Nôm Characters Dictionary



My Nôm Characters Dictionary just arrived.  I am so excited!  It is a huge book, with 1679 pages of dense information, packed tight in a book that is worthy of its cost, $75 plus shipping n handling.  I have Việt dictionaries, but I have never had one of these.  Not sure how I am going to approach this, but I think just jumping in head-first will do it for now.

This book is esoteric enough for me to get a first edition even though it was printed in 2009.  It is the first book of its kind in that it was created entirely through internet communications from ten different linguistic historians, located all over the world.  I am not sure how I will be able to learn the characters with only a dictionary, but I’m going to try.

Moreover, there is a font that is available for the Nôm Characters that can be downloaded and will allow me to type in this archaic form of the Vietnamese language.  This means I can quickly put the characters together without having to write it all laboriously via the old-fashioned method, ink and paper.  For those of you who are interested, here is the link for the font.


It is going to take me awhile to get used to thinking about my native language in character format, but it’s worth learning.  Not sure what I can do with this knowledge since the number of people who can still read this script is few and getting fewer by the day due to the fact that the vast majority of them are rather advanced in years.  Still, my father has told me often, there is no such thing as wasted knowledge.  Everything I learn is useful for something and for some reason.

Good enough reason for me to learn!  And you never know, I might stumble upon something interesting in the future that will require my understanding of this script.

Tự Điển Chữ Nôm Trích Dẫn.  Nguyen H. Vinh, Dang T Kiet, Nguyen D Vuong, Le V Dang, Nguyen V Sam, Nguyen N Bich, Tran U Thi.  Westminster, California:  Viet-Hoc Publishing.  2009.

Nôm Na Là Cha Mách Qué

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Hey you!  Nôm na là cha mách qué!

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Say what???

Whatever dude.  Your Momma too.   Dumb ass.

I would have this attitude because this sooo sounds like such an insult.  This sentence cannot be said without it sounding like an insult.  Nobody knows why.  At least, nobody in the modern world knows why.

Well, I do—now.

Back in the old days, (and I mean really old—like a thousand years ago—old), this was an insult to those who used Chữ Nôm to write anything with.  (I detailed Chữ Nôm in my previous post so go back and read that if you are not clear on this aspect of the post).  The sentence, when uttered and hurled at someone meant that the person being insulted was an ignorant uneducated commoner, unable to comprehend that which exists at higher levels, written with elevated, respectable Han Chinese.


The commoners could care less.  They rather enjoyed it and actually proliferated the idea and endorsed that saying until it saturated all corners of Vietnam.  The saying continued forth through the years, unchanged in meaning, deriding and jeering the commoner and his usage of street language (as opposed to court language).  It still survives to this day and used in the same derisive manner.

I tell you…

Most folks have no clue as to its original meaning.  If they only knew the truth, they would…


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…they would smile and continue to proliferated the idea so that it would remain intact for future generations, that’s what they would do.  You see, it is a huge clue that has been left to be transmitted down to future generations during a time when the written knowledge of this was banned on fear of death and persecution.

kingThis was evident in the retelling that was detailed in a history book called Tiêu Sơn Tráng Sĩ, written by Khái Hưng, about the reign of King Quang Trung, aka King Nguyễn Huệ (阮惠) which lasted from 1788 to 1792 (more about this important king in future postings).

In a short passage, there was described, a scene where a visiting dignitary who was dispatched by the Emperor of China from the north to check on the compliance of Han Chinese decrees by the kingdoms in the south, cried out in horror:  “Ignorant!  All of you are ignorant!  From King to Courtiers, you are all ignorant!”

He was, of course, talking about the fact that King Quang Trung was using Chữ Nôm to write his kingly decrees, instead of using the more elite and advanced Hanzi as required by the Emperor from China.

Indeed, the truth of the matter was, King Quang Trung had previously insisted to his subjects that all decrees written in his kingdom, courtly or not, HAD TO BE WRITTEN in Chữ Nôm, and it had nothing to do with whether he knew Hanzi or not.  As I have previously stated, those who were part of the court HAD TO LEARN HANZI because that was the language of the courts.

In fact, because he lived most of his life within the royal palace, King Quang Trung probably knew Hanzi better than he knew Chữ Nôm, and most likely, he knew it far better than the visiting dignitary, who could not have been educated in the manner that princes and kings were.  The only reason for King Quang Trung’s decree was because he wanted the Vietnamese to use the language of the south that had been cobbled together by the southerners (the Vietnamese) for the southerners to use.

This language, though not the original Văn Khoa Đầu, was at least NOT the language of the overlords from the north.  Furthermore, it was not illegal to use and would not cause the wrath of the northern Han Chinese to rain down upon the common subjects.  Most importantly, it allowed King Quang Trung to NOT have to honor the language of his enemy by using it.

I don’t know about you, but if it was good enough for my king, it’s good enough for me!

So, to answer the question about what the heck Nôm na là cha mách qué means, I’m sure you must have figured out by now that the first word has to have something to do with Chữ Nôm, and you would be absolutely correct!

Here is the breakdown:

1)  Nôm is Nam in modern-day Vietnamese, as in Việt Nam or Nam Script as used in this context.

2)  Na is na ná, which means ‘similar to’ or ‘akin’, as used in the context of this sentence.

3)   is the verb ‘to be’.  In the present tense, it means ‘is’

3)  Cha is father or teacher; in this context, it means teacher.

4)  Mách is to teach or to instruct.

5)  Qué is quẻ in modern-day Vietnamese and means gua, as in bagua, or the combined eight trigrams.

Put it all together and what do we get?

Nam Script is akin to the teacher of the hexagrams.

And once again, in cleverly hidden messages, in mythology, in stories told to children, in nursery rhymes, even in derisive quotations, my ancient ancestors have tried with everything they had to transfer tiny nuggets of truth down the ages to us so that one day, we can gather them all up and smelt them down to isolate the pure gold from the impurities.  The resulting truths shine like the brightest golden treasures—treasures that my ancestors have fought to preserve so that one day I could recover them and claim my birthright.

Their message is clear.  Learn Chữ Nôm and I would be able to learn the I Ching at the most basic levels.  I would be able to read the I Ching in its most basic form, as it was written so long ago, and as it was written at the time Lao Tzu and Confucius was reading it.  In a sense, we would be contemporaries because we would be reading the exact same text.  I would no longer have to rely on translations of the translations which had been translated from the original texts.

Thank you, ancestors.  Thank you so very much.

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Chữ Nôm (𡨸喃)

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Can you read the words written below?

Ìm me trình nê shần ìz môr ìm pố tần tàn no lịch chờ.

If you could read Vietnamese, you would be able to read those words with little difficulty.  It is not exact, of course, because the Vietnamese pronunciation is missing a few enunciations.  However, it’s close enough if one understood the English language and could read Vietnamese—because I wrote it in Vietnamese—more or less.

If I wrote it in English, the above sentence would read:  Imagination is more important than knowledge.  This is how a phonetic writing system works and the rules are simple.

1)  There are no silent letters.
2)  All letters must sound the same all the time.
3)  Each sound is written out, so each word is only allowed one syllable.  Anything that requires two syllables to denote a word either gets a hyphen in the middle of the two words or are written as two words.
4)  Any accented sounds are marked with an accent to denote how the sounds must be made.

That’s it.

In a previous post entitled Ancient Viet Dynasty, I talked about the ancient writing system of the Vietnamese called the Văn Khoa Đầu.  It was a phonetic writing system that, once learned, could be used to write anything that could be spoken.  Basically, one would not need to know the words, only to pronounce the sounds that the symbols or letters made when they are placed together.  One only needed to know what the word meant after it was sounded out.  This allows for a language (any language, really) that does not have any writing system, ergo a spoken-only language, to be easily and quickly written out.

Using this simple understanding of the way Vietnamese writing worked, I was able to ‘cheat’ at reading Vietnamese from a very early age.  Without needing to understand the more complex vocabulary (that would come in due time), I was reading out loud, advanced books on subjects I knew nothing about, and I was reading them correctly and clearly.  Whether or not I understood what I read was another matter, but the fact was, I could read anything written in Vietnamese.

This was how Chữ Nôm was first invented.

yangtze riverChữ means ‘characters’, Nôm means ‘south’.  However, the word Nôm did not just mean ‘south’.  It also meant ‘the people of the south’, because ancient Lạc Việt was everything south of the Yangtze river.

Remember, in ancient times, Xích Quỷ (赤鬼) or Red South was the domain of Lạc Long Quân.  This is the reason why there is a Nam in the words Việt Nam.

Chữ Nôm came to be used by my people at one point in our history when we were not allowed to write in our language, the Văn Khoa Đầu.  With book burnings, beheading of heads of states, and a major indoctrination of the Han way of life, we lost our method of writing, to be replaced by Hanzi (漢 Han script)or what we called chữ Nho (儒 Confucian script).  In order to continue the education of the people, who did not speak Mandarin, my ancestors had no choice but to use the characters allowed by law to be written and assign phonetic sounds to them.  Then, they put the sounds together and, when read out loud, one did not need to know Mandarin to use the scripted characters.  Since some of the characters were overly complicated, my ancestors created many simplified characters and many new characters to assign different sounds to them.

thaydo2This was the humble beginnings of Chữ Nôm.  The first word chữ itself was a newly created nôm character that was unknown in Han Chinese. It is a compound of , which meant ‘sound’, plus the character , which means ‘character’.  When written together as 𡨸, it literally means ‘sound character’. ~ wikipedia

It is very different from Hanzi or chữ Nho, in that it was derided as being the commoner’s language, nothing that would be used by the elite and the educated.  It was the written language of the street people who still had to document marriages, births, and deaths.  It was the language of the common businessmen who still had to document sales, transactions, and trades.

Since my family was part of the court system, they all had to learn classical Chinese because they had to use formal writing.  My grandfather was an herbalist and physician who taught herbal medicines using chữ Nho as the language with which to train his students.  When visiting physicians and herbalists came to see him, they ‘talked’ using paper and quill, writing out their thoughts, for although they could understand each other’s written words, they could not understand the spoken words, and medicine had to be precise.  They could not guess at each other’s meanings.

Never let it be said that we cannot adapt to changes.

All this changed when the French came and took over Vietnam.  They abolished the Hanzi, the chữ Nho, and any Chữ Nôm that was still being used.  They anglicized Vietnamese by exchanging one phonetic way of writing with another.  By this time, we were quite used to reinventing our language, yet again.  It was that or completely stop using the native language and speaking nothing but French, and that was NEVER going to happen.

Of course, as part of the royal court family, my father had to go to a French school and learn the new language.  He knew the French language much better than he knew Vietnamese by the time he graduated out of the French high school he was enrolled in.  Meanwhile, his father (my grandfather) still continued to read and write in the old street language Chữ Nôm, and also the court language, Chữ Nho.

Today, when writing out the sounds of our ancient ancestors, we type everything out in an alphabet system with accented marks to designate accents.   The writing is modern but the language is ancient.  It has survived all these centuries, and it will continue to survive into the future.

This is important because in my next few posts, I am going to tie Chữ Nôm in with the beginnings of the I Ching, and trace backwards, what the words mean in my ancient language.