Rabbi Alexandres De Rhodes, the first person credited with inventing the Vietnamese script today

W.Minh Tuan


I teach Vietnamese at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies.

When I first visited the school’s library, located in Fuchu shi city, Tokyo, I saw a large glass cabinet in the entrance hall, inside there were a few books that seemed like old books. I stopped by to see if there was anything interesting, and was surprised to see a book with some Vietnamese-sounding words, a very old book.

I carefully read the 2 pages that the book opened, and found that it was a Vietnamese-Portuguese dictionary of missionary Alexandres De Rhodes, published around 1600, more than 400 years ago.

From there I began to delve into this great missionary Alexande De Rhodes, and here is the information I found about the missionary.

Without him, perhaps we Vietnamese today would not use the alphabet like today, but still use Chinese characters like in the past.

We Vietnamese must thank the missionary Alexandres De Rhodes very much.

It is time for the State of Vietnam to make a decision to honor the missionary Alexander De Rhodes – the first person who created the Vietnamese writing system today.

If it weren’t for cleric Alexander De Rhodes, we Vietnamese are still write in Chinese today, it is not bad, but it is very cumbersome, complicated, difficult.!!!


French cleric Alexander De Rhodes, born in 1593 in Avinhon, Papal states-now France, died in 1660 in Iran.

He came to Vietnam for the first time in 1625 in South Vietnam, in the land of Dang Trong of  Lord Nguyen, to preach.

On July 3, 1645, he was permanently expelled from Vietnam, because Vietnam also banned the transmission of religion.

He lived in Cochinchina (the South) for about 5 years and 7 months, and lived in Cochinchina (the North) for about 3 years and 2 months.

After 6 months in Vietnam, he learned Vietnamese and spoke fluently Vietnamese, a buffalo boy taught him Vietnamese, and began to preach in Vietnamese.

He found that Vietnamese people speak Vietnamese, but they have to use Nom characters and Chinese characters to write, which is very inconvenient.

He devised to use Latin letters with accents to write Vietnamese, which sounds like Vietnamese, but it’s much more convenient to write using Latin letters, alphabet.

After him, many other Western missionaries also joined, supplemented, and gradually corrected for perfection of Vietnamese language like our Vietnamese writing today.

In 1661, he published the first Vietnamese-Portuguese-Latin Dictionary, nearly 500 pages thick. (Dictionarium Annamiticum, Lusitanum et Latinum).

In this dictionary, there is a copy of the book Vietnamese Grammar (Linguae Annamitiacae seu Tunchinensis Brevis Declaratio). This is the first Vietnamese grammar book in Vietnam.

Historically, he wrote History of the North Vietnam (Histoire du Royaume du Tonkin) in Italian in 1650, and Divers Voyages et Missions in French language in 1651.

In the History of the North Vietnam, he commented on Hanoi (then called Ke Cho) as follows:

“The city of Ke Cho (Ca-cho) in terms of area is comparable to many Asian cities; It is more than most of those cities in terms of population, especially on the first and full moon days of the lunar calendar, when there are markets and sales, people from neighboring villages flock to goods, crowded with people together.

Many streets are very wide, but crowded with people, so it takes half an hour to walk a hundred steps.

Each street trades in a particular commodity, and these streets are divided into wards where only people in the ward are allowed to open goods in their wards, like the corporations in European cities. ”

He commented on the Vietnamese custom of eating betel nut as follows:

-Local people have the custom of eating betel nut (blau areca), if the family is well-off, their servants or family members have to buy betel nut.

“One can count up to 50,000 people selling betel nut at a cheap price, in various locations in the city, thus the number of people buying betel nut is immeasurable.”

Regarding Vietnamese food, he commented:

“Certainly the land here does not produce wheat, grapes, or olive oil, but don’t think living here is miserable. They have what we don’t have, so their meals are not inferior to that of Europeans. They don’t drink as much fat as we do, so they are healthier, and avoid many of the diseases that we Europeans often get.”

“,,, a lot of pepper sold to the Chinese, a lot of silk used for common things like making fishing nets, or fishing boats, many export routes to Japan. Sugar was sold at only 2 cents and a half a kilogram of sugar, the quality is still good, although not as white as our sugar,,,. Sugar cane is plentiful and delicious, people eat sugar cane like we eat apples”.

Regarding the military of the Vietnamese, he commented that the Trinh Lord in the North had about 600 ships, and the Nguyen Lord in the South had about 200 ships.

And rowers are not despised as in Europe.

Every soldier considers rowing. Vietnamese soldiers were armed with rifles and muskets, and they shot very well.

When performing, or going to war, the boats often sailed in threes, or fives, steadily, with no boat rising more than a meter.

Regarding the relationship between people in the Vietnamese army, Rabi Alexander De Rhodes commented:

“Never seen anyone arguing, or saying angry, contemptuous words; no one has ever heard them fight swords or shed blood, so different from soldiers in the West.”

“Although they fight the enemy very well, disregarding the enemy’s life, they love each other like brothers, and I have never heard of a soldier using a weapon to hit a comrade.”

He said that in the Vietnamese people there is no bad sword duel, deadly gun duel like in the West.

If Vietnamese people have conflicts or quarrels, they often use the relationship of friends and neighbors to solve them, rather than using gun duel or sword duel like in the West.

Comparing the Vietnamese with the Chinese, Rabbi Alexandre De Rhodes commented that the Vietnamese are not as arrogant as the Chinese, and are easier to socialize with than the Chinese.

Regarding the education of Vietnamese people, he commented:

“There is not a single citizen, rich or low, who does not let their children learn kanji-Chianese characters from an early age, so that no one in the country is without some knowledge, no one is completely ignorant.”

More than 50 years after Rabbi Alexandre De Rhodes, another missionary named J.P. De Marini also commented that “seven public schools and universities, divided into one school in each province, anyone with talent can enter, the number of students can sometimes be up to 30,000 people”.

Regarding the law of Vietnam, Mr. Alexandre De Rhodes commented:

“Justice in this country is, in my opinion, as perfectly looked after as in any other country in the world. It is the King who gives the salaries to the officials, and forbids them from taking any profit in any case, so that the people do not have to spend anything when they have to defend their interests.

Therefore, there are no documents and procedures that are expensive and troublesome like in the West. If the people here knew how the Courts work, and the troublesome procedures in our country, I don’t know what they would say about our Europe people.”

He is very impressed with an unwritten rule in Vietnam, which he considers the best, is: if one of them has a dispute that needs to be resolved, the head of the family will handle it, not the judge of the courts”

“If that were the case in our country, it would save a quarter (three-quarters) of the lawsuits.”

Until now in 21 century, we Vietnamese are still use this custom to deal with people’s disputes within family or relatives.

He also highly commended the law of Vietnam, which prohibits people from working as mandarins in their own hometowns, and forbids getting married in the places where they work as mandarins, in order to maintain objectivity and integrity for the mandarins.

When he was expelled from Vietnam on July 3, 1645, Mr. Alexandre De Rhodes wrote the following about his feelings for Vietnam:

I leave the South with my body, but not with my mind, nor with the North. In fact, my soul rested in those two places, and I thought my mind could never leave them.”

In 1660, at the age of 70, he died in Iran, when he was preaching there. ///

Vietnam and Iran commemorate missionary Alexandre de Rhodes

The statue of cleric Alexandre de Rhodes and the space honoring the national language are planned to be erected in Quang Nam, middle of Vietnam

On the afternoon of April 9, 2018, at a seminar in Hanoi, Professor Nguyen Dang Hung (Director of Honoring the National Language and Preserving the Vietnamese Language) said that he is campaigning to organize an international scientific conference on Vietnamese characters, a National language.

The conference is expected to take place on December 28, 2018 in Da Nang, on the occasion of the anniversary of King Khai Dinh’s promulgation to remove Chinese characters and use the national language (December 28, 1918). Hundreds of domestic and international scholars will be invited to attend to clarify issues with different opinions on the history of the formation of the national language script.

“This is an opportunity to honor cleric Alexandre de Rhodes, who had great merit in creating the national language script,” said Professor Hung.

At that ceremony, Professor Hung said that the birth and popularization of the national language script was the work of many generations, from Portuguese, French, Italian, Spanish missionaries, Vietnamese collaborators to students. Authors Truong Vinh Ky, Luong Dinh Cua, Pham Quynh, Phan Ke Binh, Phan Chau Trinh, Phan Boi Chau, Huynh Thuc Khang, Hoang Xuan Han, Huu Dang…

“But the first credit belongs to Father Alexandre de Rhodes. In 1651, based on the work of previous Portuguese missionaries, he supplemented and perfected, published in Rome the Vietnamese-Portuguese dictionary, which was published. The first science of the national language script, using Latin characters to record Vietnamese. This is a rare personal effort of his”, Professor Hung said in front of Alexandre de Rhodes’ grave.

At the seminar, the delegates watched a short documentary about the event of erecting a tribute to Alexandre de Rhodes at the Armenian cemetery, Isfahan city, Iran at the end of 2018.

In the film, two stelae were made by a group of Vietnamese intellectuals in Quang Nam, engraved with the words in Vietnamese, English, French, and Iranian: “Grateful to Father Alexandre de Rhodes for his great contribution to the creation of the Quoc Ngu script. – Vietnamese characters written in Latin characters”.///