Many people believe that Alexandre de Rhodes, a French Jesuit missionary, invented the Vietnamese alphabet. However, more recent research proved that Francisco de Pina, a Portuguese priest and minister, was the first inventor of the Vietnamese alphabet.
The Formation of the Vietnamese Alphabet
In the early 17th century, a Christian congregation of more than 20 priests and missionaries from different nations, including Portugal, Italy, and France, came to Cochinchina for Catholic evangelism. Initially, the language barrier made it challenging for them to carry out their mission. Thus, the missionaries started using Latin characters to rewrite Vietnamese to study this language and to preach without translators. From the purpose of evangelism, these Vietnamese rewritten in Latin became a vital foundation for today’s Vietnamese alphabet, later popularized by Vietnamese scholars in their Modernization Movement to increase the people’s literacy in the early 20th century.
The Inventor of the Vietnamese Alphabet
Francisco de Pina (1585-1625)
A Vietnamese research group reported that a French priest, Roland Jacques, had discovered two of Francisco de Pina’s unpublished works: an uncompleted letter written in Portuguese in Macau and an introduction to the Cochinchine language in Portuguese. These works proved that Francisco de Pina first invented the Vietnamese alphabet, and Alexandre de Rhodes systematized and compiled the work of precedent missionaries.
Francisco de Pina was a Portuguese priest and missionary. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1605, then studied and preached in Macau. Father de Pina arrived in Cochinchina either at the end of 1617 or the beginning of 1618. Francisco de Pina was said to be the first foreigner to master Vietnamese and preach without translators. This success enabled him to develop a close rapport with local people, which helped him reinforce teaching and evangelization efforts.
Alexandre de Rhodes (1591-1660)
Alexandre de Rhodes was a French Jesuit missionary and a lexicographer who wrote the first trilingual Vietnamese-Portuguese-Latin dictionary (Dictionarium Annamiticum Lusitanum et Latinum) in Vietnam. The dictionary was published in 1651 in Rome with the name Dictionarium Annamiticum Lusitanum et Latinum. Many Vietnamese scholars later used the dictionary widely to create the modern Vietnamese writing system primarily based on the Roman alphabet. This system is called Quoc Ngu (literally means national language) and is still used today.
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Alexandre de Rhodes arrived in Hoi An, Vietnam 1625, many years after Francisco de Pina. It was said that Alexandre had initially studied Vietnamese under the guidance of Father Francisco de Pina. Alexandre de Rhodes spent about 20 years in Vietnam and wrote several books about the country, including History of the Kingdom of Tonkin (1650), The Glorious Death of Andrew, Catechist (1653), and Tunchinensis Historiæ libri duo (1652).
Conclusion on Who Invented the Vietnamese Alphabet
With the purpose of Catholic evangelism, the evangelization efforts of several missionaries eventually made a significant contribution to developing the Vietnamese language. It can be said that the Vietnamese alphabet is the joint effort of many people. The pioneer was Father Francisco de Pina, and the one who developed it was Alexandre de Rhodes.