chapter  10
17 Pages

Literacy in early seventeenth-century Northern Vietnam: Keith W. Taylor

ByKEITH W. TAYLOR

Literacy among Vietnamese before the spread of alphabetic writing during the past century was measured primarily by mastery of classical Chinese, called Hán , and secondarily by ability to write vernacular Vietnamese using adaptations and combinations of Hán characters, called Nôm , a variant of the Vietnamese pronunciation of the Hán character for “south” with the sense of “southern speech.” 1 The relationship between Hán and Nôm as lexical affi liates and as writing systems is close because a large percentage of the vernacular vocabulary of educated people derived from Hán, and also because Hán characters, with their semantic fi elds, their Vietnamese pronunciations, and their classical usages, were the raw materials for inventing Nôm characters. On the other hand, Hán characters, being fi xed and standardized, have resisted signifi cant change from century to century, while Nôm characters, with their sensitivity to phonetic change, have not. Nôm characters vary greatly depending upon regional dialects and upon the phonetic history of the Vietnamese language; consequently, despite generations of usage, there is no standardized form of Nôm that enables access to all surviving Nôm texts.