Continuing my description of Vietnamese, how it differs from western languages, and why it fascinates me:
In principle, Vietnamese uses no parts of speech. Broadly speaking, any word can be understood as functioning like any part of speech. Vietnamese shares this characteristic with Chinese. My favorite example comes from my years of studying Chinese. In a classic poem I came across the three characters that meant “he,” “mountain,” and “treasure.” I was stumped. My teacher, a Jesuit priest who had spent many years in China, reminded me that there are no parts of speech in Chinese. I figured out that the sentence meant “he mountained the treasure,” that is, he piled it up to form a veritable mountain.
I said “in principle” because many words in Vietnamese are nearly always used as action indicators (verbs), identity indicators (nouns), or as what I call “functionals,” words that suggest a linguistic role. One such functional is the word là. It’s sometimes translated as “to be,” but its function is to equate the word before it and after it. It is used in sentences like “water is a liquid” and “I am an American.”
About a third of all Vietnamese words are borrowed from Chinese. These terms are considered restricted—they are only used with each other and only in compounds of two words. The vocabulary they form is more formal or poetic or lofty in usage than the commonly spoken language. More often than not, a native Vietnamese word exists with the same meaning for use in everyday speech. The Sino-Vietnamese terms serve in Vietnamese very much like words derived from Latin and Greek do in English. As a result, a formal or learned Vietnamese text may consist of 60 percent Sino-Vietnamese terms.
Part of the reason that so many Vietnamese words are derived from Chinese is that until the beginning of the twentieth century, Vietnamese was written in characters derived from Chinese. Only with the introduction of the Romanized alphabet, created by Portuguese missionaries, did the Vietnamese language begin to establish itself as an independent tongue.