Puzzled by the Music of Language: Missionaries in 17th-century Vietnam

Imagine you get dropped in a foreign country where people seem to sing rather than speak their language. You are required to describe this strange tongue, and you only have pen and paper and your own memory and intellect to rely on. This is what happened to a number of Jesuit missionaries in early 17th-century Vietnam.

Before Indochina fell into the hands of France in the 19th century, it was autonomous territory, with different clans and dynasties constantly battling for power. The Europeans had nonetheless already found their way to these parts of Asia before the 1800s. They were looking for two things: money and souls. Apart from the never-satisfied commercial hunger of traders and colonists, it was religion pushing Europeans to this region. They wanted to convert as many people as they could to Christianity, or at least their interpretation of it. What better way than studying the languages of these pagans and translating the gospel into them? The Word of God would be persuasive enough to lure these erring souls to the one true God, as long as they could read it in their own languages.

That sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? Little did Christian soul-hunters know that they would run into such a great Babel of languages in these distant lands — languages that were so very different from what Europeans spoke. Vietnamese, for one, is a language that works with what linguists call ‘tones’. Like Chinese but unlike any contemporary European tongue, the tone with which a syllable is pronounced is key to its meaning. Standard Vietnamese has six different tones. As a consequence, one and the same syllable can have no less than six distinct meanings! Take, for example, the syllable ma. Depending on the tone with which you utter it, it can signify six different things:

  • pronounced with a mid-level, very slightly falling tone, it means ‘ghost’ (written as ma);
  • pronounced low and falling, it means ‘but’ (written as );
  • pronounced high and steeply rising, it means ‘cheek’ or in southern Vietnamese also ‘mother’ (written as );
  • pronounced with a mid-level tone first falling and then rising, it means ‘tomb’ or ‘grave’ (written as mả);
  • pronounced with a high and rising tone that seems interrupted, it means ‘horse’ or ‘code’ (written as );
  • pronounced with a low and falling tone and short vowel, it means ‘rice seedling’ (written as mạ).

Tone can give languages a very distinct character. Speakers do not seem to be speaking but singing, which is why some linguists have come up with the term ‘musical accent’ to describe this feature. Modern linguists can rely on accurate technology, established methods, and existing studies when tackling this thorny issue. The first Europeans to go to Vietnam and attempt to analyze the local languages were not as lucky. Badly equipped and left to themselves, they had nothing but a pen, a piece of paper, and their knowledge of one or more European tongues to work with. They instinctively resorted to what they had learned as students in their grammar courses. Unfortunately for them, these were tailored to Latin or their native living languages such as French and Portuguese, and not to the strange tongues they encountered outside of Europe. Some of them were eager enough to also study other tongues including Greek and languages from the so-called Orient such as Arabic and Persian. For the case of Vietnamese, knowledge of the Greek language proved especially useful. In an attempt at charting the Vietnamese tonal systems, French and Portuguese Jesuits resorted to the Greek accent. This too was musical, even if grammarians had rightly observed that there were only three tones in this language and most of them no longer recognized the musicality of the Greek accent.

An excellent example of a Jesuit drawing a parallel between the Vietnamese and Greek accents is the Frenchman Alexandre de Rhodes (1593–1660), who was likely inspired by the work of his Portuguese predecessors. De Rhodes was of Spanish-Jewish ancestry and obtained his first education at the enormous Jesuit college in his native town of Avignon. There he no doubt studied Latin and Greek grammar, as this was part of the Jesuit study program. At the age of 19 he entered the Society of Jesus in Rome, since he wanted to prepare himself for a mission in Japan. In the 1630s he taught at the Madre de Deus college in Macao, that had been founded by the Jesuits in 1594 and has been called the first Western university in East Asia. There he might have found early Portuguese descriptions of Vietnamese, and by a twist of fate he wound up in Vietnam rather than Japan. He participated in three different missions across this area over a period of more than ten years. In 1645 he returned to Rome, where he arrived only four years later, after a very cumbersome journey. He stayed there for five years, but kept on working for the Catholic cause in Vietnam. It is from this period that his brief grammatical description and his dictionary of the Vietnamese language stem, published in Rome in 1651 by the press of his employer, the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith. At the end of his life he went on another Jesuit mission, this time in Persia. There too de Rhodes studied the local language, but he died in 1660 before he could do anything with his linguistic expertise.


In his brief grammatical description of Vietnamese de Rhodes treats at some length the remarkable tones of this language. As these belong to the core of the tongue, de Rhodes already discusses them in the second chapter of his account:

We have said that accents are as it were the soul of words in this idiom, and for this reason they are to be studied with the greatest diligence. We therefore use the triple accent of the Greek language, acute, grave, and circumflex, to which, because they do not suffice, we add the subscribed iota and our interrogation sign; for all the tones of this language can be reduced to six classes, so that all words of this idiom entirely pertain to one of these six classes or tones, with no word at all excepted.[1]

Seventeenth-century Jesuits such as de Rhodes had already noticed that Vietnamese had six different tones, much like most modern linguists. What follows in de Rhodes’ description is a relatively accurate account of these different tones, a unique analysis based on the interaction of European Jesuits with the Vietnamese language and native speaker informants, on the one hand, and their knowledge of Greek, on the other:

So the first tone is the neutral, which is pronounced without any inflexion of the word, as in ba, ‘three’; […] for this reason words that have this neutral tone, are noted without any accent; and this is a sufficient distinctive mark for them, since all others have their own accent.

The second tone is the acute, which is pronounced by raising the voice and by pronouncing the word like someone who is angry, as in , ‘concubine of a king or of some nobleman’.

The third is the grave and is pronounced by lowering the voice, as in , ‘grandmother’ or ‘lady’.

The fourth is the circumflex, which is expressed by inflecting the word that is pronounced from the bottom of the chest and later resoundingly raised, as in , ‘fist blow’ or ‘to box one’s ears’.

The fifth is called weighty or heavy, since it is expressed with a certain weight or burden from the bottom of the chest with a raised voice, and it is noted with a subscribed jota, as in bạ, ‘abandoned object’.

The sixth finally is called soft, as it is pronounced with a soft bending of the voice, in the same way as we are used to pose questions such as ‘Really?’ and the like; and for this reason it is noted with that interrogative mark for an accent, as in bả, ‘a certain silk with the Tonkinese of golden-yellow or saffron-yellow color’.[2]

The different tones are quite aptly compared to the different musical tones by de Rhodes and his fellow Jesuits from Portugal. One of his Portuguese colleagues even drew musical staves to demonstrate this. De Rhodes, however, points out that it would be difficult to learn the Vietnamese tones through musical theory alone. It would be better, the Frenchman suggests, to learn them from a native speaker of Vietnamese. And isn’t he right? After all, who would want to run the risk of mistakenly addressing her or his grandmother () as “abandoned object” (bạ)?

The Jesuits in Vietnam faced a difficult mission: diffusing the Word of God in the language of the local people. Despite the great obstacles on their way, they proved themselves to be highly creative when it came to describing Vietnamese. They successfully designed a system for writing down the language by means of an adapted version of the Roman alphabet, into which they introduced various signs and symbols to represent some of the more difficult features of it, its tonal system in particular. Their success was the fruit of close interaction with the Vietnamese people and their own knowledge of traditional grammar. In this case, acquaintance with Greek, knowledge of which was not very usual among missionaries, boosted this creativity, as the Vietnamese tones reminded them of the Greek system of accents. Linguistic intuition went hand in hand with cultural cross-fertilization.



[1] De Rhodes’ (1651: 8) original Latin reads: “DIximus accentus esse quasi animam uocabulorum in hoc idiomate, atque ideò summa diligentia sunt addiscendi. Vtimur ergo triplici accentu linguæ Græcæ, acuto, graui, & circumflexo, qui quia non sufficiunt, addimus iota subscriptum, & signum interrogationis nostræ; nam toni omnes huius linguæ ad sex classes reducuntur, ita ut omnes prorsus dictiones huius idiomatis ad aliquam ex his sex classibus seu tonis pertineant, nulla uoce prorsus excepta.”

[2] De Rhodes (1651: 8-9): “Primus igitur tonus est æqualis, qui sine ulla uocis inflexione pronunciatur, ut ba, tres: […] uoces itaque quæ hunc æqualem habent tonum, nullo notantur accentu; & hoc est sufficiens illarum distinctiuum signum, cùm omnes aliæ suum accentum habeant.

Secundus tonus est acutus, qui profertur acuendo voce[m], & proferendo dictionem, ac si quis iram demostraret [sic], ut concubina Regis, uel principis alicuius uiri.

Tertius est grauis, & profertur deprimendo uocem, ut , auia, uel Domina.

Quartus est circumflexus, qui exprimitur inflectendo uocem ex imo pectore prolatam, & postea sonorè eleuatam, ut , colaphus, uel colaphizare.

Quintus uocatur ponderosus seu onerosus quia cum quodam pondere seu onere ex imo pectore prolata uoce exprimitur, & notatur cum iota subscripto ut bạ, res derelicta.

Sextus denique dicitur lenis, quia cum leni quadam vocis inflexione profertur, sicuti cum interrogare solemus, itane? & similia; & idcirco signo illo interrogatiuo pro accentu notatur vt, bả, quoddam sericum apud Tunchinenses coloris lutei vel crocei.”

Cite: Van Rooy, Raf. 2019. “Puzzled by the Music of Language: Missionaries in 17th-century Vietnam.” Adendros (blog). 12 November 2018.

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