Vietnamese morphology

Vietnamese, like many languages in Southeast Asia, is an analytic (or isolating) language. Vietnamese lacks morphological marking of case, gender, number, and tense (and, as a result, has no finite/nonfinite distinction).


Vietnamese is often erroneously considered to be a "monosyllabic" language. Vietnamese words may consist of one or more syllables. There is a tendency for words to have two syllables (disyllabic) with perhaps 80% of the lexicon being disyllabic. Some words have three or four syllables — many polysyllabic words are formed by reduplicative derivation.

Additionally, a Vietnamese word may consist of a single morpheme or more than one morpheme. Polymorphemic words are either compound words or words consisting of stems plus affixes or reduplicants.

Most Vietnamese morphemes consist of only one syllable. Polysyllabic morphemes tend to be borrowings from other languages. Examples follow:

Vietnamese word English gloss Phonological form Morphological form
cơm "cooked rice" monosyllabic monomorphemic
cù lao "island" disyllabic monomorphemic
dưa chuột "cucumber" disyllabic bimorphemic
vội vội vàng vàng "hurry-skurry" polysyllabic polymorphemic (reduplicative)

Most words are created by either compounding or reduplicative derivation. Affixation is a relatively minor derivational process.

Older styles of Vietnamese writing wrote polysyllabic words with hyphens separating the syllables, as in cào-cào "grasshopper", sinh-vật-học "biology", or cà-phê "coffee". Spelling reform proposals have suggested writing these words without spaces (for example, the above would be càocào, sinhvậthọc, càphê). However, the prevailing practice (although considered careless to some) is to omit hyphens and write all polysyllabic words with a space between each syllable.

The word



Reduplication, the process of creating a new word by repeating either a whole word or part of a word, is very productive in Vietnamese (as in other Austro-Asiatic languages), although not all reduplicative patterns remain fully productive.

Function and semantics

Its effect is to sometimes either increase or decrease the intensity of the adjective, and is often used as a literary device (like alliteration) in poetry and other compositions, as well as in everyday speech.

Examples of reduplication increasing intensity:

  • đauđau điếng: hurt → hurt horribly
  • mạnhmạnh mẽ: strong → very strong
  • rựcrực rỡ: flaring → blazing

Examples of reduplication decreasing intensity:

  • nhẹnhè nhẹ: soft → soft (less)
  • xinhxinh xinh: pretty → cute
  • đỏđo đỏ: red → somewhat red
  • xanhxanh xanh: blue/green → somewhat blue/green


A type of assimilation known as tonal harmony is involved in Vietnamese reduplication. The six tones are categorized into two registers:

Register Tones
Upper ngang, sắc, and hỏi
Lower huyền, nặng, and ngã

The tones of all reduplicated words are always within the same tonal register (either upper or lower). For example, nhỏ "small" with the hỏi tone when reduplicated appears as nho nhỏ "smallish" with a ngang-toned reduplicant — both syllables are in the upper tonal register.

Vietnamese has several different types of reduplicative patterns including both total, partial, initial, final, rhyming, and alliterative patterns involving only reduplicated material or both reduplicated material and affixation.

Reduplicant position. The resulting reduplicants can be either initial (preceding the base) or final (following the base).

Initial reduplication:

* bự "be big" > bứ bự "be very big" (base: bự, initial reduplicant: bứ-)
* khẳn "fetid" > khăn khẳn "smelly" (base: khẳn, initial reduplicant/affix: khăn-)

Final reduplication:

* mập "be fat" > mập mạp "be chubby" (base: mập, final reduplicant/affix: -mạp)
* khóc "to weep" > khóc lóc "to whimper" (base: khóc, final reduplicant/affix: -lóc)

Total reduplication involves copying the entire word base:

  • vàng " yellow" > vàng vàng "yellowish"
  • vui "be joyful" > vui vui "jovial, fun"
  • nói "to talk" > nói nói "to keep talking and talking"

Partial reduplication involves copying only certain segments of the word base. Partial reduplication typically involves the affixation of non-reduplicated segments.



Vietnamese has very limited affixation. Only prefixation and suffixation are attested. A few affixes are used along with reduplication. Many affixes come from the Sino-Vietnamese and learned part of the lexicon. Some examples (not an exhaustive list) follow.

Prefix Gloss Examples
bán- "half" bán nguyệt "semicircular, semi-monthly" (bán- + -nguyệt "moon"),
bán đảo "peninsula" (bán- + đảo "island")
khả- "ability" khả kính "respectable" (khả- + kính "to respect"),
khả quan "satisfactory" (khả- + quan "to behold")
lão- familiar (added to surnames) lão Thinh "ol’ Thinh, good old Thinh" (lão- + Thinh surname)
phản- "counter to, against" phản cách mạng "counter-revolutionary" (phản- + cách mạng "revolution"),
phản chiến "anti-war" (phản- + -chiến "to fight")
phi- "not" phi nghĩa "unethical" (phi- + nghĩa "righteousness"),
phi chính phủ "non-governmental" (phi- + chính phủ "government")
siêu- "above, better" siêu thị "supermarket" (siêu- + thị "market"),
siêu đẳng "outstanding" (siêu- + đẳng "level")
tăng- "over, high" tăng a xit "hyperacidity" (tăng- + a xit "acid"),
tăng can xi "hypercalcernia" (tăng- + can xi "calcium")
thứ- ordinal (added to numerals) thứ mười "tenth" (thứ- + mười "ten"),
thứ bốn mươi ba "forty-third" (thứ- + bốn mươi ba "forty-three")

Suffix Gloss Examples
-gia "profession" chính trị gia "politician" (chính trị "politics" + -gia),
khoa học gia "scientist" (khoa học "science" + -gia)
-giả agentive tác giả "author" (tác "to create" + -giả),
học giả "scholar" (học "to learn" + -giả)
-hóa forms causative verb a xít hóa "to acidify" (a xit "acid" + -hóa),
mỹ hóa "to americanize" (Mỹ "USA" + -hóa)
-học "field of study" ngôn ngữ học "linguistics" (ngôn ngữ "language" + -học),
động vật học "zoology" (động vật "animal" + -học)
-kế "measuring device" nhiệt kế "thermometer" (nhiệt- "warm" + -kế),
áp kế "manometer" (áp "get close, approach" + -kế)
-khoa "field of study" nha khoa "dentistry" (nha- "tooth" + -khoa),
dược khoa "pharmacy" (dược- "drug" + -khoa)
-sĩ "expert" hoạ sĩ "artist" (hoạ "to draw" + -sĩ),
văn sĩ "writer" (văn "literature" + -sĩ)
-sư "master" giáo sư "professor" (giáo "to teach" + -sư),
luật sư "lawyer" (luật "law" + -sư)
-viên agentive quan sát viên "observer" (quan sát "to observe" + -viên),
phối trí viên "coordinator" (phối trí "to coordinate" + -viên)


Vietnamese has the following tonal alternations (or tonal ablaut) which are used grammatically:

  tone alternation
đây "here" đấy "there" (ngang tone-sắc tone)
bây giờ "now" bấy giờ "then" (ngang tone-sắc tone)
kia "the other" kìa "yonder" (ngang tone-huyền tone)
(Nguyễn 1997:42-44)

Vietnamese also has other instances of alternations, such as consonant mutations and vowel ablaut. Different regional varieties of Vietnamese may have different types of alternations.


See also


  • Beatty, Mark Stanton. (1990). Vietnamese phrase structure: An X-bar approach. (Master's thesis, University of Texas at Arlington).
  • Emeneau, M. B. (1951). Studies in Vietnamese (Annamese) grammar. University of California publications in linguistics (Vol. 8). Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Nguyễn, Đình-Hoà. (1997). Vietnamese: Tiếng Việt không son phấn. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
  • Nguyễn, Phú Phong. (1992). Vietnamese demonstratives revisited. The Mon-Khmer Studies Journal, 20, 127-136.
  • Nguyễn, Tài Cẩn. (1975). Từ loại danh từ trong tiếng Việt hiện đại [The word class of nouns in modern Vietnamese]. Hanoi: Khoa học Xã hội.
  • Nhàn, Ngô Thanh. (1984). The syllabeme and patterns of word formation in Vietnamese. (Doctoral dissertation, New York University).
  • Noyer, Rolf. (1998). Vietnamese 'morphology' and the definition of word. University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics, 5 (2), 65-89. (Online link to entire journal volume:
  • Phong, Nguyễn Phu. (1976). Le syntagme verbal in vietnamien. Mouton: Le Haye.
  • Shum, Shu-ying. (1965). A transformational study of Vietnamese syntax. (Doctoral disseration, Indiana University).
  • Thompson, Laurence E. (1963). The problem of the word in Vietnamese. Word, 19 (1), 39-52.
  • Thompson, Laurence E. (1965). Nuclear models in Vietnamese immediate-constituent analysis. Language, 41 (4), 610-618.
  • Thompson, Laurence E. (1991). A Vietnamese reference grammar. Seattle: University of Washington Press. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. (Original work published 1965).
  • Uỷ ban Khoa học Xã hội Việt Nam. (1983). Ngữ-pháp tiếng Việt [Vietnamese grammar]. Hanoi: Khoa học Xã hội.

External links

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