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Vietnamese pronunciation guide with audio samples of the six tones

11.13.07 | admin | In Vietnamese

One of the first and most important tasks when learning the Vietnamese language are the six vowel tones. It can be very difficult to distinguish similar tones from each other especially when you hear conflicting examples from different source materials as well as tones being pronounced differently by individual speakers. That’s why I’ve compiled some information about the six common tones as well as an embedded player so you can listen to and repeat each tone and compare and contrast ones that sounds similar to you. It can be hard to learn the tones when you’re hearing them from a tape spoken rapidly just one time with no break to process what you have just heard.

Vietnamese vowels are all pronounced with an inherent tone (thanh or thanh điệu). Tones differ in:

  • pitch
  • length
  • contour melody
  • intensity
  • glottality (with or without accompanying constricted vocal cords)

Tone is indicated by diacritics written above or below the vowel (most of the tone diacritics appear above the vowel; however, the nặng tone dot diacritic goes below the vowel). The six tones in the northern varieties (including Hanoi) are:

Name Description Chao Tone Contour Diacritic Example Sample vowel
ngang ‘level’ high (or mid) level 33 (no mark) ma ‘ghost’ [audio:vingangtone.mp3]
huyền ‘hanging’ low falling 21 ` (grave accent) ‘but’ [audio:vihuyentone.mp3]
sắc ’sharp’ high (or mid) rising 35 ´ (acute accent) ‘cheek, mother (southern)’ [audio:visactone.mp3]
hỏi ‘asking’ (low) dipping-rising 313 ̉ (hook) mả ‘tomb, grave’ [audio:vihoitone.mp3]
ngã ‘tumbling’ breaking-rising 35 or 315 ˜ (tilde) ‘horse (Sino-Vietnamese), code’ [audio:vingatone.mp3]
nặng ‘heavy’ constricted 32 or 31 ̣ (dot below) mạ ‘rice seedling’ [audio:vinangtone.mp3]

There is much variation among speakers concerning how tone is realized phonetically. There are differences between varieties of Vietnamese spoken in the major geographic areas (i.e. northern, central, southern) and smaller differences within the major areas (e.g. Hanoi vs. other northern varieties). In addition, there seems to be variation among individuals. Northern Vietnamese has the full 6 tones, whereas Southern Vietnamese only has 5 (merging two of the tones into one). Central Vietnameses, to the unaccustomed ear, reduce the number of tones to only 4.

Tone contour is the how the pitch varies over a syllable for a tone in a tonal language. It is usually denoted by a string of two or three numbers, or an equivalent pictogram. The pitch levels are numbered from 1 to 5, the lowest being 1 and the highest being 5.

Below are details about tone realization in the northern varieties.

Ngang tone:
The ngang tone is produced with modal voice phonation (i.e. with “normal” phonation).

Huyền tone:
The huyền tone has accompanying breathy voice phonation in some speakers, but this is lacking in other speakers: bà = [ʔɓɐ̤ː21] or [ʔɓɐː21]. Think of the breathy phonation as a sigh.

Hỏi tone:
The hỏi is pronounced low falling in the beginning of the syllable, and rises slightly after that.
Caution: Not all speakers will have the final rising part and sometimes the tone only rises if it’s in a final syllable. This varies by region. The difference between this and huyền if you don’t notice the final rising part is that it will start higher and drop more abruptly whereas huyền will fall more gradually.

Ngã tone:
For some speakers, the ngã tone is pronounced falling-rising, with the rising part noticeably higher than the Hỏi tone. Hỏi = 313; ngã = 315. In Southern Vietnam this tone is merged with the hỏi tone (same pitch levels).

Sắc tone:
The sắc tone is produced with modal voice although the vocal cords are often tenser than the ngang tone. In some speakers, the sắc tone has the same tone contour as the ngã tone (i.e. 35). In other speakers, the ngã tone is noticeably higher than the sắc tone: sắc = 34 or 24; ngã = 35 or 45.

Nặng tone:
The nặng is pronounced falling and glottalized. It starts lower than hỏi which is higher than huyền without the sigh of the latter. Sometimes it will be very short period

If this is useful I can follow up with a pronunciation guide for each of the Vietnamese vowels and some of the more difficult consonants.

Some of this information came from Wikipedia.

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