Latinized Vietnamese Writing System Celebrates 400 Years

November 14, 2019

The Bishops’ Conference of Vietnam (CBCV) has organized a series of symposia in Saigon to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Romanization of the Vietnamese language. This undertaking carried out by the missionaries made it possible to spread Catholicism in the country.

October 25-25, 2019, in the heart of Saigon - renamed Ho-Chi-Min-City by the Communists - a series of conferences was organized by the Vietnamese episcopate to celebrate 400 years of the “quoc ngu.” That is the name of the Vietnamese language transcription system, based on the Latin grammar and alphabet and developed by a French missionary.

It was due to Fr. Alexandre de Rhodes, a Jesuit on mission in Vietnam from 1625 to 1645, who worked on the development of the “quoc ngu.” This polyglot native of Avignon is the author of three books on the Romanized alphabet, including a trilingual Vietnamese-Portuguese-Latin dictionary published in Rome in 1651, as well as a Vietnamese grammar book and a catechism book.

Until then, the Vietnamese used the “chữ nho,” a series of classical Chinese characters, and the “chữ-nôm,” a character system based on Chinese characters and invented by the Vietnamese. As Jesuit priest Tran Quoc Anh, one of the conference speakers, explained, the “Quốc Ngữ” not only spread the Catholic faith, but became the official language of the Vietnamese nation, allowing them to communicate with the rest of the world.

In the past, most people could neither read nor write, either by using the “chữ nho” or “chữ-nôm” characters, which were too long to assimilate.

Fr. Anh also recalled that in the space of fifty years after the introduction of the faith in Vietnam in 1615, about 320,000 people embraced Catholicism. The catechism written in Quốc Ngữ was easily assimilated and greatly contributed to rooting the faith among neophytes. The speaker estimates that 130,000 Christians have paid the price in blood for having professed the true faith throughout the centuries of persecutions of which the Church was a victim, from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century. To this must be added the victims of atheistic communism who continue their diabolical effort to lose souls.