Did you know Feb. 21 is International Mother Language Day? This day celebrates multilingualism and cultural diversity across the globe. It’s been observed since 2000, after UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) decided to form a day recognizing the importance of linguistic diversity.
We think International Mother Language Day is a great way to celebrate the over 6000 languages that exist in this world. It’s also a good time for us to reflect on the richness of the Vietnamese language.
Vietnamese is part of the “Austroasiatic” family of languages, which also includes languages like Khmer (the primary language in Cambodia) and Mon (spoken by many who live in Burma and Thailand). It is also influenced by French and Chinese languages–just think of common words like “cà phê,” derived from the French word “cafe,” or “sư phụ” which sounds a lot like the Mandarin word for “master.”
The written Vietnamese language has an especially unique history. Centuries ago, Vietnamese writing was based on Chinese characters and known as chữ nôm. When Portuguese missionaries came in the 16th century, they began informally transcribing the Vietnamese language into Latin script. Later, these transcription efforts were formalized and widely disseminated by Alexandre de Rhodes, a French Jesuit missionary, between 1624 – 1644. The Latin-based script for Vietnamese became known as quốc ngữ. Chữ nôm actually continued to be widely used until the early 20th century, when it was phased out.
Although the alphabet-based Vietnamese writing system has probably been a lot easier for people to learn, chữ nôm has nearly disappeared. Very few people can still read or write the script. We can’t help but feel that this is a huge loss to the Vietnamese culture, and we hope there will be continued efforts to preserve it.
But of course, Vietnamese is not the only language used by people in Vietnam. With over 50 ethnic minority groups and an aggregate population size numbering in the millions, there are many other languages that people grow up speaking in Vietnam.We don’t have anyone in our office who can speak a language of Vietnam’s ethnic minority groups, but we appreciate them all the same.
What is your mother language?