Vietnamese is a fascinating language. After over 1,000 years of invasion and war with China, much of the vocabulary is borrowed from Chinese, and before Vietnam was colonized by France it was written using the Chinese character writing system. French missionaries began taking the vernacular pronunciation of that system and transferring it into phonetically written words using an adapted version of the Latin alphabet, with the addition diacritical and tone marks. Though French Indochina encompasses Laos and Cambodia in addition to Vietnam, Vietnam is the only country in peninsular Southeast Asia with a Latin alphabet-based language. Diacritical marks affect the pronunciation and sound value of the vowel to which they are added. Because of these marks, the Vietnamese alphabet has 29 letters, in comparison with the 26 present in English, because “O” with a diacritical mark is considered a separate letter than an “O” without one.
Formally Vietnamese has six tones, though some regional dialects –in their spoken forms- reduce that number by at least one by pronouncing two of the tones essentially the same way. “Tones” suggest the use of pitch in the language to distinguish between meanings. An example in English is the regular rising pitch at the end of a sentence to indicate a question, even if none of the question words (why, where, how, when) are present. While all verbal languages use pitch to express emotion and emphasis, these are considered “intonations”, and don’t formally change the meaning of the individual words. Vietnamese has six tones: even, rising, falling, dipping-then-rising, rising-breaking, and falling with a glottal stop. With one tone per word, the presence of a tone-mark above a word completely changes the meaning of the word.
While foreign to native-English speakers, tones and diacritical marks with an familiar alphabet are arguably an easy way to learn a language. Once you learn how to pronounce the individual sounds with the correct tone, you’re well on your way to speaking Vietnamese. While with English there is much variety in the pronunciation of sounds (for example, the “oo” sound in “book” is significantly different than “moose”), the phonetic nature of Vietnamese circumvents this problem.
There are three widely recognized dialects of Vietnamese, southern, central, and northern. “Northern” Vietnamese is formal Vietnamese; the spoken dialect of the government and all of its subsidiaries, TV stations, and newspapers. The other two dialects exist informally within their own region, and mostly differ based on pronunciation, though there are a few regional vocabulary differences (analogous to soda vs. pop or grinder vs. sub in the United States) between the dialects.