Currently, the vast majority of Vietnamese people, both in Vietnam and abroad, are illiterate in reading Chinese and Vietnamese characters. This has led to fairly widespread confusion regarding certain terms such as Hán (漢) and Nôm (喃) when used to describe a written language. Before continuing, it’s necessary to have a proper understanding of the difference between Hán (漢) and Nôm (喃) and their relation to the Vietnamese language.
1. Hán (漢) is used to describe Chinese characters (漢字, Hán tự). The term Hán literature (漢文, Hán văn) is generally used to describe writings in classical Chinese (also called literary Chinese). Classical Chinese, also referred to as wenyan (文言, văn ngôn) by modern sources, is a written language that served as the lingua franca for China, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan until the early 20th century. Two educated persons from any of these countries would have been able to have a conversation in classical Chinese through writing, literally a “brush-conversation” (筆談, bút đàm). The role of classical Chinese in East Asia is often compared to that of Latin in Europe. Prior to the 20th century, most Vietnamese literature was written using classical Chinese.
2. Nôm (喃) is used to describe characters derived from Chinese characters (漢字, Hán tự) used to write the Vietnamese language.The history and development of Nôm (喃) characters is so detailed that only a very brief overview can be given here. Because the Vietnamese language is a combination of words taken from Chinese and native Vietnamese words, literature written in Nôm (喃) also contains a large amount of Chinese characters (漢字, Hán tự).
Confusion and misinformation about these terms has spread because today Vietnamese is universally written using a Romanization system first developed by Roman Catholic missionaries to help Europeans learn Vietnamese. This Romanization system, known as the “National language” (國語, quốc ngữ), is not without great merit, but it also has many short-comings and negative influences on Vietnamese language and culture. Perhaps the greatest evil of this system is that it has led to the alienation of Vietnam from the rest of East Asia. Vietnam is an East Asian country with East Asian culture. It belongs in the same category as China, Korea, and Japan. However, because most Vietnamese people are illiterate in reading Chinese characters, the vast shared cultural treasury of the Sinosphere is alien territory to many.
One clear example of this is how translators deal with the names of Korean, Japanese, and occasionally even Chinese names for people and places into Vietnamese. Since both Korea and Japan use Chinese characters for personal names, etc the most logical method for rendering their names into Vietnamese would be to give the Vietnamese pronunciation of the Chinese characters, i.e., the Sino-Vietnamese (漢越, Hán Việt) pronunciation. Instead, most newspapers and news-stations use the romanized Vietnamese writing system (國語, quốc ngữ) to render unpronounceable transliterations of Korean and Japanese names.
As an example of what should be done instead, here are the names of singers belonging to the popular Girls’ Generation group ( 少女時代, Thiếu nữ thời đại) given with their Sino-Vietnamese (漢越, Hán Việt) pronunciation:
Tae-yeon (太妍, Thái Nghiên) – 金泰耎 Kim Thái Nhuyễn (김태연 Kim Tae Yeon)
Jessica – 鄭秀妍 Trịnh Tú Nghiên (정수연 Jung Soo Yeon)
Sunny – 李順圭 Lý Thuận Khuê (이순규 Yi Sun Gyu)
Tiffany – 黃美英 Hoàng Mỹ Anh (황미영 Hwahng Mi Young)
Hyoyeon (孝淵, Hiếu Uyên) – 金孝淵 Kim Hiếu Uyên (김효연 Kim Hyo Yeon)
Yuri (俞利, Dũ Lợi) – 權俞利 Quyền Dũ Lợi (권유리 Gwon Yu Ri)
Sooyoung (秀英, Tú Anh) – 崔秀英 Thôi Tú Anh (최수영 Choe Soo Young)
Yoona (潤娥, Nhuận Nga) – 林潤娥 Lâm Nhuận Nga (임윤아 Im Yoon A)
Seohyun (徐玄, Từ Huyền) – 徐朱玄 Từ Chu Huyền (서주현 Seo Joo Hyun)
– I have never consciously listened to anything by Girls’ Generation