The Vietnamese language is not as hard as it may seem at a first glance. The tones and the pronunciation are indeed tricky. But Vietnamese grammar is in many ways simple and predictable. For instance, you won’t have to learn noun cases, gender, or even distinct plural forms.
This article will give you an overview over the key aspects of Vietnamese grammar to give you an idea of what you should focus on learning.
Vietnamese does not use morphological marking of case, gender, or number of nouns. The plural may be indicated by particles like những, các, chúng, but it is not usually required.
Nouns can be modified with other words resulting in complex noun phrases. These modifiers include demonstratives, quantifiers, classifiers, prepositional phrases, and other attributive lexical words, such as other nouns and verbs.
Vietnamese extensively uses a system of classifiers to indicate word classes of nouns. English classifiers, for example, may be (highlighted in bold) one head of cattle or three pieces of cheese.
Vietnamese’s system and usage of classifiers are similar to Chinese and are more variable than English. Some linguists count as many as 200 classifiers in Vietnamese, though only a few are used in conversation or informal writing. Among the most common classifiers are:
~ cái : used for most inanimate objects;
~ con: usually for animals, but can be used to describe some inanimate objects (con dao = knife, con đường = street, con vít = screw)
~ bài: used for compositions like songs, drawings, poems, essays, etc.
~ cây: used for stick-like objects (plants, guns, canes, etc.)
~ chiếc: objects that are worn or moved by people (chairs, cars, earrings, ships, shirts, shoes)
~ tòa: buildings of authority: courts, halls, “ivory towers”.
~ quả/trái: used for globular objects (the Earth, fruits)
~ quyển/cuốn: used for book-like objects (books, journals, etc.)
~ tờ: sheets and other thin objects made of paper (newspaper, paper, calendar etc.)
~ việc: an event or an ongoing process
In Vietnamese, an adjective is placed after the noun it modifies. For instance, ‘I bought this interesting book yesterday’ is translated into ‘I bought book interesting this yesterday’: Tôi mua quyển sách thú vị này hôm qua.
There are virtually no inflections in the Vietnamese language, and adjectives have no synthetic forms expressing degrees of comparison. A similar meaning can be expressed with words like ‘rất’ (very), ‘khá’ (rather), and others.
Vé máy bay rất đắt. – Flight ticket is very expensive.
Phí tắc xi khá đắt. – Taxi fee is rather expensive.
Adverbs in Vietnamese are used somewhat similarly to English. For instance, adverbs of manner are placed after the verbs or phrases they modify.
Cô ấy hát hay – She sings well
Tôi muốn học tiếng Việt nhanh – I want to learn Vietnamese fast
Adverbs of frequency are placed before the main verb or at the beginning of a sentence.
Thỉnh thoảng, tôi thức dậy sớm – Sometimes, I get up early
Tôi thỉnh thoảng thức dậy sớm – I sometimes get up early
Vietnamese multi-word adverbs, such as ‘không thể tin được’ (incredibly), are always placed after the word they modify, no matter what type of speech it is.
Cô ấy hát hay không thể tin được – She sings incredibly well
Vietnamese personal pronouns are, more accurately, forms of address. This concept is different from that in European languages, so its forms of address do not neatly fall into the grammatical person classifications singled out by European grammarians. For example, the same word can be used as a first-, second-, or third-person pronoun, depending on the speaker and the audience. The sentence ‘Ông đi về nhà’ (Grandfather go return home) can be translated as:
– I (your grandfather) go home.
– You (old man/my grandfather) go home.
– He (the old man) goes home.
Kinship terms in Vietnamese have become grammaticalized to a large extent and thus have developed grammatical functions similar to pronouns and other classifiers. In these cases, they are used as honorifics or pejoratives.
When addressing an audience, the speaker must carefully assess the social relationship between him/her and the audience, difference in age, and sex of the audience to choose an appropriate form of address.
The following are some kinship terms of address that can be used in the second-person sense (you). They all can also be used in the first-person sense (I), but if they’re not marked by (S) the usage is limited to the literal meaning:
- Ông: grandfather, used as a term of respect for a man senior to the speaker and who is late middle age or older
- Bà: grandmother, used as a term of respect for a (usually married) woman senior to the speaker and who is late middle age or older
- Cô: father’s sister, used to address a younger woman or a woman as old as one’s father.
- Chú: father’s younger brother, used to address a younger man or a man slightly younger than one’s father.
- Bác: father’s older brother, used to address a man slightly older than one’s father.
- Anh: older brother, for a slightly older man, or for the man in a romantic relationship. (S)
- Chị: older sister, for a slightly older woman. (S)
- Em: younger sibling, for a slightly younger person, or for the woman in a romantic relationship. (S)
Vietnamese verbs are not conjugated for person or tense. Instead, verbs in Vietnamese depend on the context of a sentence in order to express tense. Meanings similar to various English tense and aspect forms are expressed through phrases and time indicators. For instance, to express a meaning similar to the English past perfect, time indicators like ‘before’ and ‘after’ are used in Vietnamese.
Although it is not usually required, past tense is indicated by adding the particle đã, present progressive tense by the particle đang, and future tense is indicated by the particle sẽ in front of the verb. Of course, đã and đang or đang and sẽ can be used together.
The active voice can be changed to passive voice by adding the following words: ‘được’ if the verb describing the action implies beneficial effects for the agent and ‘bị’ if the verb describing the action implies negative effects. The words ‘được’ and ‘bị’ must stand in front of the main verb.
Trà được trồng ở Nhật Bản. – Tea is grown in Japan.
Some common Vietnamese prepositions are: tại (at), cho (for), từ (from), trong (in), của (of), trên (on).
This is a very brief overview of Vietnamese grammar. To truly master it, you will need to study each of the parts of speech in much more detail. However, this overview will hopefully give you a general idea of the Vietnamese grammatical system and of the main points you should consider when learning.