Chữ Nôm

chữ Nôm
Chu nom.svg
Script type
Time period
13th century[1][2] – 20th century
Direction Top-to-bottom, columns from right to left (traditional)
Left-to-right (modern)
Languages Vietnamese
Related scripts
Parent systems
Chinese characters
  • chữ Nôm
Sister systems
Idu, Sawndip
 This article contains phonetic transcriptions in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA. For the distinction between [ ], / / and ⟨ ⟩, see IPA § Brackets and transcription delimiters.

Chữ Nôm ( 𡨸喃, IPA: [cɨ̌ˀ nom], literally 'Southern characters')[3] is a logographic writing system formerly used to write the Vietnamese language. It uses Chinese characters to represent Sino-Vietnamese vocabulary and some native Vietnamese words, with other words represented by new characters created using a variety of methods, including phono-semantic compounds.[4]

Although formal writing in Vietnam was done in classical Chinese[5] until the early 20th century (except for two brief interludes), chữ Nôm was widely used between the 15th and 19th centuries by Vietnam's cultured elite for popular works, many in verse. One of the best-known pieces of Vietnamese literature, The Tale of Kiều, was written in Chữ Nôm.

The Vietnamese alphabet created by Portuguese Jesuit missionaries with works starting in the 17th century replaced chữ Nôm as the preferred way to record Vietnamese literature from 1920s onward. While Chinese characters are still used for decorative, historic and ceremonial value, chữ Nôm has fallen out of mainstream use in modern Vietnam. The task of studying and translating Vietnamese texts written in chữ Nôm to the Vietnamese alphabet is conducted in the Institute of Hán-Nôm Studies at Hanoi.


The Vietnamese word chữ (character) is derived from the Old Chinese word , meaning '[Chinese] character'.[6] The word Nôm in chữ Nôm means 'Southern', and is derived from the Middle Chinese word , meaning 'south'.[7]

There are many ways to write the name chữ Nôm in chữ Nôm characters. The word chữ may be written as , 𫳘(⿰字宁), 𪧚(⿰字守), 𡨸, , , 𫿰(⿰字文), 𡦂(⿰字字), or , while Nôm may be written as or .[8][9]


Chữ Nôm is the logographic writing system of the Vietnamese language. It is based on the Chinese writing system but adds a large number of new characters to make it fit the Vietnamese language. In earlier times it was also called Chữ Nam ( 𡨸南) or Quốc Âm (國音, 'National sound').

In Vietnamese, Chinese characters are called chữ Hán ( 'Han characters'), Hán tự ( 漢字 'Han characters') and chữ nho ( 字儒 'Confucian characters', due to the connection with Confucianism).[10][11][12] Hán văn ( 漢文) means classical Chinese literature.[13][14]

The term Hán Nôm ( 'Han and chữ Nôm characters')[15] in Vietnamese designates the whole body of premodern written materials from Vietnam, either written in Chinese (chữ hán) or in Vietnamese (chữ Nôm).[16] Hán and Nôm could also be found in the same document side by side,[17] for example, in the case of translations of books on Chinese medicine.[18] The Buddhist history Cổ Châu Pháp Vân phật bản hạnh ngữ lục (1752) gives the story of early Buddhism in Vietnam both in Hán script and in a parallel Nôm translation.[19] The Jesuit Girolamo Maiorica (1605–1656) had also used parallel Hán and Nôm texts.

The term chữ Quốc ngữ ( 𡨸 'national language script') refers to the Vietnamese alphabet in current use.


A page from Tự Đức Thánh Chế Tự Học Giải Nghĩa Ca ( 嗣德聖製字學解義歌), a 19th-century primer for teaching Vietnamese children Chinese characters. The work is attributed to Emperor Tự Đức, the 4th Emperor of the Nguyễn dynasty. In this primer, chữ Nôm is used to gloss the Chinese characters, for example, 𡗶 is used to gloss .

Chinese characters were introduced to Vietnam after the Han dynasty conquered the country in 111 BC. Independence was achieved in 938 AD, but Literary Chinese was adopted for official purposes in 1010.[20] For most of the period up to the early 20th century, formal writing was indistinguishable from contemporaneous classical Chinese works produced in China, Korea, and Japan.[21]

Vietnamese scholars were thus intimately familiar with Chinese writing. In order to record their native language, they applied the structural principles of Chinese characters to develop chữ Nôm. The new script was mostly used to record folk songs and for other popular literature.[22] Vietnamese written in chữ Nôm briefly replaced Chinese for official purposes under the Hồ dynasty (1400–1407) and under the Tây Sơn (1778–1802), but in both cases this was swiftly reversed.[23]

Early development

The use of Chinese characters to transcribe the Vietnamese language can be traced to an inscription with the two characters " ", as part of the posthumous title of Phùng Hưng, a national hero who succeeded in briefly expelling the Chinese in the late 8th century. The two characters have literal Chinese meanings 'cloth' and 'cover', which make no sense in this context. They have thus been interpreted as a phonetic transcription, via their Middle Chinese pronunciations buH kajH, of a Vietnamese phrase, either vua cái 'great king', or bố cái 'father and mother' (of the people).[24][25]

During the 10th century, Dinh Bo Linh (r. 968–979), the founder of the Dai Viet kingdom, named the country Đại Cồ Việt . The first and third Chinese characters mean 'great' and 'Viet'. The second character was often used to transcribe non-Chinese terms and names phonetically. Scholars assume that it was used here to represent a native Vietnamese word, possibly also meaning 'great', though exactly which Vietnamese word it represents is unclear.[26][27]

The oldest surviving Nom inscription, dating from 1210, is a list naming 21 people and villages on a stele at the Tự Già Báo Ân pagoda in Tháp Miếu village (Mê Linh District, Hanoi).[28][29][30] Another stele at Hộ Thành Sơn in Ninh Bình Province (1343) lists 20 villages.[31][32][a]

The king Tran Nhan Tong (r. 1278–1293) ordered that Nom be used to communicate his proclamations to the people.[31][34] The first literary writing in Vietnamese is said to have been an incantation in verse composed in 1282 by the Minister of Justice Nguyễn Thuyên and thrown into the Red River to expel a menacing crocodile.[31] Four poems written in Nom from the Tran dynasty, two by Tran Nhan Tong and one each by Huyền Quang and Mạc Đĩnh Chi, were collected and published in 1805.[35]

The Nom text Phật thuyết Đại báo phụ mẫu ân trọng kinh ('Sūtra explained by the Buddha on the Great Repayment of the Heavy Debt to Parents') was printed around 1730, but conspicuously avoids the character lợi, suggesting that it was written (or copied) during the reign of Lê Lợi (1428–1433). Based on archaic features of the text compared with the Tran dynasty poems, including an exceptional number of words with initial consonant clusters written with pairs of characters, some scholars suggest that it is a copy of an earlier original, perhaps as early as the 12th century.[36]

Hồ dynasty (1400–07) and Ming conquest (1407–27)

During the seven years of the Hồ dynasty (1400–07) Classical Chinese was discouraged in favor of vernacular Vietnamese written in Nôm, which became the official script. The emperor Hồ Quý Ly even ordered the translation of the Book of Documents into Nôm and pushed for reinterpretation of Confucian thoughts in his book Minh đạo.[34] These efforts were reversed with the fall of the Hồ and Chinese conquest of 1407, lasting twenty years, during which use of the vernacular language and demotic script were suppressed.[37]

During the Ming dynasty occupation of Vietnam, chữ Nôm printing blocks, texts and inscriptions were thoroughly destroyed; as a result the earliest surviving texts of chữ Nôm post-date the occupation.[38]

From 15th to 19th century

A page from the bilingual dictionary Nhật dụng thường đàm (1851). Characters representing words in Hán (Chinese) are explained in Nôm (Vietnamese).

Among the earlier works in Nôm of this era are the writings of Nguyễn Trãi (1380–1442).[39] The corpus of Nôm writings grew over time as did more scholarly compilations of the script itself. Trịnh Thị Ngọc Trúc, consort of King Lê Thần Tông, is generally given credit for Chỉ nam ngọc âm giải nghĩa (the Explication of the Guide to Jeweled Sounds), a 24,000-character bilingual Han-to-Nom dictionary compiled between the 15th and 18th centuries, most likely in 1641 or 1761.[40][41]

While almost all official writings and documents continued to be written in classical Chinese until the early 20th century, Nôm was the preferred script for literary compositions of the cultural elites. Nôm reached its golden period with the Nguyễn dynasty in the 19th century as it became a vehicle for diverse genres, from novels to theatrical pieces, and instructional manuals. Although it was prohibited during the reign of Minh Mang (1820–1840),[42] apogees of Vietnamese literature emerged with Nguyễn Du's The Tale of Kiều[43] and Hồ Xuân Hương's poetry. Although literacy in premodern Vietnam was limited to just 3 to 5 percent of the population,[44] nearly every village had someone who could read Nom aloud for the benefit of other villagers.[45] Thus these Nôm works circulated orally in the villages, making it accessible even to the illiterates.[46]

Chữ Nôm was the dominant script in Vietnamese Catholic literature until the late 19th century.[47] In 1838, Jean-Louis Taberd compiled a Nom dictionary, helping with the standardization of the script.[48]

The reformist Catholic scholar Nguyễn Trường Tộ presented the Emperor Tự Đức with a series of unsuccessful petitions (written in classical Chinese, like all court documents) proposing reforms in several areas of government and society. A 1967 petition Tế cấp bát điều ( 濟急八條 'Eight urgent matters'), includes proposals on education, including a section entitled Xin khoan dung quốc âm ('Please tolerate the national voice'). He proposed to replace classical Chinese with Vietnamese written using a script based on Chinese characters that he called quốc âm Hán tự ( 國音漢字 'Han characters with national pronunciations'), though he described this as a new creation, and did not mention chữ Nôm.[49][50][51]

French Indochina and the Latin alphabet

From the latter half of the 19th century onwards, the French colonial authorities discouraged or simply banned the use of classical Chinese, and promoted the use of the Vietnamese alphabet, which they viewed as a stepping stone toward learning French. Language reform movements in other Asian nations stimulated Vietnamese interest in the subject. Following the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, Japan was increasingly cited as a model for modernization. The Confucian education system was compared unfavorably to the Japanese system of public education. According to a polemic by writer Phan Châu Trinh, "so-called Confucian scholars" lacked knowledge of the modern world, as well as real understanding of Han literature. Their degrees showed only that they had learned how to write characters, he claimed.[52]

The popularity of Hanoi's short-lived Tonkin Free School suggested that broad reform was possible. In 1910, the colonial school system adopted a "Franco-Vietnamese curriculum", which emphasized French and alphabetic Vietnamese. The teaching of Chinese characters was discontinued in 1917.[53] On December 28, 1918, Emperor Khải Định declared that the traditional writing system no longer had official status.[53] The traditional Civil Service Examination, which emphasized the command of classical Chinese, was dismantled in 1915 in Tonkin and was given for the last time at the imperial capital of Huế on January 4, 1919.[53] The examination system, and the education system based on it, had been in effect for almost 900 years.[53]

The decline of the Chinese script also led to the decline of chữ Nôm given that Nôm and Chinese characters are so intimately connected.[54] During the early half of the 20th century, chữ Nôm gradually died out as chữ Quốc ngữ grew more and more standardized and popular. In an article published in 1935 by Cordier he stated that chữ Quốc ngữ is rapidly dethroning Chinese characters and is replacing chữ Nôm so that by 1935 out of one hundred literate persons 70 knew chữ Quốc ngữ, 20 knew chữ Nôm and 10 knew Chinese characters.[55]

The Gin people, descendants of 16th-century migrants from Vietnam to islands off Dongxing in southern China, now speak a form of Yue Chinese, but their priests use songbooks and scriptures written in chữ Nôm in their ceremonies.[56]


A page from The Tale of Kieu by Nguyễn Du. This novel was first published in 1820 and is the best-known work in Nom. The edition shown was printed in the late 19th century.


Vietnamese is a tonal language, like Chinese, and has nearly 5,000 distinct syllables.[20] In chữ Nôm, each monosyllabic word of Vietnamese was represented by a character, either borrowed from Chinese or locally created. The resulting system was even more difficult to use than the Chinese script.[22]

As an analytic language, Vietnamese was a better fit for a character-based script than Japanese and Korean, with their agglutinative morphology.[45] Partly for this reason, there was no development of a phonetic system that could be taught to the general public, like Japanese kana syllabary or the Korean hangul alphabet.[58] Moreover, Vietnam's educated class looked down on Nom as inferior to Chinese, and had no interest in turning Nom into a form of writing suitable for mass communication.[45]

Chữ Nôm has never been standardized.[59] As a result, a Vietnamese word could be represented by several Nôm characters. For example, the very word chữ ('character', 'script'), a Chinese loanword, can be written as either (Chinese character), 𡦂 (Vietnamese-only compound-semantic character) or 𡨸 (Vietnamese-only semantic-phonetic character). For another example, the word béo ('fat', 'greasy') can be written either as or ⿰月報 ( ⿰月報). Both characters were invented for Vietnamese and have a semantic-phonetic structure, the difference being the phonetic indicator ( vs. ).

Borrowed characters

Characters for cân (top) and khăn (bottom), meaning turban/towel, in Tự Đức thánh chế tự học giải nghĩa ca. The character for khăn has a diacritic to indicate different pronunciation.

Unmodified Chinese characters were used in chữ Nôm in three different ways.

  • A large proportion of Vietnamese vocabulary had been borrowed from Chinese from the Tang period. Such Sino-Vietnamese vocabulary could be written with the original Chinese character for each word, for example:[60]
    • dịch ('service', 'corvée'), from Early Middle Chinese (EMC) /jwiajk/[61]
    • bản ('root', 'foundation'), from EMC /pənˀ/[62]
    • đầu ('head'), from EMC /dəw/[63]
  • One way to represent a native Vietnamese word was to use a Chinese character for a Chinese word with a similar meaning. For example, may also represent vốn ('capital, funds'). When a character would have two readings, a diacritic may be added to the character to indicate the "indigenous" reading. Thus when is meant to be read as vốn, it is written as ,[b] with a diacritic at the upper right corner. The two most common alternate reading diacritical marks are and nháy (a variant form of ).[64] In this case, the word vốn is actually an earlier Chinese loan that has become accepted as Vietnamese; William Hannas claims that all such readings are similar early loans.[60]
  • Alternatively, a native Vietnamese word could be written using a Chinese character for a Chinese word with a similar sound, regardless of the meaning of the Chinese word. For example, (Early Middle Chinese /mət/[65]) may represent the Vietnamese word một ('one').[66]

To draw an analogy to the Japanese writing system, the first two categories are similar to the on and kun readings of Japanese kanji respectively. The third is similar to ateji, in which characters are used only for their sound value, or the Man'yōgana script that became the origin of hiragana and katakana.

Locally invented characters

The Nom character for phở ( 𬖾), a popular soup made from rice noodles. The radical on the left suggests that the meaning of the character is linked to rice. The phonetic component on the right suggests that the pronunciation of the character is linked to that of phở, and in this case the character's pronunciation and that of its phonetic component is the same.

In contrast to the few hundred Japanese kokuji and handful of Korean gukja, which are mostly rarely used characters for indigenous natural phenomena, Vietnamese scribes created thousands of new characters, used throughout the language.[67]

As in the Chinese writing system, the most common kind of invented character in Nom is the phono-semantic compound, made by combining two characters or components, one suggesting the word's meaning and the other its approximate sound. For example,[68]

  • 𠀧 (ba 'three') is composed of the phonetic part (Sino-Vietnamese reading: ba) and the semantic part 'three'. 'Father' is also ba, but written as (⿱), while 'turtle' is con ba ba .
  • (mẹ 'mother') has 'woman' as semantic component and (Sino-Vietnamese reading: mỹ) as phonetic component.[c]

A smaller group consists of semantic compound characters, which are composed of two Chinese characters representing words of similar meaning. For example, 𡗶 (giời or trời 'sky', 'heaven') is composed of ('sky') and ('upper').[68][69]

A few characters were obtained by modifying Chinese characters related either semantically or phonetically to the word to be represented. For example,

  • the Nôm character 𧘇 (ấy 'that', 'those') is a simplified form of the Chinese character (Sino-Vietnamese reading: ý).[70]
  • the Nôm character (làm 'work', 'labour') is a simplified form of the Chinese character (Sino-Vietnamese reading: lạm) ( > > ).[71]
  • the Nôm character 𠬠 (một 'one') comes from the right part of the Chinese character (Sino-Vietnamese reading: một).[72]


As an example of the way Chữ Nôm was used to record Vietnamese, the first two lines of the Tale of Kieu (1866 edition), written in the customary 6-8 form of Vietnamese verse, consist of the following 14 characters:[73]

character word gloss character derivation
𤾓 (⿱百林) trăm hundred compound of 'hundred' and lâm
𢆥 (⿰南年) năm year compound of nam and 'year'
𥪞 (⿺竜內) trong in compound of long and 'inside'
cõi world character of near-homophone Sino-Vietnamese quĩ/quỹ 'prime minister; to guess, estimate'
𠊛 (⿰㝵人) người person compound of abbreviated ngại and 'person'
ta our character of homophone Sino-Vietnamese ta 'little, few; rather, somewhat'
𡦂 (⿰字字) chữ word doubling of tự 'character'
tài talent Sino-Vietnamese word
𡦂 (⿰字字) chữ word doubling of tự 'character'
mệnh destiny Sino-Vietnamese word
khéo clever character of near-homophone Sino-Vietnamese khiếu 'pit, cellar'
𦉼 (⿱罒大) be abbreviated form of 'be', using the character of near-homophone Sino-Vietnamese la 'net for catching birds'
ghét hate compound of 'heart' classifier and cát
nhau each other character of near-homophone Sino-Vietnamese nhiêu 'bountiful, abundant, plentiful'

This is translated as 'A hundred years—in this life span on earth, talent and destiny are apt to feud.'[74]

Most common characters

The website gives a frequency table of the 586 most common characters in Nom literature. According to this table, the most common 50 characters are as follows, with the modern spelling given in italics:[75]

  1. to be
  2. and
  3. các each; every
  4. một one
  5. there is
  6. 𧵑 của of
  7. được to get, to obtain
  8. 𥪝 trong in
  9. 𤄯 trong clear
  10. 𠊛 (or 𠊚) người people
  11. những (plural marker)
  12. học to learn
  13. như as
  14. từ word
  15. hội to meet
  16. hay or, good
  17. không not
  18. thể body
  19. four
  20. cũng also
  21. 𠇍 với, mấy with
  22. cho to give
  23. society, company
  24. này, nơi place
  25. để to place
  26. quan frontier, barrier, gate
  27. quan to see
  28. trường school
  29. bản, vốn, composition, financial capital
  30. 𧗱 về to return; about
  31. kinh classic works, sutra
  32. hàng, hãng, hành, hạnh company, firm
  33. hàng sail; navigate
  34. sản, sẵn to give birth, to be prepared
  35. 𠚢 ra to get out
  36. thế world; era
  37. thế to replace
  38. thế position, power; like that, so
  39. thường frequent; common, normal, usual
  40. sự matter; event
  41. đó there; that
  42. tế to cross
  43. tế border
  44. đầu head; top (of a multitude)
  45. đầu to throw, to send
  46. 𦓡 but
  47. loại class, group
  48. khác another, different; further
  49. nhất first
  50. đến arrive, reach

Computer encoding

In 1993, the Vietnamese government released an 8-bit coding standard for alphabetic Vietnamese (TCVN 5712:1993, or VSCII), as well as a 16-bit standard for Nom (TCVN 5773:1993).[76] This group of glyphs is referred to as "V0." In 1994, the Ideographic Rapporteur Group agreed to include Nom characters as part of Unicode.[77] A revised standard, TCVN 6909:2001, defines 9,299 glyphs.[78] About half of these glyphs are specific to Vietnam.[78] Nom characters not already encoded were added to CJK Unified Ideographs Extension B.[78] (These characters have five-digit hexadecimal code points. The characters that were encoded earlier have four-digit hex.)

Code Characters Unicode block Standard Date V Source Sources
V0 2,246 Basic Block (593), A (138), B (1,515) TCVN 5773:1993 2001 V0-3021 to V0-4927 5
V1 3,311 Basic Block (3,110), C (1) TCVN 6056:1995 1999 V1-4A21 to V1-6D35 2, 5
V2 3,205 Basic Block (763), A (151), B (2,291) VHN 01:1998 2001 V2-6E21 to V2-9171 2, 5
V3 535 Basic Block (91), A (19), B (425) VHN 02:1998 2001 V3-3021 to V3-3644 Manuscripts
V4 785 (encoded) Extension C Defined as sources 1, 3, and 6 2009 V4-4021 to V4-4B2F 1, 3, 6
V04 1,028 Extension E Unencoded V4 and V6 characters Projected V04-4022 to V04-583E V4: 1, 3, 6;
V6: 4, manuscripts
V5 ~900 Proposed in 2001, but already coded 2001 None 2, 5
Sources: Nguyễn Quang Hồng,[78] "Unibook Character Browser", Unicode,Inc., "Code Charts – CJK Ext. E" (N4358-A).[79]

Characters were extracted from the following sources:

  1. Hoàng Triều Ân, Tự điển chữ Nôm Tày [Nom of the Tay People], 2003.
  2. Institute of Linguistics, Bảng tra chữ Nôm [Nom Index], Hanoi, 1976.
  3. Nguyễn Quang Hồng, editor, Tự điển chữ Nôm [Nom Dictionary], 2006.
  4. Father Trần Văn Kiệm, Giúp đọc Nôm và Hán Việt [Help with Nom and Sino-Vietnamese], 2004.
  5. Vũ Văn Kính & Nguyễn Quang Xỷ, Tự điển chữ Nôm [Nom Dictionary], Saigon, 1971.
  6. Vũ Văn Kính, Bảng tra chữ Nôm miền Nam [Table of Nom in the South], 1994.
  7. Vũ Văn Kính, Bảng tra chữ Nôm sau thế kỷ XVII [Table of Nom After the 17th Century], 1994.
  8. Vũ Văn Kính, Đại tự điển chữ Nôm [Great Nom Dictionary], 1999.
  9. Nguyễn Văn Huyên, Góp phần nghiên cứu văn hoá Việt Nam [Contributions to the Study of Vietnamese Culture], 1995.[78]

The V2, V3, and V4 proposals were developed by a group at the Han-Nom Research Institute led by Nguyễn Quang Hồng.[78] V4, developed in 2001, includes over 400 ideograms formerly used by the Tay people of northern Vietnam.[78] This allows the Tay language to get its own registration code.[78] V5 is a set of about 900 characters proposed in 2001.[78] As these characters were already part of Unicode, the IRG concluded that they could not be edited and no Vietnamese code was added.[78] (This is despite the fact that national codes were added retroactively for version 3.0 in 1999.) The Nom Na Group, led by Ngô Thanh Nhàn, published a set of nearly 20,000 Nom characters in 2005.[80] This set includes both the characters proposed earlier and a large group of additional characters referred to as "V6".[78] These are mainly Han characters from Trần Văn Kiệm's dictionary which were already assigned code points. Character readings were determined manually by Hồng's group, while Nhàn's group developed software for this purpose.[81] The work of the two groups was integrated and published in 2008 as the Hán Nôm Coded Character Repertoire.[81]

The characters that do not exist in Chinese have Han-Viet readings that are based on the characters given in parenthesis. The common character for càng ( ) contains the radical (insects).[82] This radical is added redundantly to create 𫋙, a rare variation shown in the chart above. The character 𫡯 (giàu) is specific to the Tay people.[83] It has been part of the Unicode standard only since version 8.0 of June 2015, so there is still very little font and input method support for it. It is a variation of , the corresponding character in Vietnamese.[84]

See also