Book Reviews

cover image

Portuguese Pioneers Of Vietnamese Linguistics

Pionniers Portugais de la Linguistique Vietnamienne Jusqu’en 1650

Roland Jacques

2002 408 pp., bibliography. 24.5 x 17.5 cm. Softbound.

ISBN-10: 974-8304-77-9 $36.00
ISBN-13: 978-974-8304-77-9

Book review by Angela Scarfò

(Translated from the Italian original)
Quaderni Vietnamiti [Turin, Italy], vol. III/3, 2004, pp. 196-198

The French scholar, Roland Jacques, has published under this title a bilingual edition in French and English that is the fruit of his doctoral research. The book is a revised and partly rewritten version of the dissertation he presented in 1995 to the Institute of Eastern Languages and Cultures (INALCO) of Paris for a Doctorate in Far-Eastern and Asian-Pacific Studies.
   The study is centred on the history of the Vietnamese language, the Quoc Ngu, a tonal language transcribed even today into a Latin-based alphabet rather than in a system of ideograms, as the languages of neighbouring China and Japan have.
   Jacques’ investigation offers a constructive and interesting contribution to the development of studies on this Southeast Asian country. His carefully researched and profound analysis makes use of many archival sources and manuscript materials, e.g., from the holdings of the Ajuda Library and the National Library of Lisbon, the National Centre for Social Science and Humanities of Vietnam, and various study centres of Macao.
   Jacques’ step-by-step study of the language and related issues gave rise to the organization of the book, which consists of two parts. The first section portrays the role of the Portuguese missionaries in conceiving and developing the Quoc Ngu. It highlights the personality of Francisco de Pina, a Jesuit to whom Jacques attributes the first authorship of the Manuductio ad linguam tunckinensem. This text is analysed in the second part of the book, and a critical edition is appended.
   Until recent times many authors, without much discussion, had hailed the Frenchman Alexandre de Rhodes as the father of the Quoc Ngu, the “national language,” on the grounds that he published two volumes in 1651 in Rome, including a Dictionnarium annamiticum, lusitanum et latinum. Surely, Alexandre de Rhodes played a major role in the development of this written form of the Vietnamese language, and his contribution was important. However, Jacques shows very clearly that this was possible thanks to the outstanding work done before and during Rhodes’ time by other Portuguese missionaries and linguists who preceded him on the coasts of the Sea of China.
   The arrival of the first members of the Paris Society of Foreign Missions in 1666 boosted the French presence in the Far East. Simultaneously, the Portuguese presence, that of the Society of the Jesus, was declining. This was one of the factors that led to underrating the achievements of the Jesuits in the field of language studies and to exalting the priority and value of the French influence on Vietnamese culture.
   The author asserts: “Even an elementary knowledge of Portuguese shows quite clearly a relationship between the Romanised Vietnamese script and the complex phonetics inherent in the Portuguese language. […] What is not known is the full extent of the Portuguese influence in the Romanising of Vietnamese” (p. 13).
   The Jesuits Antonio Barbosa, Gaspar do Amaral, and Francisco de Pina, mentioned also by Rhodes, should be remembered among the pioneers of the Vietnamese language. The book focusses on Pina. Jacques’ painstaking efforts in finding handwritten archival material and submitting it to philological scrutiny led him to attribute to this Jesuit priest a significant letter, found in the manuscript collection, Jesuitas na Asia, from the Ajuda Library of Lisbon.
   Pina’s letter emphasizes the work done by the Jesuits on the Vietnamese language and the correct techniques to learn it. It explains the methods promoted in their language school, which for more than thirty years developed its own research, descriptions, and syntheses. At the same time, the letter provides precious information to complete the picture, explaining the rationale behind specific linguistic options made by the fathers of the Quoc Ngu.
   At the end of the sixteenth and during the first decades of the seventeenth century, the Portuguese Jesuits set foot on the territory of present-day Vietnam, whose population had won its independence from China and rallied around two main governing families, the Nguyen in the South and the Trinh in the North. The Jesuits interacted with these populations and established missions among them, e.g., in the regions of Quang Nam and Binh Dinh (Quy Nhon) and in the cosmopolitan city of Hoi An. There they had to come to terms with a rather complex linguistic scene:

•  The Vietnamese language and its various dialects (monosyllabic and tonal languages). The language that the Portuguese missionaries described in the seventeenth century is usually called “middle Vietnamese” (cf. p. 47).

•  The Chinese or Sino-Vietnamese idiom, which was the language of the court and cultured circles par excellence. The Chinese language had been imposed at the time of the Chinese domination and remained the official language of the nation from its independence to the dawn of twentieth century. Its written form was identical to the script used in China; however, its oral form, or Sino-Vietnamese, developed independently, to the point that communication with Chinese speakers became impossible. The language remained the favourite means of expression for a minority of literati.

•  The ideograms. These comprise the written form of the Sino-Vietnamese language, in which every character corresponds to one morpho-syllable carrying one unit of meaning. This is the pre-eminent vehicle of Confucianism, a tradition of thought and social organization that spans millennia. The greater part of the ancient Vietnamese literature is written in Chinese; this entailed a definite rigidity around immutable canons for the literary output of Vietnam.

•  Nôm. After Vietnam won its independence from China, its people became gradually aware of the reality of its own national culture, conveyed by the Vietnamese language rather than by Chinese, and they felt the need to develop it. Although this trend opposed the overwhelming influence of the Chinese language, its transcription system was taken over: Nôm was entirely based upon the Chinese characters and, unfortunately, it was dependent upon the ingenuity of each author. A standard was eventually developed in the nineteenth century to make up for this but, as a result, Nôm became even more inaccessible and difficult to master-definitely not within the reach of a majority of the populace.

   The main goal of the Jesuit missionaries was evangelizing the population. Learning the local language was a practical means to communicate and transmit the Word of God.
   Beyond this, the objectives expressed in Pina’s letter show a strong interest in the Vietnamese language and culture as such, as well as the author’s intention to rely upon a compromise between the ideograms of Nôm and their transliteration in the Latin alphabet. To achieve this, Pina arranges for and fosters interaction between the Portuguese missionaries and their Vietnamese disciples. While learning Portuguese and Latin to act as interpreters of the Christian faith, these latter became the protagonists of the first transliterations of the Vietnamese language in the Latin script.
   Jacques depicts and emphasizes this crucial aspect of the birth of Quoc Ngu, which is strongly influenced in its written form by Portuguese phonetics without losing in the least the uniqueness of the Vietnamese language.
   Roland Jacques is a passionate and refined scholar; his work is a precious contribution to the historiography of the Vietnamese language. Its import is further enhanced, among other things, by the documents placed in the appendices, especially the manuscript text of Francisco de Pina’s letter and a critical edition of the Manuductio.

[Lire une revue en français de Collège Érasme] [More Orchid Press Reviews]