Girls’ Generation and Hán Nôm – An introduction



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




  1. riroriro said:

    Translating ” quốc ngữ ” by ” national language is a misnomer .
    Let’s talk about chinese guoyu (= quốc ngữ )
    I hope you understand French . According to , guoyu or putong hoa should be considered as a “lingua franca ” or ” vehicular speak ” in contrast with the local vernacular speaks ( ” quôc” should be understood as antinominal with provincial ” ) . China’s guoyu is “mandarin” speak
    I don’t quite know what is Vietnamese ” vehicular speak ” , I surmise , it’s tiếng Bắc ou tiếng Hà nôi


  2. riroriro said:

    The Vietnamese make plenty of other confusions :
    _ they usually mix tiếng ” quốc ngữ ” ( vehicular speak ) and chữ ” quốc ngữ ” ( latin transcription )
    _ they mix Han – viêt words with nôm ones : i.e. , yếu 要 strong , main ; yếu = weak
    _ they mix ” quốc ngữ ” with ” quốc âm ” and nôm litterature
    _ Kiêù is written not in pure nôm as people believe but actually in quôc âm ; it has plenty of Han viêt words and ” stinks ” with ” chinese ” literary references ; many verses are adapted from Tang poetry
    _ they glorify Hô quy Ly and Quang Trung , because both leaders supposedly out of anti chinese patriotic impulse suppressed “Han” words and used nôm writing in their administrations . Actually , the two , due to lack of literati well – versed in văn ngôn , must allow adminstrative matters to be written in quốc âm , a prosaic mixture of Han -Viêt and nôm words . Hô quy Ly even traced his origins to “Chinese ” antiquity and pretended to descend from Nghiêu ( or Ngu ) – Thuân . He even renamed the country Ðại Ngu 虞
    _ in 1989 , when sino- VN war broke out , the VN government sets out to suppress all ” chinese ” words from VN vocabulary , out of ignorance that one third of VN words are Han viêt . One can not write VN without some or many Han viêt words .
    _ the latin letters can transcript not only Hà nôi speak ( quốc ngữ ? ) but also the other VN vernacular speaks ( nam , trung , Huê’ , Quảng ,… ) , it should not be called chữ ” quốc ngữ ” but chữ la- tinh .
    Chinese guoyu contrariwise transcript only mandarin vehicular speak


  3. Hello. Thank you for your comments. You make some interesting points, but I disagree with several.

    First, my translation of 國語 as “national language” was originally written with quotation marks, thus marking it as a literal word by word translation. Later references to it in this post refer to it as the “romanized Vietnamese writing system”. (Yes , I can read a little bit of French). Your criticism is flawed because it assumes that 國語 must carry the same definition that it does in modern Mandarin when it is used in Vietnamese. Chữ Quốc ngữ ( 字國語 ) in modern Vietnamese refers to the romanized Vietnamese writing system. Whether or not that definition is consistent with the historical or modern Mandarin usage of the term 國語 is irrelevant.

    In your second comment, you correctly identify Chữ Quốc ngữ ( 字國語 ) as a transcription of the Vietnamese language using Latin characters. However, your definitions of what constitutes 國語 , 國音 , and 喃 are seemingly arbitrary. 國音 refers to the Vietnamese language, which includes a large amount of Chinese vocabulary. Nguyễn Trãi (阮廌 , 1380-1442) wrote a famous collection of Vietnamese language poetry, the 國音詩集. Many of these poems include a huge amount of Chinese vocabulary. It doesn’t matter if the 國音詩集 or the 斷腸新聲 include of Chinese vocabulary and references to Chinese history and literature. They are still written in Vietnamese, and a Chinese reader would not be able to read either fluently. For example, if I write an essay in English using a densely Latinate vocabulary, I’m still writing English, not Latin.


  4. riroriro said:

    _ about chữ Quốc ngữ and tiếng ” quốc ngữ ” ( vehicular speak ) , I meant no criticism ; it was rather an interrogation : would it be more accurate and less misleading to call the occidental scripture just ” chữ La -tinh or chữ tây ” or ” latin transcription ” and translate tiếng ” quốc ngữ ” as vehicular speak .
    _for the 2nd part of your comment , I feel you misunderstood me somehow ; I am in full agreement with what you said about quôc âm


  5. Jim Potratz said:

    Unfortunately Korean language publications, in either North or South Korea, don’t really use Han characters any longer. The Korean written language is quite similar to Quốc ngữ in that it is quite easy to read (took me 30 minutes to memorize) and brought literacy to the masses.

    By the way, you remind me of my first wife’s father. He was in Syngman Rhee’s group in Shanghai plotting against the Japanese before World War II. When Rhee took over as the first President of South Korea, my ex-father-in-law asked for a newspaper with the presses as his reward. His four page paper was written almost entirely in “hanja” (Han tu in VN) because he said the meaning of the word was much clearer than in Korean. The paper was called Public Opinion, or something like that, and was primarily to report on what the government at all levels was doing wrong or right. Unfortunately the paper did not accept ads and barely scraped by. His children bemoaned the fact that he made a wrong choice and they were poor (his sons graduated college and his daughters married well — except my then wife).

    I had studied Chinese before studying Korean and read Hanja easily. However, now when I try to read characters, I usually pronounce them in Korean! FYI: The Korean pronunciation of the characters is quite similar to Vietnamese. Mandarin dropped many of the ending consonants (for the Monguls perhaps). The most relaxing thing about characters is writing them, well actually practice writing characters. All my troubles flow away as I concentrate on the strokes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m rather technologically illiterate and have still failed to download a keyboard setting to type Hanja. I generally type on my Iphone or whatever free website I come across using a Mandarin Pinyin keyboard, since it’s much faster that the stroke input (which due to my clumsiness with technology I’m not adept at using anyways — I also suffer from character amnesia since I don’t hand-write often, have horrible handwriting anyways, and usually use the pinyin input). I don’t speak either Mandarin or Cantonese fluently, although I casually study both every now and then and know a little bit. Korean pronunciation *is* pretty similar to the Vietnamese pronunciation because they were both based on older Chinese pronunciations. Sino-Vietnamese pronunciations were introduced during the Han dynasty, developed during the Tang and Song, and changed even more during the Ming and Qing dynasties. I’m not sure if the dynastic pronunciation changes are reflected in Korean. I’m learning a bit of Korean, but it’s a totally different language group. I can pick up Cantonese easily, but Korean is a whole other beast.


  6. Jim Potratz said:

    The sacred cow of Vietnam is no more. Penmanship is no longer the pillar of society. I was forever judged on my handwriting (in Vietnamese) and worked hard to get better marks. Good handwriting was a requirement for advancement. Obviously a carry-over from writing characters (Nom or Han tu) by hand but now using a keyboard no longer displays your character (education) for all to read.
    Unless you really enjoy Korean soaps/films (yes, the heroines on KBS do tend to be really attractive), Mandarin would be better than Cantonese. All Hoa Kieu (outside the US) study/speak Mandarin — at least the shop keepers do.
    I have been fascinated by the differing pronunciations on sino – xx numbers (see below). Wiki does suggest these numbers were adopted before 600AD. It’s easy to see that the Yuan/Ching (?) dropped the ending consonants in Mandarin. I presume because the sino-VN numbers were used by a small number of people that the pronunciation was easily changed. Sino-Vietnamese numbers do seem more similar to Cantonese than the others. The Sino-Thai numbers seem to be quite old (note that their two actually comes from “pair” in Chinese, the one (neung) came from old Thai and the other numbers come from Min-nan dialect (according to wiki). Song becomes yi in higher numbers (yi-sip song is 22, etc..)

    VN Cant Man Korea Japan Thai
    1 nhất yat yī il i-chi neung
    2 nhị yee èr yi ni song
    3 tam sam sān sam san sam
    4 tứ say sì sa shi see
    5 ngũ ng wǔ oh go haa
    6 lục luk liù yuk ro-ku hok
    7 thất cat qī chil shi-chi jet
    8 bát bat bā pal ha-chi paet
    9 cửu gau jiǔ ku kyu kao
    10 thập sup shí sip ju sip

    fyi: Khmer has a hybrid system. For all numbers above 30, Khmer borrows the Thai numbers. Numbers one to 9 are from old Khmer (values 6 to 9 are read five one, five two, five three, five four). Ten is from a Chinese dialect and origins on twenty are not clear. Thai language does not seem to use any other numbers other than the sino-Thai.


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