On the Japanese & Vietnamese Language

Simply put the Japanese and Vietnamese language share in common Chinese influence. This influence can be readily seen in modern vocabulary and be inferred from the writing systems both past and present. Although their shared heritage is well documented by linguists and historical fact, I stumbled upon it myself over the last three months of learning Vietnamese.


Notable through out her history for adaptation, Japan adopted the Chinese writing system and vocabulary voluntarily. The Japanese received “Chinese learning” from visiting Korean dignitaries. At this time Korea, writing with Chinese characters, was under Chinese imperial domination. Japan survived a Chinese/Mongol invasion due to the legendary Kamikaze typhoon that destroyed the invading fleet before it could make landfall.

Japan would later introduce a European script and vocabulary in response to the arrival of western influence in Asia. Japan continues to use two native phonetic scripts, Chinese characters, and a western alphabet simultaneously.


Much like Korea, Vietnam was dominated by China for many centuries. Before the Chinese invasion, the various Vietnamese tribes used scripts akin to modern Thai and Khmer. The Cham people of modern Vietnam, a historically Hindu minority with a present population of roughly 230,000, continues to use their ancient script today. These ancient scripts have a fascinating lineage back to Indian sea-traders who brought Hinduism, Buddhism, and the east Indian scripts to Southeast Asia.

The Chinese introduced Chinese Characters to Vietnam. However they were limited to the few who were privileged and literate. When the French colonialists seized Vietnam they introduced a Vietnamese Alphabet. The simplicity of the new alphabet allowed for mass literacy and contributed to Vietnam’s relativity high literacy rate when compared to 20th century China.


English Chinese Japanese Vietnamese
Electricity Diànlì Den Điện
Feeling        Gǎn (感) Kan (感) Cảm
Love Ai Ai Ái tình
Tea Chá Cha Trà
Safety Ān Anzen Sự an toàn
Telephone Diànhuà Denwa điện thoại
Gradual Rǎnrǎn Dan dan dần dần


The shared heritage has made remembering vocabulary and predicting new Vietnamese words simpler. In a strange way, I’m lucky I studied Japanese, because drawing on my rusty Japanese to learn Vietnamese is an awesome surprise.

2 thoughts on “On the Japanese & Vietnamese Language

  1. Hi Deren,

    It’s great to get these interesting travel stories and cultural observations from you. I’m glad to know you are thriving and enjoying the adventure of being in Asia.

    Your Aunt, Wendy

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