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How far back in history can a modern Vietnamese speaker go until they cannot understand the language anymore?

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Ehm, probably around the 17th century Middle Vietnamese. Modern Vietnamese has 3-4 dialect groups (depending on how you divide the dialect-accent continuum): northern, northern central, southern central, and southern (+ the theoretical standard dialect depicted by the orthography). It has been attested the northern central dialects are the most conservative Vietnamese dialects, retaining features of 17th century Vietnamese (as recorded in the Quốc Ngữ Bible from that era) that have now lost in modern Vietnamese (see Michel Ferlus' works on the northern central dialects for more details). In the modern day, people who grew up with other dialects can barely understand the northern central dialects (no offense to any northern central guys here), so it stands that the oldest iteration of the Vietnamese language should be roughly 17th-century Middle Vietnamese, the features of which was preserved most conservatively in the modern northern central dialects.

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Very interesting question. Let’s turn back to a very famous document 370 years ago, the “ Cathechismus for eight days ” published in 1651 by the commissioner Alexandre de Rhodes. Here is one page of that book.


I’ve just highlighted some differences between the old text of Middle Vietnamese to the left and the modern day equivalence in the right, in which consonants are green and vowels are yellow.


It is very interesting that almost all spelling and tonal diacritics have been reserved exactly as modern day. Leaving apart the lexicon and syntax, some differences in pronunciation and spelling are still understandable and comparable with modern standard such as: ưâng = ương ; iet = iêt ; êo = iêu , etc. Some spelling look weird like “u᷄” for “ung”, “ou᷄” for “ông” and “au᷄” for “ong”. That might be due to the Portuguese spelling of nasal vowels back then, but not a huge difference. The most significant is the consonant “ ” (b with flourish, supposed to be pronounced like “w”) and the consonant cluster “ bl ” that had never been used anymore.

Now, I make a test with a very simple sentence, using Middle Vietnamese pronunciation: “ Blời ơi, chỉ có wậy à?

It look actually weird but still is understandable after thinking a while.

OK, let’s go farther to c.a. 1400s with a poem in the National language poetry collection (Quốc âm thi tập 國音詩集) of Nguyễn Trãi written in Nôm script. Nôm is to the left and modern translation is to the right.


I have also highlighted the unintelligible words to modern Vietnamese. Regardless to the pronunciation since we don’t know how the pronunciation was back then, the context was also difficult to understand without translation and/or explanation.

I do again the above test with changing on word: “ Blời ơi, bui có wậy à? ”. If heard someone asking that, I would definitely think: “WHAT, WHAT’S THE LANGUAGE?” because it is totally unintelligible.

The sentence is just simple: “Trời ơi, chỉ có vậy à?”

Conclusion, languages seem to have evolved the same linear regardless whomever the languages spoken by. An English speaker is hard to understand English spoken in Shakespeare’s era. In a similar manner, Vietnamese cannot understand Vietnamese spoken in Nguyễn Trãi’s era aka 600 years ago.

Hope it helps.

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My guess is Middle Vietnamese as recorded in the Rhodes Dictionary (read it at: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/41/Dictionarium_Annamiticum_Lusitanum_et_Latinum_%28low-resolution%29.pdf )

Notice spelling that no longer exist in Vietnamese: bl- which became tr-; ml- which become m-, l-; tl- which became ch, tr; and


a letter no longer used, but which represented a bilabial voiced fricative and changed into a normal ‘v’(a labiodental voiced fricative).

Other spelling changed pronunciation. too.

D was pronounced like ‘th’, as in ‘this’ in English, not as z or y as it is now

gi was pronounced like ‘ji’ in English, not like z or y.

ph was pronounced at an aspirated ‘p’, as in ‘past’ in English, not as ‘f’

x was a palatal ‘s’ and is still pronounced this way in some parts of north Vietnam.

With these pronunciation changes and tone changes in many parts of Vietnam, it is no wonder that comprehension would be difficult or impossible.

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I’m just marking time waiting for a more authoritative answer, but my guess would be, pretty long. The reason I say this is that the Chinese words used in Viet Namese retain the pronunciation of the early Tang, roughly 1300 years ago. An easy way to test that statement is to study the rhymes of early Tang poetry, and VN is right on target.

So my answer to your question would be, they could probably go pretty far back in history. Before the introduction of Chinese words, a lot of the vocabulary was different.

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Old Vietnamese through Yuan dynasty Chinese pronunciations:

Thiên: 勃未; /buət̚mʉi/--> bmời (?) (Sky)

- Địa : 炟; /tɑt̚/ --> đất (soil)

- Nhật : 浮勃未; /bɨubuət̚mʉi/ --> (?) + bmời (sun)

- Nguyệt : 勃文; /buət̚mɨun/; bmăng (?) (trăng- moon)

- Phong : 教; /kˠau/ --> gió (wind)

- Vân : 梅; /muʌi/ --> mây (cloud)

- Sơn : 斡隈; /ʔuɑt̚ʔuʌi/ --> (?)

- Thủy : 掠; /lɨɐk̚/; --> l ước. (nuớc - water)

- Nhãn : 末; /muɑt̚/ --> mắt. (Eye)

- Khẩu : 皿; /mˠiæŋ/ --> miệng (mouth)

- Phụ : 吒; /ʈˠa/ --> cha (dad)

- Mẫu : 娜; /nɑ/ --> na (?) (mother)

- Nam tử : 干多; /kɑntɑ/ --> con + (?) (Male)

- Nữ tử : 干蓋; /kɑnkɑi/ --> con gái (Female)

- Phu : 重; /ɖɨoŋ/ --> chồng (husband)

- Thê : 陀被; /dɑbˠiᴇ/ --> (?) + ꞗợ (wife)

- Hảo : 領; /liᴇŋ/ --> lành (good)

- Bất hảo : 張領; /ʈɨɐŋliᴇŋ/ --> chẳng lành (not fine)

Cognate with old Khmer and old Mon.

Source: Annan tusu, Zhang Lidao, 1292

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