The Chu Nom was a system developed to write Vietnamese. The actual date is not agreed but chu nom was already in existence by the mid-13th century.
Vietnam was ruled by the Chinese for over a thousand years from 111 BC - 938 AD. As a result, the official written language was Classical Chinese, known as Chữ-nho (𡨸儒) in Vietnamese, which continued to be used in Vietnam, in parallel with Chữ-nôm (𡨸喃) and Quốc Ngữ, until about 1918.
Sometime during the 10th century the Vietnamese adapted the Chinese script to write their own language and called their script 'Chữ-nôm' (southern script). The earliest known example of writing in the Chữ-nôm script, an inscription on a stele at the Bao An Pagoda in Yen Lang, Vinh Phu province, dates from 1209 AD (Ly Dynasty). It was during the Tarn Dynasty (late 13th century) that the script was systematized and started to be used in literature.
Famous Vietnamese writers who wrote in the Chữ-nôm script include the poets Nguyen Thuyen and Nguyen Si Co (14th century) and Nguyen Trai (15th century), and HoQuy Ly (14th century) who translated Chinese textbooks into Vietnamese and wrote royal proclamations and ordinances.
When western missionaries starting arriving in Vietnam during the 17th century, they developed a new script for Vietnamese based on the Latin alphabet - Quốc Ngữ (national language), which they used to write prayer books and other religious material in Vietnamese. Though Quốc Ngữ was developed by a number of different missionaries and by Vietnamese scholars, the person usually credited with its invention is Alexandre de Rhodes, a French Jesuit missionary.
In the mid 18th century, some schools in Vietnam began to teach Quốc Ngữ, but it wasn't until the beginning of the 20th century that the use of Quoc Ngữ became widespread. Today Quốc Ngữ is the only script used for writing Vietnamese.
Courses in the Chữ-nôm script were available at Ho Chi Minh University until 1993, and the script is still studied and taught at the Han-Nôm Institute in Hanoi, which has recently published a dictionary of all the nôm characters.
Chu nom was not a completely new system of writing. It consisted of orthodox Chinese characters supplemented by a set of new characters specifically created to write Vietnamese words. Modelled on Chinese characters, these characters used many of the same principles in their construction -- for instance, the practice of combining a meaning element and a sound element to create a new character. The new characters were considerably more unwieldy and complex than the originals. They were all but incomprehensible to people from China itself and have never been accepted as part of the greater family of Chinese characters, unlike characters that were created by the Japanese.
As in the case of Japanese, the Vietnamese script had to deal with both native words and imported vocabulary from China. Constant close contact with the Chinese meant that some Chinese words were borrowed more than once, resulting in layers of Chinese vocabulary in varying degrees of naturalisation. The most highly naturalised words were accepted as Vietnamese words, as much an integral part of the Vietnamese language as the native Vietnamese vocabulary. Less naturalised words retained a stiff and bookish feel.
The main methods of representing Vietnamese in chu nom are shown below. (Note that the chu nom system was never completely standardised. There were innumerable cases where several different characters were used to write the same word, as well as cases where the same character was used to write different words.)
The chu nom system of writing could only be mastered by someone who already knew Chinese characters. Its use was thus confined to the educated elite and it was regarded as secondary to Chinese characters. Although chu nom was the medium for some of Vietnam's vernacular literature, most notably the Story of Kieu, a classic 18th century work, it was unable to match the prestige of orthodox Chinese writing. It was only fleetingly successful in gaining official acceptance as Vietnam's writing system. In the end, the Vietnamese abandoned both Chinese characters and the chu nom.
Although Chinese characters have been swept into the dustbin of history, it's remarkable how much their spirit lives on, both in the Vietnamese vocabulary and, ironically, in the writing system.
In fact, the practice of representing each syllable as one 'word', which is the common practice in modern Vietnamese, is actually a throwback to the old concept that each Chinese character is equivalent to one word. For instance, 'Hanoi', which linguistically speaking is one word, is written in Vietnamese as two: . This follows the Chinese script, which writes 'Hanoi' with two characters: (literally, 'river' + 'inside').
- Chữ-nôm uses a mixture of standard Chinese characters and new characters invented specifically for writing Vietnamese.
- When adapting the Chinese characters, the inventors of Chữ-nôm borrowed many Chinese words and adapted that pronunciations to Vietnamese phonology. As a result of this borrowing, there are often two words for the same thing - a Sino-Vietnamese one and the original Vietnamese one, as can be seen below.
- The new characters combine a character which gives the meaning and another which hints at the Vietnamese pronunciation.