Organized Panel Session
In 2017, the Vietnamese linguist Bùi Hiền proposed a number of changes in the orthography of Quốc Ngữ, the alphabetized “national script.” His proposal quickly led to an angry and formidable resistance from people in Vietnam and the diaspora. Any interpretation of this reaction should consider the early usage of Quốc Ngữ, when its orthography was fixed by the publications of various dictionaries. The widespread usage of Quốc Ngữ to improve literacy in the twentieth century is undeniable, but the inconsistencies in its orthography and spelling have prompted many proposals to revise and standardize it. However, the early influence of Portuguese and Italian spellings on the script remains so strong that attempts to change have met resistance as did Bùi Hiền’s.
This paper analyzes the evolution of the orthography of Quốc Ngữ in the writings and publications of European Catholic missionaries and Vietnamese catechists, priests, and scholars. They include the works of Alexandre de Rhodes (1651), Jean-Louis Tabert (1838), and the lesser-known Quốc Ngữ writings from the seventeenth century to the late nineteenth century including the first Quốc Ngữ dictionary Đại Nam Quấc Âm Tự Vị of Huình Tịnh Của (1895). Since Quốc Ngữ began as a transcription of Vietnamese spoken language, its evolving orthography also reflects the changes in Vietnamese pronunciation. Any serious proposal of revising the Quốc Ngữ spelling must take into account this complex history, especially its usage among Vietnamese Catholics before its adoption as the standard mode of writing in the twentieth century.