Vietnamese is a tonal language. Although it contains many vocabulary borrowings from Chinese and was originally written using Chinese characters, it is considered by linguists to be one of the Austroasiatic languages.
Presently, the written language uses a roman character set, introduced by the French. Previous to French occupation, there were two primary written languages used - the standard ideographic Chinese character set, and an extremely complicated variant form known as 'Nom'.
The Chinese alphabet was in more common usage, whereas Nom was used by members of the educated elite. Both languages have fallen out of common usage in modern Vietnam, and Nom is a near-extinct language.
The six tones in Vietnamese are:
Symbol Name Description ---------------------------- Kho^ng no tone (flat) / Sa'c rising \ Huye^`n falling ? Ho?i dipping ~ Nga~ dipping (but not as low) . Na.ng low, glottal
Tone markers are written above the vowel they affect, with the exception of Nam, where the dot goes below the vowel. For example, the common family name:
begins with "ng" (this sound is difficult for native English speakers to place at the beginning of a word), and is followed by something approximated by the English word "win". The ~ indicates a dipping tone; start somewhat low, go down in pitch, then rise to the end of the word.
Most (all? is this true at all?) simple words in Vietnamese have one syllable, and there are lots of compound words. Dipthongs and tripthongs are very common. Marked differences in Vietnamese accents are found between natives of North (Ha Noi), Middle (Hue) and South Vietnam (Saigon). -- /Talk