Photo credit William @ VietnamDaily.ca
Nguyễn is the most common family name in Vietnam. It is also one of the most difficult words for English-speakers to pronounce. Hit the green play button above to listen to the proper pronunciation of Nguyễn.
There is no easy explanation for how to pronounce Nguyễn. Therefore, in the following two paragraphs, we will describe both the correct Vietnamese pronunciation, as well as an appropriate Anglicized pronunciation that is passable within a cosmopolitan context.
Best Anglicized Approximation of Nguyễn
In a strictly English context, it is safe to pronounce Nguyễn like something half-way in between “win?” and “when?” In other words, the “ngu” is mostly silent, and the “yễn?” does not sound like Japanese Yen, but has a “w” sound. The “?” signifies that it must be spoken with a rising inflection (like you are asking a question — aka the “tone”).
“Win/when?” is the probably the best you can do without studying Vietnamese sounds, in particular, the infamous “ng” sound, and the nature of Vietnamese tones.
The infamous Ng sound:
Correct Vietnamese Pronunciation of Nguyễn
There are two hurdles to correctly pronouncing Nguyễn: i) the “ng” sound, and ii) the upward pitch on the letter ễ.
1) The Vietnamese Ng Sound (ŋ)
Nguyễn sounds almost like “win?”, but pronouncing the “ng” is very difficult. The “ng” sound is the exact same sound at the end of action words like running, talking, and writing.
In other words, the ng-sound is not an n-sound, nor a g-sound. In English, it occurs at the end of “-ing” words. If you listen carefully, you can hear that ng really deserves its own unique character.
Because there are no english words that begin with “ng”, the English tongue is reluctant to utter “ng” at the start of a word. The difficult part is to train the English tongue to start a word with the (i)ng sound.
Here is a little trick to train your tongue to pronounce “ng”. Try saying the following phrases out loud:
running win? unning win? ning win? ing win? (i)ng win? (i)ngwin? (one syllable) (i)nguyễn nguyễn
For the final “(i)ng win?”, try to be very soft with the i that leads into the ng, so that no one can hear it. Also, focus on blending the “ng” into the “w” sound so that the entire “(i)ng-win?” becomes a single syllable. That is your best anglo-approximation of Nguyễn.
Read more about the Voiced Velar Nasal (ŋ) in our post: How to Pronounce Ng
2) The Tonal Nature of “ễ”
The ~ diacritic above the e in Nguyễn signifies that the vowel must be spoken with an upward-rising pitch (like you are asking a question), as well as breaking the vowel into two syllables, like eh-EH?
Does that sound strange? Welcome to the world of tonal languages: Vietnamese has 6 tones, including a falling pitch, flat pitch, rising pitch, etc. These tones completely change the meaning of a sound.
For English speakers, these tones can be difficult to distinguish because we associate them with emotions or asking questions, not with different words. For Vietnamese speakers, they are as different as night and day. For instance, Nguyễn and Nguyên are entirely different surnames: the latter has a flat-tone, while the former has an “up-broken” tone.
You can consult our audio pronunciation guide to listen to the 6 Vietnamese tones. Here are three examples of the “up-broken tone”.
Could you hear the up-ward, broken-nature to the vowels? That is the ~ tone.
Nguyễns in History: The Vietnamese Royal Name
The Nguyễns were the last imperial family of Vietnam. Their reigned ended in 1945 under the Việt Minh Revolution. Their imperial palace was located was in Huế (hwe; up-tone), central Vietnam, which is still known for its high-culture and sophistication. Only small portions of the Nguyễn palaces and citadel remain today, but they are worth visiting.
The Nguyễn dynasty officially lasted for 143 years, and shaped much of the modern boundaries of the Republic of Vietnam. Prior to the Nguyễn imperial rule, the territory now known as Vietnam was composed of many different ethnic peoples and nations. The dominant “Viet”-people were just one such ethno-cultural group. The Nguyễns were notable for expanding the Viet nation from its pre-modern borders around Northern Vietnam, to a large united kingdom controlling South Vietnam, Laos and parts of Cambodia. They even named the country Việt Nam, prior to which it was called Đại Việt.
RELATED: What does Vietnam mean in English?
Today, Nguyễn is the most common family name, with over 40% of Vietnamese laying claim to the name.
What’s a Vietnamese word or name that you want to know how to pronounce? Let us know in the comments below.