This content is also available in: Vietnamese

Dear Mr. Ngan,

I am Tran Thu Minh, member of the Vietnamese-American Culture Association, who sent you a volume of poems called Road to Freedom 3 years ago and received your reply. Our association will soon organize a panel discussion about the modern Vietnamese language, and I am part of the organizing board. Most Vietnamese people know that Priest Dac Lo was the one who developed our modern Vietnamese language, but someone gave me an article, accusing Priest Dac Lo of paving the way for the French invasion of Vietnam. This article also stated that the Tonkin Free School actually developed the modern Vietnamese language. I would like to get your thoughts on this matter.

Tran Thu Minh, Florida


Dear Mr. Tran Thu Minh,

Within the limits of an article, it’s difficult to provide you with enough material for a presentation or to use in a seminar. I can only give you some main points on the development of the modern Vietnamese language, and hope that you can expand more from that. Wish you success.

  1. Previously, I wrote an article in VietSun Magazine about how the modern Vietnamese language was developed by Missionary Alexandre de Rhodes. The Vietnamese pronunciation of his name is Dac Lo. Priest Dac Lo’s contribution was actual, with irrefutable evidence. Whoever said the modern Vietnamese language was developed by the Tonkin Free School was ridiculous because this group was formed in 1904, while Missionary Dac Lo came to Vietnam in 1624. Afterwards, in Rome, he published two books written in the modern Vietnamese language: “Preaching in Eight Days” and the “Vietnamese-Portuguese-Latin Dictionary” in 1651, about 250 years before the formation of the Tonkin Free School! He published these two books to provide other missionaries with material to learn Vietnamese before their arrival to Vietnam.
  2. Actually, a few pro-Communist writers such as Professor Hoang Tue, Vu Duy Men, etc. have intentionally linked the missionary work of Priest Dac Lo to the French imperial conquest of Vietnam. However because the association was very forceful and unreasonable, recently, those writers have had to change their attitudes. In 1954, when the Communist government had control of the North, they demolished the memorial stele of Priest Dac Lo, which had been erected by the Khai Tri Tien Duc Association in front of the Ngoc Son Temple, Hanoi since 1941. After their arrival in the South in 1975, the Communists removed Alexandre de Rhodes Street (Dac Lo), as an act of denying Priest Dac Lo’s contribution.
    It was not until 1995 that the Vietnamese government organized a large scale seminar about Priest Dac Lo, restored his reputation, and returned the original name to Dac Lo Street. Professor Hoang Tien, teaching linguistics at Hanoi University wrote: “Priest Dac Lo deserves to be the founder of the modern Vietnamese language. We need to erect a stele to credit his contribution as the one who brought an invaluable gift to our culture, that of the modern Vietnamese language.”
  3. Some French historians have also had the tendency of “piggy-backing”, saying that Priest Dac Lo was the one who led the French to Vietnam. This is untrue considering the time factor. Priest Dac Lo came to Vietnam to preach in 1624. More than 200 years later, was when the French started making trouble and fired their cannons on Da Nang (1858) to begin their invasion. Because of this, how can we accuse Priest Dac Lo of paving the way for the French! Furthermore, if he had intended to help the French conquer Vietnam, he would have compiled the Vietnamese-French Dictionary. What interest would the French have from him compiling the Vietnamese-Portuguese-Latin Dictionary? French was his mother tongue, but it was obvious that he compiled the Vietnamese-Portuguese-Latin dictionary to serve his missionary work. Latin was the common language of the Roman Catholic Church. Priests from all over the world had to master this language. He compiled in Portuguese because at that time most of the missionaries coming to our country were Portuguese. Even if they were not Portuguese, those wanting to do missionary work in Asia had to pass through Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, to catch a ride on the Portuguese merchants’ ships. Priest Dac Lo himself, though born in France, started his voyage to Asia from Lisbon, too. At that time, the French did not have a presence in Asia, so to accuse Priest Dac Lo of co-conspiring with the French Colonists was a very cruel scheme.
  4. However, to provide readers with a more detailed assessment, I would like to cite some historical facts, in addition to the journey of Priest Dac Lo’s missionary work, and the development process of the modern Vietnamese language. We should remember that in the past, our country did not have a written language. Everyone used Chinese. In the spirit of self-sovereignty, our ancestors developed the Vietnamese Siniform language known as Nôm. Han Thuyen of the Tran dynasty was considered the developer of the Vietnamese Siniform. But Nôm was borrowed from Chinese, so the written form still used signs similar to Chinese, Japanese or Korean. In addition, the Nôm’s character guideline was not clear, so it didn’t become popular. It was not until the development of the Vietnamese language using Latin letters that we could proudly claim ourselves as the only country in Asia to have a modern, written-language system.
    Alexandre de Rhodes was born in 1591 in Avignon. Though it was a territory belonging to France at that time, Avignon was a concession of the Roman Holy See. His ancestors were Jews living in Spain. His father was Bernard de Rhodes, a Jew, who married a Spanish wife. At that time, Spanish Jews were discriminated against, beaten, imprisoned, or killed in public. Because of this, Mr. Bernard found a way to get his wife to France, and they settled in Avignon, a location protected by the Holy See against the terrors of cruel racism and religious discrimination in Spain. Alexandre de Rhodes was born here. Upon growing up, he joined the Church and the Jesuits.

Let’s discuss briefly about Jesuits. The Roman Catholic Church has many different Orders.

Each Order has a unique principle, and a different operating system. The Order is usually not formed by the Church, but by an individual, either a parishioner or a clergyman, who envisions a particular way to better serve the Church. The founder of the Order drafts goals, principles, and regulations, and then submits everything to the Pope. If the Holy See accepts the request, the Pope will issue a decree, and the new Order is officially allowed to operate.

At that time, in Spain, there was a young man named Ignatio Lopez Recaldo, born in the Loyola Castle in 1491. He was of noble blood, and was fond of an adventurous and free life. He joined the Knight Delegation and received the ranking of Captain. In the war between Spain and France, Captain Ignatio was injured. While being treated in Loloya Castle, he read the book “The Life Of Jesus Christ,” and other books about the exemplary lives of the Saints. He became enlightened and decided to change his life, giving up the secular life, and asked to live in the monastery. The story of Saint Francois d’Assise (Francis Assisi) was the driving force that pushed Ignatio to reform his life. Francois d’Assise was a young man from a wealthy family, a playboy, and a dissolute man. When joining the army, he took part in the war and was arrested. In a dream, he saw Jesus Christ on the Cross talking to him. From that moment, he was enlightened and upon his return to civilian life, he distributed all of his wealth to the poor, and formed an austere Order. When he became a clergyman, he travelled to many areas to preach, inviting people to follow Jesus Christ.

Photo by Kim Bao Tran Photo by Kim Bao Tran

Francois d’Assise’s life was a great example for Knight Ignatio. But Ignatio saw that if he only stayed in the monastery to preach, it would not be as beneficial as travelling outside to do missionary work. He returned to Spain and diligently studied Latin, Philosophy and Theology. After that, he went to Paris to study for 7 more years. When he finished studying, he persuaded 6 of his friends to go up to the Church of the Virgin Mary on Montmartre Hill, Paris, to pledge and draft regulations to form a new Order. He submitted this to the Pope. This new Order took the name of “La Compagnie de Jésus” (Warriors of Jesus). In English, the Order is called “The Society of Jesus.” Its primary purpose was missionary work. They pledged three things: 1/ Frugal living. 2/Moral living. 3/ Absolute obedience to the Pope and the superiors of the Order.

Upon joining the Order, members were no longer concerned about their nationality. Whether it was Portuguese, Spanish, Italian or French, they all obey the Pope. Whereever the Pope and the Superiors told them to go, they would obey without debate. Knight Ignatio was a captain in the army before joining the monastery, so he applied army principles to the Order: Absolute obedience to the higher officials, even if they sent you to far-off and dangerous places.

It is important to emphasize the misunderstandings, unintentional or intentional, with the use of the words “warriors” or “army”. Catholics are very familiar with these words, such as “The Army Of Virgin Mary” (Legio Mariae), or “The Blue Army” or “The Faith Warriors”. Or, in the case of Ignatio’s Order, which took the name of “La Compagnie de Jesus” (Warriors of Jesus). For people who are not Catholics, when reading memoirs of clergymen such as Dac Lo’s, could mistakenly think that he talked about a “militant army” of Western troops that fought to conquer colonies.

Let’s go back to the story of Clergyman Ignatio Loyola’s formation of a new Order. This Order selected followers not only based on morality, but furthermore, the selected members had to be wise, patient, and speak many different languages.

In 1540, the Pope officially permitted this Order to operate. In short, clergymen of this Order were called Jesuits (The Jesuits). Perhaps it was translated into Vietnamese as Dong Ten (the Name Order) because the Order bore the name of Jesus Christ.

Another thing should be mentioned for our non-Catholic readers so that they can understand the thought processes of clergymen in the past. According to the Bible, Jesus Christ told his apostles: “You should travel the world to preach about Jesus’ land”. It was an order, so the clergymen felt that they had a responsibility to implement Jesus Christ’s words. They were willing to go to anywhere in the world, even though danger awaited. Actually, right in Toronto, every year, Christians go on a pilgrimage to Midland, a location where we can see how many clergymen were killed on the way from Europe to Canada during their missionary work. However, the missionaries at that time, because of their strong faith, never yielded!

The Jesuits followed a principle that when arriving to a new area, they would not try to disseminate Western Culture in that area, but rather, learn about the local culture to integrate with the people. It was a revolutionary approach, which was not supported by conservative Catholics, such as the Order of Preachers. But the Jesuit approach was successful everywhere.

Priest Dac Lo, after joining the Jesuits, passed through Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, where many merchant ships departed regularly for Asia. At that time, Portugal and Spain ruled the seas. In 1492, from Barcelona, Spain. Christopher Columbus departed and discovered America. Five years later, Vasco de Gama from Spain stepped on the soil of India. From then on, ships rushed to sea in large numbers; Spain and Portugal had the highest number of merchant ships. Portuguese merchant ships departed regularly from Lisbon. The missionaries had many chances to board the ships to Asia. Many years later, it was England, France and other European countries’ turn to fight each other for dominance in maritime trade.

Priest Dac Lo’s initial destination was actually Japan. At that time, Catholicism in Asia was formed earliest in Japan, with about 70,000 parishioners. This was because when the Portuguese Jesuits came to preach in Japan, the country was still not unified, with each group ruling an area, much like during the Dynasty of Dinh Bo Linh in our country. Some troops secured guns from Portuguese merchants to fight with other troops. For that reason, those troops were friendly with the Portuguese, and let the Portuguese missionaries preach. But when Priest Dac Lo came, the era of troop separation in Japan ended. The Bakufu Regime came to power and was determined to eradicate Catholicism because they considered it a threat to Japan. Japanese parishioners were tortured, 31 Jesuits were killed. The Catholic Church in Japan was pretty much wiped out at this point. Some Japanese parishioners fled to Vietnam and stopped in Hoi An, where they were welcomed by Japanese merchants, who were also backed by Lord Nguyen. Clergymen in Japan fled to Macau or came to Vietnam, with hopes that they could return someday to practice their faith with a Japanese congregation. But that dream never came true; the Bakufu Regime succeeded in removing all traces of the newly formed Catholic Church in Japan.

The Jesuits were the first people to initiate the use of Latin letters to transcribe the local spoken language. They tried to introduce this practice at first in China and Japan. In Japan, they nearly finished this great task. The new Japanese written language was called Romaji, which was traditional Japanese written in Roma (Latin) letters. It was a pity that the government banned Catholicism and also banished this new written language. Nowadays, the Japanese are still using the old form of their written language, similar to the Chinese.

With no success in Japan, the Jesuits brought this knowledge to Vietnam. While listening to the Vietnamese speak, the clergymen used Latin letters to transcribe what they heard, gradually developing a new written language that we use today, and we now call the modern Vietnamese language. Perhaps fate had arranged this, because if Priest Dac Lo had stayed in Japan, we might not have the modern Vietnamese language!

The most difficult element of the Vietnamese language would be the pitches, especially when words are pronounced differently in the South and the North. Father Dac Lo once told a story about when he asked a boy to buy fish (cá) but the boy came back with an egg-plant (cà)!

In reality, Father Dac Lo was not the first person to develop the Vietnamese modern language. When he came to Vietnam in 1624, some Jesuits were already working there, such as Pina, Borri D’Amaral and Barbosa. Clergyman Pina was the one who held classes to teach Vietnamese, so that Father Dac Lo and new process servers could learn the language. A 13-year old Vietnamese boy, with the Christian name of Raphael, often stood beside Father Dac Lo to help him learn Vietnamese. Also, there was another intellectual who Father Dac Lo called “Teacher,” and this man also helped Father Dac Lo understand more about the Vietnamese language.

The two clergymen Pina and D’Amaral were pioneers in compiling the Vietnamese-Portuguese Dictionary. But the two clergymen’s Vietnamese skills were modest because they only lived in the South; they were not aware of the difference in pronunciation in the North. For example: When the Vietnamese say “Thiên Chúa,” Clergyman Pina transcribed it as “Thinchu”, without accents. Or in a longer sentence: When the Vietnamese said “Tôi chẳng biết Thiên Chúa,” Clergyman Pina would transcribe it as “Tui ciam biet Thinchu”.

Gradually, Father Dac Lo added tones and accents, continuing the work of his predecessors to finalize the Vietnamese modern language though his works which were published in Rome, “Preaching in Eight days” and “The Vietnamese-Portuguese-Latin Dictionary”.

The Vietnamese written by Priest Dac Lo 356 years ago was like this: “Phép giảng tám ngày cho những kẻ muấn (muốn) chịu phép rửa tội, mà beào (vào) đạo thánh đức Chúa blời (trời)”.

Compared to the modern Vietnamese language, there is not much of a difference. Furthermore, it was probably hard for a European to listen to the pronunciations of the Hoi An region (Quang Nam, Da Nang).

Priest Dac Lo lived in Vietnam for 7 years, plus 4 years of travelling, because in the past, transportation was not easy, and he was also often forced to hide. He wrote in his memoir: “Stay as long as I can, leave when I am forced to.”

Later on, Father Dac Lo was sent to preach in the Middle East and died there.

In summary: Though he was not the first and only person to develop the modern Vietnamese language, Priest Dac Lo contributed to the transcription, editing, adding of tones and perfecting, building a firm foundation for the current Vietnamese language.

Can you image if it weren’t for people like Priest Dac Lo, you would have to read Culture Magazin in Chinese or Nôm! And I would still have to use Nôm or Chinese to write my ghost stories!