12/03/2019, 17.18
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Fr de Rhodes remembered for spreading the Gospel via the romanised script of Vietnamese

by Peter Tran

The French Jesuit was a missionary in Vietnam between 1625 and 1645. Until the early 17th century, the Vietnamese language was based on Chinese characters. The new script became an effective tool for evangelisation. More than 320,000 people were converted after 50 years.

Hanoi (AsiaNews) – In 2019 the Vietnamese Church celebrates 400 years since the first romanisation of the local language. The adoption of the modern Vietnamese alphabet (Chữ Quốc Ngữ) opened the country to the world and to the proclamation of the Gospel.

A French Jesuit missionary, Fr Alexandre de Rhodes, Fr Đắc Lộ in Vietnamese (picture 2), lived in the South-Asian country between 1625 and 1645. During his stay he developed the Vietnamese alphabet.

Until the early 17th century, Vietnamese used both the Chữ Hán (Chinese characters) and Chữ Nôm (simplified or revisited Chinese characters) to communicate in writing.

For ordinary Vietnamese, both were very difficult to learn, especially among the poor who could not afford to go to school.

The first Western missionaries arrived in Vietnam in the 16th century, with some starting work on a romanised script to replace Chinese characters to help in their evangelising work.

Thanks to Italian and Portuguese clergymen, above all Fr Francisco de Pina, and the contribution of Vietnamese Catholics, work on the language improved. The earliest Romanised script was completed in 1619.

Eventually Fr Alexandre de Rhodes, deemed the father of Chữ Quốc Ngữ, came into the picture. Born in Avignon (France) on 15 March 1591, he arrived at the port of Hội An, in Đà Nẵng (central Vietnam) in 1625 along with four confreres and some Japanese Catholics.

That same year, he began to study Vietnamese and adopted the name Đắc Lộ to evangelise in Đàng Trong (southern Vietnam). The following year, he took his mission to Đàng Ngoài (northern Vietnam).

Between 1625 and 1631, Fr de Rhodes picked up where Fr Francisco de Pina left off and complete the work, developing a 24-letter alphabet for Vietnamese.

This polyglot native of Avignon authored three books on the romanised script, including a trilingual Vietnamese-Portuguese-Latin dictionary – Dictionarium Annamittticum Lusitanum et Latinum – published in Rome in 1651, as well as a Vietnamese grammar book and a catechism.

In 1919 the national language script (Chữ Quốc Ngữ) became the only writing system allowed in schools.

Since its invention, the script also became an important tool in the spread of Christianity. Within 50 years of the arrival of Christianity in the country in 1615, about 320,000 people had embraced the new religion.

To mark the 400th anniversary of the romanisation of the Vietnamese language, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Vietnam organised a number of symposia in Ho Chi Minh City on 25-26 October.

One conference focused on ‘Four hundred years (1619 – 2019) of the formation and development of the national language in the history of evangelisation in Vietnam’, attracting more than 200 participants, including linguists, historians and evangelisation experts.

Mgr Joseph Đặng Đức Ngân, Bishop of Ðà Nẵng and chairman of the Cultural Committee, spoke at the meeting. He stressed that Vietnam’s “national language has become popularised since 1865. This is why the Gospel has naturally been included in Vietnamese literature.”

At the same time, “The national language has flowed throughout the history of the Church, contributing to its mission. Literature is the source of this nation's life. It has the power to convey the human soul and lead to the Christian faith.”

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