Chữ Nôm (𡨸喃)

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Can you read the words written below?

Ìm me trình nê shần ìz môr ìm pố tần tàn no lịch chờ.

If you could read Vietnamese, you would be able to read those words with little difficulty.  It is not exact, of course, because the Vietnamese pronunciation is missing a few enunciations.  However, it’s close enough if one understood the English language and could read Vietnamese—because I wrote it in Vietnamese—more or less.

If I wrote it in English, the above sentence would read:  Imagination is more important than knowledge.  This is how a phonetic writing system works and the rules are simple.

1)  There are no silent letters.
2)  All letters must sound the same all the time.
3)  Each sound is written out, so each word is only allowed one syllable.  Anything that requires two syllables to denote a word either gets a hyphen in the middle of the two words or are written as two words.
4)  Any accented sounds are marked with an accent to denote how the sounds must be made.

That’s it.

In a previous post entitled Ancient Viet Dynasty, I talked about the ancient writing system of the Vietnamese called the Văn Khoa Đầu.  It was a phonetic writing system that, once learned, could be used to write anything that could be spoken.  Basically, one would not need to know the words, only to pronounce the sounds that the symbols or letters made when they are placed together.  One only needed to know what the word meant after it was sounded out.  This allows for a language (any language, really) that does not have any writing system, ergo a spoken-only language, to be easily and quickly written out.

Using this simple understanding of the way Vietnamese writing worked, I was able to ‘cheat’ at reading Vietnamese from a very early age.  Without needing to understand the more complex vocabulary (that would come in due time), I was reading out loud, advanced books on subjects I knew nothing about, and I was reading them correctly and clearly.  Whether or not I understood what I read was another matter, but the fact was, I could read anything written in Vietnamese.

This was how Chữ Nôm was first invented.

yangtze riverChữ means ‘characters’, Nôm means ‘south’.  However, the word Nôm did not just mean ‘south’.  It also meant ‘the people of the south’, because ancient Lạc Việt was everything south of the Yangtze river.

Remember, in ancient times, Xích Quỷ (赤鬼) or Red South was the domain of Lạc Long Quân.  This is the reason why there is a Nam in the words Việt Nam.

Chữ Nôm came to be used by my people at one point in our history when we were not allowed to write in our language, the Văn Khoa Đầu.  With book burnings, beheading of heads of states, and a major indoctrination of the Han way of life, we lost our method of writing, to be replaced by Hanzi (漢 Han script)or what we called chữ Nho (儒 Confucian script).  In order to continue the education of the people, who did not speak Mandarin, my ancestors had no choice but to use the characters allowed by law to be written and assign phonetic sounds to them.  Then, they put the sounds together and, when read out loud, one did not need to know Mandarin to use the scripted characters.  Since some of the characters were overly complicated, my ancestors created many simplified characters and many new characters to assign different sounds to them.

thaydo2This was the humble beginnings of Chữ Nôm.  The first word chữ itself was a newly created nôm character that was unknown in Han Chinese. It is a compound of , which meant ‘sound’, plus the character , which means ‘character’.  When written together as 𡨸, it literally means ‘sound character’. ~ wikipedia

It is very different from Hanzi or chữ Nho, in that it was derided as being the commoner’s language, nothing that would be used by the elite and the educated.  It was the written language of the street people who still had to document marriages, births, and deaths.  It was the language of the common businessmen who still had to document sales, transactions, and trades.

Since my family was part of the court system, they all had to learn classical Chinese because they had to use formal writing.  My grandfather was an herbalist and physician who taught herbal medicines using chữ Nho as the language with which to train his students.  When visiting physicians and herbalists came to see him, they ‘talked’ using paper and quill, writing out their thoughts, for although they could understand each other’s written words, they could not understand the spoken words, and medicine had to be precise.  They could not guess at each other’s meanings.

Never let it be said that we cannot adapt to changes.

All this changed when the French came and took over Vietnam.  They abolished the Hanzi, the chữ Nho, and any Chữ Nôm that was still being used.  They anglicized Vietnamese by exchanging one phonetic way of writing with another.  By this time, we were quite used to reinventing our language, yet again.  It was that or completely stop using the native language and speaking nothing but French, and that was NEVER going to happen.

Of course, as part of the royal court family, my father had to go to a French school and learn the new language.  He knew the French language much better than he knew Vietnamese by the time he graduated out of the French high school he was enrolled in.  Meanwhile, his father (my grandfather) still continued to read and write in the old street language Chữ Nôm, and also the court language, Chữ Nho.

Today, when writing out the sounds of our ancient ancestors, we type everything out in an alphabet system with accented marks to designate accents.   The writing is modern but the language is ancient.  It has survived all these centuries, and it will continue to survive into the future.

This is important because in my next few posts, I am going to tie Chữ Nôm in with the beginnings of the I Ching, and trace backwards, what the words mean in my ancient language.

7 thoughts on “Chữ Nôm (𡨸喃)

Add yours

  1. Wow!! I can’t express enough of how awesome that is. Quite frankly you have been on a roll since the closing of 2012, post after post…gem after gem.

    I know with something as viral as the internet you never really know the type of people your thoughts have an impact on(further more what that impact is)

    I would just like to say thank you again!! As its greatly appreciated.


  2. I appreciate that! Thank you so much. Sometimes, I feel as if I am writing in a vacuum and nobody reads my writing except for myself, so it is good to know somebody is reading it and getting something out of it.

    Believe me, there is a huge amount of research that I do behind each post. I dig through stacks of journals, piles of dusty books, both in English and in Vietnamese, not to mention all the online books that sit on my hard drive, filled with information that must be pored through. It is truly a labor of love because sometimes, it is soooo tedious…ancient Vietnamese writing is such a slog to have to read through and parse. :-\


  3. Wow, that’s super cool!! Even though I don’t look like it, I have been a huge reader-researcher since I was a kid. I know it sounds weird, but i use to juxtapose and cross reference everything from copyright dates to the satire of real life events.(no judgement lol I know I was an odd one) but I also did pretty good in physical activities,so I was given a pass so to speak.

    So I def hope u keep it up,we’ll as time permits off course. Also if u run across anything interesting(or even odd lol) that u may not have time to post, u can definitely send it my way!!


  4. Ah. We have much in common. I run across interesting things all the time! Unfortunately, since this is a Taoism weblog, I can’t really talk about them here. I should not have limited myself so much. I should have just named the site My Thoughts. It would have allowed me to write about all the other cool stuff I find. Do you have a website or a blog?


  5. Yes I would have to agree (especially on the visual learner & math piece. Advanced mathematics tend to be the nemesis of most VL as it negates what u can sometimes FEEL or SEE with stringent rules or laws). I don’t have my own website or blog, but I will say that’s going to change. As I have been inspired to share my own eclectic blend of experience’s, adventures and thoughts(I will definitely have to give u the credit for that lol) in addition I find myself often in the middle of peers and strangers as a voice of reason or advice. So stay tuned, & hopefully you will check it out! Haha even if just to note your inspirational producer cred. 😉


  6. to me this is more like Korea 韓語 with its hanja. both Vietnam and korea have a different writing system that slowly has changed. forgets the pasted unlike Japan 日本語 kanja and china 中国的, and Taiwan 漢語 hanyu. who keep there character. this Interested me when I went to Vietnam this year during the tet new year. I can’t seam to find any English books translated in han nom so I just got this big dictionary in sach somewhere in ho chi minh. I tried Hanio as well and that was the nominate place for Chinese in the pass. 漢南語 han character of Vietnamese language.𡨸喃 is the secret language not well known by the language world. it interest me because I like the system of characters. wish there was an english book to teach me or let me no of the history of the past.


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