Category Archives: Vietnamese

The Roots of the Alphabet(s)

Probably most of you do not know that we are all using a variant of the ancient Phoenician alphabet. Actually I am not sure if that is precisely true, as I think the Phoenician alphabet was preceded by an Assyrian one. But at any rate, our classic Western alphabets all came out of the Levant and Mesopotamia in some way or other. Indeed, it is even theorized that many of the syllabaries in use in Central, South and Southeast Asia are also rooted in this original alphabet from the Levant.

Of course, Chinese and consequently Korean and Japanese alphabets have another origin.

One might wish to throw the odd SE Asian orthographies such as Thai, Lao, Burmese, Vietnamese, Javanese, Sundanese and Khmer there, but my understanding is that all of those SE Asian orthographies were actually derived from syllabaries originally designed in India.

A few writing systems such as Georgian, Armenian and Cree may have been created de novo, but I might have to look that up. The only non-Middle Eastern derived orthography that immediately comes to my mind is the Chinese ideographs.

The origins of the Assyrian/Phoenician alphabet appear to have been ultimately in Egyptian hieroglyphics. So the ancient Egyptians really started it all when it comes to writing down words, at least for the West.

Chinese ideographs may date from even earlier. Chinese bone writing goes way back.

Very early European writing such as runic systems and similar systems in Asia such as the Turkic Orkhon inscriptions may not be related to the Phoenician system at all. The Yukaghir in Siberia and the Yi in South China may also have designed de novo systems.

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The Classification of the Vietnamese Language

One of the reasons that I am doing this post is that one of my commenters asked me a while back to do a post on the theories of long-range comparison like Joseph Greenberg’s and how well they hold up. That will have to wait for another day, but for now, I can  at least show you how some principals of historical linguistics, a subfield that I know a thing or two about. I will keep this post pretty non-technical, so most of you ought to be able to figure out what is going on.

Let us begin by looking at some proposals about the classification of Vietnamese.

The Vietnamese language has been subject to a great deal of speculation regarding its classification. At the moment, it is in the Mon-Khmer or Austroasiatic family with Khmer, Mon, Muong, Wa, Palaung, Nicobarese, Khmu, Munda, Santali, Pnar, Khasi, Temiar and some others. The family ranges through Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, Burma, China and over into northeastern India.

It is traditionally divided into Mon-Khmer and Munda branches. Here is Ethnologue’s split, and here are some other ways of dividing up the family.

The homeland of the Austroasiatics was probably in China, in Yunnan, southwest China. They moved down from China probably around 5,000 years ago. Some of the most ancient Austroasiatics are probably the Senoi people, who came down from China into Malaysia about 4,000 years ago. Others put the time frame at about 4-8,000 YBP (years before present).

A major fraud has been perpetrated lately based on Senoi Dream Therapy. I discussed it on the old blog and you can Google it if you are interested. In Anthropology classes we learned all about these fascinating Senoi people, who based their lives around their dreams. Turns out most of the fieldwork was poor to fraudulent, sort of like Margaret Mead’s unfortunate sojourn in the South Pacific.

The Senoi resemble Veddas of India, so it is probably true that they are ancient people.  Also, their skulls have Australoid features. In hair, they mostly have wavy hair (like Veddoids), a few have straight hair (like Mongoloids) and a scattering have woolly hair (like Negritos) Bottom line is that ancient Austroasiatics were probably Australoid types who resembled what the Senoi look like today.

There has long been a line arguing that Vietnamese is related to Sino-Tibetan (the family that Chinese is a part of). Even those who deny this acknowledge that there is a tremendous amount of borrowing from Chinese (especially Cantonese) to Vietnamese. This level of borrowing so long ago makes historical linguistics a difficult field.

Here is an excellent piece by a guy who has done a tremendous amount of work detailing his case for Vietnamese as a Sino-Tibetan language. It’s not for the amateur, but if you want to dip into it, go ahead. I spent some time there, and after a while, I was convinced that Vietnamese was indeed a Sino-Tibetan language. One of the things that convinced me is that if borrowing was involved, seldom have I seen such a case for such a huge amount of borrowing, in particular basic vocabulary. I figured the  case was sealed.

Not so fast now.

Looking again, and reading some of Joseph Greenberg’s work on the subject, I am now convinced otherwise. There is a serious problem with the cognates between Vietnamese and Chinese, of which there is a tremendous number.

This problem is somewhat complex, but I will try to simplify it. Briefly, if Vietnamese is indeed related to Sino-Tibetan, its cognates should be not only with Chinese, but with other members of Sino-Tibetan also. In other words, we should find cognates with Tibetan, Naga, Naxi, Tujia, Karen, Lolo, Kuki, Nung, Jingpho, Chin, Lepcha, etc. We should find cognates with those languages, where we do not find them in Chinese. That’s a little complicated, so I will let you think about it a bit.

Further, the comparisons between Chinese and Vietnamese should be variable. Some should look quite close, while others should look much more distant.

So there’s a problem with the Vietnamese as ST theory.

The cognates look like Chinese.

Problem is, they look too much like Chinese. They look more like Chinese than they should in a genetic  relationship. Further, they look like Chinese and only Chinese. Looking for relationships in S-T outside of Chinese, and we find few if any.

That’s a dead ringer for borrowing from Chinese to Vietnamese. If it’s not clear to you how that is, think about it a bit.

Looking at Mon-Khmer, the case is not so open and shut. There seem to be way more cognates with Chinese than with Mon-Khmer. So many more, that the case for Vietnamese as AA looks almost silly, and you wonder how anyone came up with it.

But let us look again. The cognates with AA and Vietnamese are not just with its immediate neighbors like Cambodian and Khmu, but with languages far off in far eastern India like Munda and Santali. There are words that are found only in the Munda branch in one or two obscure languages, that somehow show up again as cognates in Vietnamese.

Now tell me how Vietnamese borrowed ancient basic vocabulary from some obscure Munda tongue way over in northeast India? It did not. How did those words end up in some unheard of NE Indian tongue and also in Vietnamese? Simple. They both descended, long ago, from a common ancestor. This is historical linguistics.

The concepts I have dealt with here are not easy for the non-specialist to figure out, but most smart people can probably get a grasp on them.

A different subject is the deep relationships of AA. Is AA related to any other languages? I leave that as an open question now,  though there does appear to be a good case for AA being related to Austronesian.

One good piece of evidence is the obscure languages found in the Nicobar Islands off the coast of Thailand. Somehow, we see quite a few cognates in Nicobarese with Austronesian. We  do not see them in any other branches of AA, only in Nicobarese. This seems odd,  and it’s hard to make a case for borrowing. On the other hand, why cognates in Nicobarese and only in Nicobarese?

Truth is there is some stuff outside of Nicobarese, but not a whole lot. In historical linguistics, one thing we look at is morphology. Those are parts of words, like the -s plural ending in English.

In both AA and Austronesian,  we have funny particles called infixes. Those what in English we might call prefixes or suffixes, except they are stuck in the middle of the word instead of at the end or the beginning. So, in English, we have “pre-” as a prefix meaning “before” and “-er” meaning “object that does X verb”. So pre-destination means that our lives are figured out before we are even born.  Comput-er and print-er are two objects, one that computes and the other that prints.

If we had infixes instead, pre-destination would look something like destin-pre-ation and comput-er and print-er would look something like com-er-pute and prin-er-t.

Anyway, there are some fairly obscure infixes that show up not only in some isolated languages in AA, but also in far-flung Austronesian languages in, say, the Philippines. Ever heard of the borrowing of an infix? Neither have I? So were those infixes borrowed,  and what are they doing in languages as far away as Thailand and the Philippines, and none in between? Because they  got borrowed? When? How? Forget it.

Bottom line is that said borrowing did not happen. So what are those infix cognates doing there. Probably ancient particles left over from a common language that derived both Austronesian and AA, probably spoken somewhere in SW China maybe 9,000 years ago or more.

Why is this sort of long-range stuff so hard? For one thing, because after 9,000 years or more, there are hardly any cognates left anymore, due to the fact of language change. Languages change and tend to change at a certain rate.

After X 1000 years, so much change has taken place that even if two languages were once “sprung from a common source,” in the famous words of Sir William Jones, in his epochal lecture to the Asiatic Society in Calcutta on February 2, 1786, there is almost nothing, or nothing, left to show of that relationship. Any common words have become so mangled by time that they don’t look much or anything alike anymore.

So are AA and Austronesian related? I think so, but I suppose it’s best to say that it has not been proven yet. This thesis is part of a larger long-range concept known as “Austric.” Paul Benedict, a great scholar, was one of the champions of this. Austric is normally made up of AA, Austronesian, Tai-Kadai (the Thai language and its relatives) and Hmong-Mien (the Hmong and Mien languages). Based on genetics, the depth of Austric may be as deep as 30,000 years, so proving it is going to be a tall order indeed.

What do I think?

I think Tai-Kadai and Austronesian are proven to be related (more on that later). AA and Austronesian seem to be related also, with a lesser depth of proof. Hmong-Mien seems to me to be related to Sino-Tibetan, not Austric.

The case for Vietnamese being related to S-T is still very interesting, and I still have an open mind about it.

All this stuff is hotly controversial, and mentioning it in linguistics circles is likely to set tempers flaring.

References

Author and date unknown, What Makes Vietnamese So Chinese? An Introduction to Sinitic-Vietnamese Studies.

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