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Chu Nom: Vietnamese Kanji

08.04.11 | admin | In Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese

Before the present day Vietnamese writing system, Quoc Ngu, based on the Latin alphabet with diacritic marks for vowels and tones, there was a writing system based on Chinese characters called Chu Nom.  Chu Nom, like Japanese kanji, used Chinese characters with localized pronunciation and original meaning.  But this was more or less just a way for people to write Chinese.  Whereas the Japanese added a new set of pronunciations to kanji characters which had similar meanings as Japanese words, in Vietnam they invented new characters, which look like Chinese characters, to represent native Vietnamese words.  Japanese people also invented characters to represent phonemes, similar to an alphabet, called hiragana and katakana.  Today, someone who understands Chu Nom or Kanji can to some extent understand, but not read, Chinese.  The pronunciation preserved in the Japanese and Vietnamese languages is useful for researchers studying Old/Classical Chinese, whereas Mandarin has drifted farther from the original language.


Han Nom example
Sino-Vietnamese reading: Vạn cổ anh linh. Vietnamese meaning: Muôn thủa linh thiêng.

But Chu Nom today is nearly a dead writing system.  Why does this matter? In the words of the Vietnamese Nôm Preservation Foundation:

…from the 10th century and into the 20th—much of Vietnamese literature, philosophy, history, law, medicine, religion, and government policy was written in Nôm script. During the 24 years of the Tây-Sơn emperors (1788-1802), all administrative documents were written in Chữ Nôm. In other words, approximately 1,000 years of Vietnamese cultural history is recorded in this unique system.

This heritage is now nearly lost. With the 17th century advent of quốc ngữ — the modern roman-style script—Nôm literacy gradually died out. The French colonial government decreed against its use. Today, less than 100 scholars world-wide can read Nôm. Much of Việt Nam’s vast, written history is, in effect, inaccessible to the 80 million speakers of the language.

If you are interested in learning the Nom script, besides the Nom Preservation Foundation there is the Nom Na Office.  There is also Nom software for writing Nom, which includes the required fonts.

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