What are Vietnamese Tones?
The most difficult aspect of understanding Vietnamese is tone: that words have different meanings based on whether the pitch is rising, descending, or flat (plus 3 other variants). These pitch dynamics alter the meaning of a word, even when the pronunciation is exactly the same otherwise. For example:
- má (mother) rising pitch
- mà (but/then) descending pitch
How many tones are in the Vietnamese language?
There are six tones in Vietnamese. They are indicated by five diacritic-markers that are placed above or under vowels: ´, ̀, ̉, ~, . and “no marker”. They can occur on any vowel.
For comparison, Mandarin has 4 tones.
Why are Vietnamese tones so difficult?
Tones are difficult for English-speakers because, in English, pitch-changes are used to express emotion, or to ask a question. For example, in English, a rising pitch emphasizes that one is asking a question; likewise, a low-short descending pitch usually conveys anger (e.g., “Damn it!”).
In Vietnamese, these tonal variations form entirely different words. It takes some time to force your ear to: i) notice the tones, and ii) associate them with different words, and not emotions.
How can I learn the Vietnamese tones?
The tones can only be learned with audio. Listen to the examples below for ma and tao.
Importantly, don’t overthink the sounds. Many beginner students try to intellectualize the pitch dynamics (is it rising? Is it rising then descending?). Instead, the best way to hear the Vietnamese tones is to embrace them like music: you don’t overthink the sonic difference between a happy Major chord and a sad Minor chords. Instead, the sounds just feel different — you don’t need to be a music-theorist to feel the difference. The same intuition needs to be cultivated with the Vietnamese tones.
The tables below include both audio and visual representations of the tonal-dynamics.
|ma (ghost)||flat||no change in pitch/natural|
|má (mother)||up tone||starts high and ends higher|
|mà (but/then)||down tone||starts low and slowly descends more; lazy drawl|
|mạ (small rice plant)||short down tone||short down; angry; terse|
|mã (code, equestrian)||up broken tone||high and percussive: uh-UH?|
|mả (tomb)||weird tone||starts mid-range, then descends and returns to the start; slightly nasal|
Verbal descriptions of the Vietnamese tones are, in general, not helpful. For example, the “ả” tone sounds strange and evades all description. It almost sounds like a comedian satirizing a pudgy, effete simpleton. A Wikipedia entry describes it as: “The hỏi tone starts a mid level and falls. It starts with modal voice phonation, which moves increasingly toward tense voice with accompanying harsh tone.” Was that helpful?
For native English speakers, it may be difficult to unlearn the emotional associations with these tones.
|tao (informal I/me)||flat||no change in pitch/natural|
|táo (apple)||up tone||starts high and ends higher|
|tào [modifier]||down tone||starts low and slowly descends more; lazy drawl|
|tạo (to create)||short down tone||short down; angry; terse|
|tão (creepy)||up broken tone||high and percussive: uh-UH?|
|tảo (seaweed)||weird tone||starts mid-range, then descends and returns to the start; slightly nasal|
Visualizing the Vietnamese Tones
Although one should study the Vietnamese tones by focusing on audio-aides. Nonetheless, there are some helpful insights that can be gleaned through visualizations of the tones’ pitch dynamics over time, especially how they compare among each other at their start and end position (from a scientific study by Nguyễn and Edmondson, 1998).