Minh’s Notes

Human-readable chicken scratch

Minh Nguyễn
October 11th, 2002


Tones and Tone Marks

A lot of people have complained that I haven’t updated my Vietnamese pages in a long time. They’re right. As I’ve been bogged down in schoolwork or in my projects, Vietnamese has pretty much taken a back seat. I now intend to update my site with information such as the following, so that you can learn Vietnamese as I do.

[Update] I’ve added a helpful diagram of the contour of tones in Vietnamese.

Vietnamese is like many East Asian languages in that it is tonal. That is, the tone of speech used to pronounce a word has an effect on the meaning of that word. Most languages have some form of toneage or stress. For example, English distinguishes between resume and résumé, and Spanish distinguishes between qué and que.

Contour of Tones in Vietnamese

Because the written Vietnamese language is based on Latin, it uses Latin-based accent marks to denote the sound a vowel should make when pronounced. These tone marks must be included when writing Vietnamese, and a speaker must pronounce the words with the correct tones, else risking an embarrassing change in meaning. Following is a table that I hope will help you better understand tones in Vietnamese. I will update this table with helpful images in the future:

Tones and tone marks in Vietnamese
Name Description Mark Example word Translation of example word
Mid-level tone About the middle of the normal speaking range   ta we, us
Low falling tone Starts a little lower than mid-level and falls gradually  ̀ flap
Low rising tone Starts where low-falling starts, dips slightly, and rises again  ̉ tả (to) describe
High broken tone Starts a little higher than the low tones, dips slightly, and rises to finish high  ̃ (to) be worn out
High rising tone Starts where the low tones start and rises sharply  ́ (a) dozen
Low broken tone Starts where low tones start and drop to the lowest level  ̣ tạ 100 kg

Source: Vietnamese: A Rough Guide Dictionary Phrasebook (1996, rev. 2000)

There you have it. Stay tunedconnected for the next feature article, and possibly some practice exercises in the future.