What does the word Vietnam mean literally? Origins and pronunciation

What Does Vietnam Mean in English?

Vietnam – Meaning and Origins

The name “Việt Nam” has been used on-and-off since 1802 to describe the Viet nation. Most recently, it became the country’s official name when Vietnam declared independence from Japan in 1945.

Việt means “people” and Nam means “south”. Therefore, Việt Nam literally means “People of the South”, where “south” is in reference to the South-East Asian continent, especially south of China. Nam is likely of Chinese origin from “Annam” for the “pacified south”, referencing an ancient period of Sino-occupation.

It was the dynastic Nguyễns who gave the country its current name. The Nguyễns were the last emperors of Vietnam. Their rule continued under French colonialism and Japanese occupation, up-until Japan’s surrender in WWII and the subsequent Việt Minh independence movement which ousted both the Japanese and the Nguyễn rulers.

RELATED: How to properly pronounce Nguyễn.

What Does Việt mean?

The “Việt” people are the dominant ethnic group in Vietnam, of which the country and language are named after.

“Việt” used to just mean “people” in the native tongue, but it also references the specific ethnic group that dominates the country, in contrast to the 54 other ethnic minorities within Vietnam. These other groups do not technically identify as “Việt” –they have different cultures, languages, dress, and ethnic origins. Otherwise, they are regular citizens of Vietnam.

Map of Vietnam's 54 ethnic minorities
Map of Vietnam’s ethnic minorities. Source UN

The Việt were mostly a lowland and coastal people, leaving the vast mountainous interior of Vietnam groups like the H’Mong, Khmer, Tay, Thai, Cham, and even Chinese refuges.

Is Vietnam One Word or Two?

The one-word spelling of “Vietnam” is the official term in English. In Vietnamese, the correct spelling is “Việt Nam”.

Notice that English doesn’t have the letter ê (which makes an “ay” sound like in “pay”), neither does English have the ‘.’ diacritic (which indicates that ệ must be spoken with a downward “tone”). These are essential accents and diacritics in Vietnamese — they are far more important than whether or not “Việt” and “Nam” have been concatenated together.

Therefore, it is not incorrect to write “Vietnam” as one word in English, anymore than it is incorrect to call the USA “Mỹ” or “Hoa Kỳ” in Vietnamese. Vietnam is the English spelling; Việt Nam is the Vietnamese spelling.

In English, writing “Viet Nam” is also fine, but it is less common than Vietnam.

FUN FACT “Hoa Kỳ” is the formal, old-media name for USA in Vietnamese. It literally means “flag with the stars”.

Correct Pronunciation of Việt Nam in Vietnamese [AUDIO]

Việt Nam:

Vee-ut (down-broken tone) Nam (flat tone).

Notice that “Việt” has a truncated, broken feeling, while “Nam” has a more natural sound. These are different tones. The tones are the most difficult part for non-Vietnamese-speakers. The diacritic ‘.’ below the ê signifies a “down-broken tone”. It sounds like a short, fast, angry sound.

Unlike most languages, Vietnamese is a tonal language with 6 distinct tones. These tones change the meaning of words and cannot be ignored when speaking.

To learn the Vietnamese tones, one must carefully study audio recordings. In the same way that you must listen to music to study music, the Vietnamese tones must be learned by building a music-like intuition for the pitch dynamics. They cannot be learned by reading alone, nor can they be described adequately by words.

RELATED: Learn the 6 Vietnamese tones with our audio pronuciation guide.

Other Names for Vietnam

The official name for Vietnam has changed throughout history. The name used to change almost as frequently as new Emperors took the throne.

One notable (and funny) name was “Đại Ngu“, which meant “Grand Happiness” in the old dialect of the 15th century. However, in modern Vietnamese, it translates to “Super Stupid.” Đại Ngu is a source of perpetual fun for Vietnamese history students.

Xích Quỷ” was another ancient name with a funny meaning. It means “Red Demon” in modern Vietnamese. But, during the period of 2879–2524 BC, it was the name of a bright red star in the south.

Other names for Vietnam throughout history:

  • 1428–1802: “Đại Việt” means “Big Viet Country”.
  • 1802 – 1839: “Việt Nam” means “People of the South” (as in south of China). This was the start of the Nguyễn dynasty.
  • 1839 – 1887: “Đại Nam” – “Big country in the South”.
  • 1887 – 1945: “Đông Dương” – named during the French colonial period, meaning “Federation of Indo-China”.
  • 1945 – present: “Việt Nam” became the official name again when the Vietnamese declared independence from Japan.

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