occur when not followed by “b” or “p” in which case it is im- and the same principle applies in Japanese). Moreover, Japanese can actually have a stop when used between two other syllables if one syllable ends and the other begins with the same value. This puts the number of endings on par with Vietnamese and some Chinese dialects.

However, the words (morphemes) that were being imported from Middle Chinese were made up of single syllables. This fitted fine with Vietnamese but Japanese was more limited in the way the stops could be used to end syllables. So Chinese words that ended in a nasal became words in Japanese ending with “N” but those ending in a stop became two syllables in Japanese. And then in Mandarin those stops were dropped altogether. One example is “kingdom” as in the Middle Kingdom, the name all four countries use for China. In Vietnamese the word is “quốc” and in Japanese it is “koku” while in Mandarin it is “guo”, where the “g” is pronounced as an unaspirated /k/. They all begin the same but only Japanese and Vietnamese retain the “k” stop ending.

Sound correspondences

When looking for Chinese-derived words in Vietnamese and Japanese some conversion is necessary. In Mandarin words no longer begin with a nasal “ng” and so Vietnamese words which begin with this will have no initial consonant in Mandarin. In Japanese these words may begin with /g/. An example is “ngoại” which means outside (alternatively “ngoài”), “wài” in Mandarin, and “gai” in Japanese. Vietnamese words that start with the letter “d” will start with “y” in Mandarin reflecting the southern Vietnamese pronunciation of today’s “d” which differs from words beginning with “gi” in Vietnamese which may more closely respond with Northern Vietnamese pronunciation which today is /z/. Vietnamese words which begin with “nh” are transcribed in Pinyan, the system for writing Mandarin in Roman characters, as the letter “r”, which is very different from the English “r”. In Japanese these words begin with “n”. An example is the word for Japan which in Japanese is “nippon”, “nhật bản” in Vietnamese, and “ri ben” in Mandarin. Japanese, at the time of first contact with Chinese, didn’t yet have the “h” sound, rather it was a”p” and b, p, and h are rather like different forms of the same sound in Japanese. So the word for 100 is “bách” in Vietnamese, “băi” in Mandarin, and “hyaku” in Japanese. And the word for white is “bạch” in Vietnamese, “bái” in Mandarin, and “haku” in Japanese. Mandarin and Japanese don’t have the “kh” sound so “khách”, customer in Vietnamese, is “kè” (”k” is aspirated) in Mandarin, and “kyaku” in Japanese. A word similar to “feeling” is “khí” in Vietnamese, “qì” in Mandarin, and “ki” in Japanese.

So we see that sometimes “kh” corresponds to “q” and sometimes to “k”, and it seems to depend on the following vowel. For example, “khi” and “khu” often correspond to “qi” and “qu”. In Mandarin many initial consonants have changed depending on the following vowel sound. In English any consonant can be followed by any vowel. The languages like Japanese on the other hand have certain consonants that don’t precede certain vowels and instead are replaced by similar sounds which are considered basically equivalent in Japanese. For example “ch” precedes “i” and “ts” precedes “u” but is otherwise a “t”. Many Mandarin words that begin with the same letter in Vietnamese start with many different letters in Mandarin. So words beginning with “s” could be “sh”, “ch”, “zh”, and “t” corresponds with a number of letters including “z” like in the word for “word”, “tự”, “zì” in Mandarin and “ji” in Japanese. But “t” never corresponds with “t” in Mandarin, the aspirated /t/. However, “th”, the aspirated /t/ in Vietnamese can sometimes correspond with “sh” in Mandarin.

As mentioned earlier many endings that were dropped in Mandarin are retained in Vietnamese. But Vietnamese words that end in “nh” will end in “ng” in Mandarin, agreeing with the Northern Vietnamese pronunciation.

The “v” sound in Vietnamese is “w” or “y” in Mandarin. Neither Mandarin nor Japanese have the sound.

Other similarities

Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, and Korean are quite different languages, each belonging in a separate language family, with the latter two consisting as isolates. Linguists believe that Japanese and Korean are not related to any other languages in the world although many believe they may be related to each other. The reason they are all so similar in vocabulary is due to Chinese influence after each of these languages became a language. But besides vocabulary there are some other commonalities.

For one, all these languages use a system of classifiers which is relatively uncommon throughout the world’s languages. These classifiers must be used when referring to a number of things and objects are classified into classes such as people, books, flat things, round things, rolled up things, animals, and so on.

Another is that Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese don’t use pure pronouns although Mandarin today does. This means that there is no universal word for “you” or “I” and instead the word that is used depends on the relationship between the speaker and listener. In Vietnamese, pronouns are kinship terms and in Japanese they are part of its honorific system. The pronoun used can depend on if the listener is older or younger, male or female, or in a higher or lower position and the word to refer to yourself in one context can be a second person pronoun in another context. And in Japanese and Vietnamese a person’s name can be used in the first or second person. In English it would always be in the third person. Japanese and Vietnamese also have different words for brother and sister depending on if they are younger or older.

The English language has the words “green” and “blue” to distinguish between those two colors. However, our four languages each use a single word which can mean either green or blue, “ao” in Japanese, “xanh” in Vietnamese, “qīng” in Mandarin, and “pureu-da” in Korean. The people in these cultures originally did not distinguish blue and green as different colors but rather variants of the same color. However, many other non-Asian languages also have a single word for green and blue and sometimes even black and blue.

And also, as mentioned above, these languages are similar in regards to consonant clusters. English you will find up to three consonants in a row, e.g. “str” in “string”. But in our Asian languages no clustering of consonants is allowed, meaning each consonant must exist by itself.

Learning a new language is always easier when you know a similar language. So those who speak Vietnamese already should find that it’s easier to pick up Chinese or even Japanese just as an English-speaker will be able to pick up French relatively easily.


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