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Brief History and Overview

Vietnam was under Chinese rule for many centuries. Although the Vietnamese culture and language are unique, the Chinese influence on culture and language is pervasive. The most profound Chinese influence was from the classical Chinese Chu Han, which was used in Vietnam as the official language during thousands of years of Chinese imperial rule.

At the fall of the French colonial regime, a strong grassroots movement advocating the development of a national culture and the adoption of Vietnamese as a national language developed. Today, Vietnamese is used in all official business, including education and media. Vietnamese is the primary language of over 59 million people worldwide.

There are three major, dialectal variations within Vietnamese. Because the traditional names of the dialects correspond to old colonial divisions—Tonkin, Annam, and Cochin-China—these terms have been discarded among the Vietnamese population. In current literature, the terms Northern, Central, and Southern Vietnamese are used. The Northern dialect forms the basis of the standard national language and is the prestige dialect. Dialects differ mainly in pronunciation; however, there are some vocabulary differences. Dialect variances do not impede intelligibility among native speakers.

Northern Vietnam has a rich diversity of ethnic minority language variations, which are just now being discovered and documented by social anthropologists and linguists. Populations ranging from hundreds to millions of speakers are being discovered and documented at an amazing rate. 

These languages and cultures have remained elusive for several reasons. Many ethnic minority groups live in geographical areas that are difficult to access due to the lack of roads and seasonal restrictions on travel. Members of many of northern Vietnam’s ethnic minority groups have not traditionally ventured out to take part in or live in the larger Vietnamese world. However, the biggest complication to cultural and linguistic research in the last half-century has been a virtually unbroken series of armed conflicts that has disrupted all aspects of life in Indochina.