Vietnamese syntax

Vietnamese syntax

Vietnamese, like many languages in Southeast Asia, is an analytic (or isolating) language. [Comparison note: As such its grammar relies on word order and sentence structure rather than morphology (in which word changes through inflection). Whereas European languages tend to use morphology to express tense, Vietnamese uses grammatical particles or syntactic constructions.] Also like other languages in the region, Vietnamese syntax conforms to Subject Verb Object word order, is head-initial (displaying modified-modifier ordering), and has a noun classifier system. Additionally, it is pro-drop, wh-in-situ, copula-drop, and allows verb serialization.

Lexical categories

Vietnamese lexical categories (or "parts of speech") consist of nouns, demonstrative noun modifiers, articles, classifiers, numerals, quantifiers, the focus marker particle, verbs, adverbial particles, prepositions.

The syntax of each lexical category and its associated phrase (i.e., the syntactic constituents below the sentence level) is detailed below. Attention is paid to both form and function.

Nouns and noun phrases

Words belonging to the noun (or substantive) lexical category can be distinguished from verbs syntactically in that the copula "là" "to be" is required to precede nouns in predications whereas the copula is not required before verbs.

: "Mai là sinh viên".: "Mai is (a) student."

In the sentence above, the noun "sinh viên" "student" must co-occur with the copula. Omitting the copula, as in *"Mai sinh viên" results in an ungrammatical sentence. [As is typical in linguistic writings, the asterisk "*" is used in this article to indicate ungrammatical sentences.] In contrast, verbs do not co-occur with the copula.

: "Mai cao".: "Mai is tall."

The verb "cao" (as in the sentence above) does not require a preceding copula, and thus the sentence *"Mai là cao" is ill-formed.

The category noun can be further subdivided into different noun classes according to semantic and syntactic criteria. Some of the subclasses identified in Nguyễn (1997) include:

* proper noun
* common noun
** item noun
** collective noun
** unit (or measure) noun
** mass noun
** time noun
** abstract noun
* classifier
* locative

Nouns can be modified with other words resulting in complex noun phrases. These modifiers include demonstratives, quantifiers, classifiers, prepositional phrases, and other attributive lexical words, such as other nouns and verbs. These modifiers co-occur with the modified noun (known as the head noun or noun phrase head), but there are restrictions on what kind of modifiers are allowed depending upon the subclass of noun. The noun phrase has the following structure:



When a classifier co-occurs with a following head noun, the quantifier word precedes the classifier:


Mass (such as, "thịt" "meat", "đất" "earth, soil") and collective nouns (such as, "trâu bò" "cattle", "ruộng nương" "(rice) fields") cannot be modified with a quantifier. For example, the following are ungrammatical noun phrases:


However, mass nouns can be preceded by a unit noun (such as "cân" "kilogram", "lạng" "tael", "nắm" "handful", "chén" "cupful") that indicates a measurement of the mass noun, which can, then, be modified with a quantifier. For example, the ungrammatical "*ba thịt" "three meats" and "*một con thịt" "one meat" (above) can be rendered as grammatical phrases with unit nouns present:


is grammatical, but the phrase


Again, "cái" must follow the other pre-noun modifiers, so phrases where "cái" precedes a numeral or article (such as "*cái hai chó đen này" or "*cái các con mèo này") are ungrammatical.

The focus marker "cái" is distinct from the classifier "cái" that classifies inanimate nouns (although it is historically related to the classifier "cái"). [Classifiers must agree semantically with the animacy of the head noun. (See the classifier section.)] Thus, classifier "cái" cannot modify the noun "chó" "dog" (in "cái chó") since "chó" is animate (the non-human animate classifier "con" must be used: "con chó"), whereas focus "cái" can modify nouns of any animacy (with their appropriate classifier):


Phonologically, the focus "cái" receives an intonational stress, and, in addition, the element receiving the focus also receives an intonational stress. In the following examples, the stressed words are indicated with capital letters (also in red font):




The first person "tôi" is the only pronoun that can be used in polite speech. The second person "ta" is often used when talking to oneself as in a soliloquy, but also indicates a higher status of the speaker (such as that of a high official, etc.). The other superior-to-inferior forms in the first and second persons ("tao", "mày", "mi", "bay") are commonly used in familiar social contexts, such as among family members (e.g. older sister to younger sister, etc.); these forms are otherwise considered impolite [Kinship terms are used instead in polite speech.] . The third person form "nó" (used to refer to inanimates, animals, children, and scorned adults, such as criminals) is considerably less arrogant than the second person forms "tao", "mày", "mi", "bay". The pronoun "mình" is used only in intimate relationships, such as between husband and wife.

The pronominal forms in the table above can be modified with plural "chúng" as in "chúng mày" "you (guys)", "chúng nó" "them". There is an exclusive/inclusive plural distinction in the first person: "chúng tôi" and "chúng tao" are exclusive (i.e., me and them but not you), "chúng ta" and "chúng mình" are inclusive (i.e., you and me). Some of the forms ("ta", "mình", "bay") can be used to refer to a plural referent, resulting in pairs with overlapping reference (e.g., both "ta" and "chúng ta" can mean "inclusive we", both "bay" and "chúng bay" can mean "you guys").

The other class of pronouns are known as "absolute" pronouns (Thompson 1965). These cannot be modified with the pluralizer "chúng". Many of these forms are literary and archaic, particularly in the first and second person.



Additive compounds are formed by with "mười-" "10" initially and another numeral following: "mười tám" ("10" + "8" = "18"). Multiplicative compounds are formed with a order that is the reverse of the additive compounds, i.e. "-mươi" is preceded by another numeral: "tám mươi" ("8" x "10" = "80").

Consonantal and tonal alternations occur in some compound numerals. The numeral "mười" "10" in multiplicative compounds has a tonal change ("huyền" tone > "ngang" tone) to "-mươi" "times 10", as in:

: "bốn mươi" "40" (instead of "*bốn mười")

The numeral "một" "1" undergoes a tonal alternation ("nặng" tone > "sắc" tone) to "mốt" when it occurs after "mươi" (with "ngang" tone) in multiples of 10, as in:

: "bốn mươi mốt" "41" (instead of "*bốn mươi một")

The numeral "năm" "5" undergoes an initial consonant alternation ("n" > "l") to "lăm" as the final element in additive compounds, as in:

: "mười lăm" "15" (instead of "*mười năm"): "bốn mươi lăm" "45" (instead of "*bốn mươi năm")


Ordinal numerals are formed by adding the "thứ-" ordinal prefix to cardinal numerals: "thứ-" + "mười" "ten" = "thứ mười" "tenth". [Note that the affixal status of morphemes will be indicated with a hyphen in descriptions of the morphological structure of these words, but current Vietnamese orthographic practice does not use hyphens or write multisyllabic words without orthographic spaces.] Other examples include: "thứ nhất" "first", "thứ hai" (or "thứ nhì") "second", "thứ ba" "third", and "thứ bốn" (or "thứ tư") "fourth".

Verbs and verb phrases

As mentioned in the noun section above, verbs can be distinguished from nouns by their ability to function as predicators by themselves without a preceding copula "là". Additionally, verbs may be categorized into two main subtypes, stative and functive, according to syntactic criteria.

tative verbs

Stative verbs (also known as verbs of quality, extended state verbs, adjectival verbs or adjectives) can be distinguished from functive verbs by two syntactic tests:

# stative verbs can be preceded by a degree modifier such as "rất" "very"
# stative verbs cannot be preceded by the exhortative "hãy"

: "Giáp rất cao.": "Giap (is) very tall."

: *"Hãy trắng!" (ungrammatical): "Be white!"

Functive verbs

Functive verbs (also known as "real" verbs, verbs of action, "doing" words, or momentary action verbs) differ from stative verbs by the same syntactic tests:

# functive verbs cannot be preceded by a degree modifier such as "rất" "very"
# functive verbs can be preceded by the exhortative "hãy" "let's (do)" (indicates commands, requests, etc.)

: *"Giáp rất ăn." (ungrammatical): "Giap very eat."

: "Anh hãy ăn đi!" : "Go ahead and eat!"

Tense markers

Although it is not usually required, past tense is indicated by adding the particle "đã", present progressive tense by the particle "đang", and future tense is indicated by the particle "sẽ". Of course, "đã" and "đang" or "đang" and "sẽ" can be used together.

entence structure




Topic-comment structure

The topic-comment structure is an important sentence type in Vietnamese. Therefore Vietnamese has often been claimed to be a topic-prominent language (Thompson 1991). As an example the sentence "Tôi đọc sách này rồi." ("I've already read this book.") can be transformed into the following topic prominent equivalent.

:"Sách này thì tôi đọc rồi.":This book (TOPICMARKER) I read already



* Beatty, Mark Stanton. (1990). "Vietnamese phrase structure: An x-bar approach". (Master's thesis, University of Texas at Arlington).
* Behrens, Leila. (2003). Classifiers, metonymies, and genericity: A study of Vietnamese. In C. Zelinsky-Wibbelt (Ed.), "Text, context, concepts" (pp. 65-125). Text, translation, computational processing (No. 4). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
* Cao, Xuân Hạo. (1988). The count/mass distinction in Vietnamese and the concept of ‘classifier’. "Zeischrift für Phonetik, Sprachwissenschaft und Kommunikationsforschung", "1" (41), 38-47.
* Daley, Karen Ann. (1998). "Vietnamese classifiers in narrative texts". Arlington, TX: The Summer Institute of Linguistics and The University of Texas at Arlington.
* Emeneau, M. B. (1951). "Studies in Vietnamese (Annamese) grammar". University of California publications in linguistics (Vol. 8). Berkeley: University of California Press.
* Löbel, Elisabeth. (1999). Classifiers vs. genders and noun classes: A case study in Vietnamese. In B. Unterbeck & M. Rissanen (Eds.), "Gender in grammar and cognition, I (approaches to gender)" (pp. 259-319). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
* Nguyễn, Đình-Hoà. (1957). Classifiers in Vietnamese. "Word", "13" (1), 124-152.
* Nguyễn, Đình-Hoà. (1997). "Vietnamese: Tiếng Việt không son phấn". Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
* Nguyễn, Phú Phong. (1992). Vietnamese demonstratives revisited. "The Mon-Khmer Studies Journal", "20", 127-136.
* Nguyễn, Tài Cẩn. (1975). "Từ loại danh từ trong tiếng Việt hiện đại" [The word class of nouns in modern Vietnamese] . Hanoi: Khoa học Xã hội.
* Nguyễn, Tuong Hung. (2004). "The structure of the Vietnamese noun phrase". (Doctoral dissertation, Boston University, Boston, MA).
* Pham, Hoa. (2002). Gender in addressing and self-reference in Vietnamese: Variation and change. In M. Hellinger & H. Bußmann (Eds.), "Gender across languages: The linguistic representation of women and men" (Vol. 2, pp. 281-312). IMPACT: Studies in language society (No. 10). John Benjamins.
* Shum, Shu-ying. (1965). "A transformational study of Vietnamese syntax". (Doctoral disseration, Indiana University).
* Thompson, Laurence E. (1963). The problem of the word in Vietnamese. "Word", "19" (1), 39-52.
* Thompson, Laurence E. (1965). Nuclear models in Vietnamese immediate-constituent analysis. "Language", "41" (4), 610-618.
* Thompson, Laurence E. (1991). "A Vietnamese reference grammar". Seattle: University of Washington Press. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. (Original work published 1965).
* Uỷ ban Khoa học Xã hội Việt Nam. (1983). "Ngữ-pháp tiếng Việt" [Vietnamese grammar] . Hanoi: Khoa học Xã hội.

ee also

* Vietnamese morphology
* Vietnamese phonology
* Vietnamese language

External links

* [ Vietnamese Online Grammar Project]
* [ Vietnamese/Cambodian references] (Linguist List)
* [ Additional Vietnamese references] (Linguist List)

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