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.
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.
Chữ 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.
This 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 宁, which meant ‘sound’, plus the character 字, 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 theI Ching, and trace backwards, what the words mean in my ancient language.