Is Vietnamese A Tonal Language?

Vietnamese is a language of the Austroasiatic language family spoken by 90 million people. While Vietnamese is mostly spoken in Vietnam, there are important Vietnamese-speaking communities all over the world.

The language is quite an interesting one and it might surprise you that in terms of grammar and vocabulary, Vietnamese is quite simple and easy to learn!

One factor that might speak to the contrary, however, is a feature of Vietnamese pronunciation:

Tones.

Vietnamese is a tonal language. It has a total of 6 tones, which are different pitches that, when applied to syllables, change the meaning of words entirely. The six tones mean that a simple two-letter syllable like “ma” can have completely different and unrelated meanings, depending on the pitch with which they’re pronounced. There are neutral, falling, and rising tone, as well as tones that both fall and rise and others that end in abrupt glottal-stops.

Watch the below clip for an example of how “ma” is pronounced with each of the 6 tones:

What Are The Six Tones In Vietnamese?

The six tones used for pronouncing syllables and words in Vietnamese are written with different diacritic marks that can be added to the different vowels of the alphabet.

The tones are the following:

  • Ngang” which means “level” or “horizontal”, referring to the pitch being neutral and unchanged. This tone is used when no diacritic mark is written, like “ma”.
  • Huyền” which means “deep”. This is a “falling” tone where you go from a middle-pitch to a low pitch, almost as if you’re expressing disappointment. This tone is written with the ” ` ” diacritic, like “mà”.
  • Hỏi” which means “ask” or “question” is a tone that sounds like you’re asking a question. “Your dog ate what?” The diacritic mark also conveniently looks like a little question-mark on top of the vowel, like “mả”.
  • Ngã” which means “tumbling” is a tone that first falls slightly, then rises, then falls slightly again and finally rises again. When you pronounce a syllable with this tone, you have the pitch of voice as if you’re “considering” something. It can easily be confused with “hỏi” “Did I feed my dog caviar?” Ngã is marked with the diacritic “~” as in “mã”.
  • Sắc” which means “sharp” is a quickly rising tone. It’s illustrated with the diacritic ” ´ ” like in the word “má”.
  • Nặng” which means “heavy” is a short, falling tone that stops abruptly, a little like a glottal stop. The tone sounds a little like you’re adding weight to the syllable and that it’s falling to the ground. It’s illustrated with a dot-like diacritic under the vowel, like “mạ”.
A visual illustration of the six tones in Vietnamese (source)

As you might have noticed, Vietnamese tones have names as well as diacritical symbols that reference how they sound. An upwards-going diacritic is used for a rising sound, a curly symbol is used for a sound that goes up and down and the one which is shaped like a question mark sounds like a question. This can be helpful for remembering the different tones in the Vietnamese language.

Another tip for remembering the tones would be to make up associations as to what they sound like.

In my opinion, “huyền”, which is the falling tone, sounds like the speaker is expressing disappointment, for example. If you make up mental images when remembering vocabulary, tieing an emotion like disappointment to specific words will make them much more vivid in your mind and will make them easier to identify and harder to forget.

If you’d like to learn the Vietnamese language, I recommend that you go have a look at my article “How To Learn Vietnamese By Yourself” where I’ve tried collecting some of my best tips for the Vietnamese language.

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