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Typing Vietnamese, Part 1: Language, Identity and Technology at a Crossroad

My first exposure to the computer traces back to my primary school years when computer classes were conducted once a week. In order to study computers, students had to migrate from their usual classrooms to a multimedia lab — an air-conditioned room filled with computers. Computer classes were generally more popular among us than most subjects thanks to that satisfying cool breeze and the delight of operating something one wasn't privileged with at home.

Beginner computer lessons often involved practicing mouse and keyboard skills. While the mouse was easy to handle, the keyboard involved greater challenges. The first year of computer class includes learning to type using ten fingers, sometimes with the aid of entertaining typing games. By the time one finds themselves on the brink of secondary school, Vietnamese typing was introduced.

Vietnamese characters, albeit rooted in the Latin alphabet, have an additional seven characters thanks to diacritics (Â, Ă, Đ, Ê, Ô, Ơ, Ư), and five tonal marks including acute (á ó í), grave (à, ò, ù), hooked (ả, ỏ, ỉ), tilde (ã, ẽ, ĩ), and underdot (ụ, ọ, ị) strung together. My fellow secondary school students learned from the start that the facile QWERTY keyboard can't understand the nuance and complexities of their mother tongue.

Chữ Quốc Ngữ

Vietnam underwent a change from a logographic writing system that places Chinese, character-based chữ Nôm, and chữ Hán at its forefront to another system that relies on the Latin alphabet with added diacritical marks. This writing system, called chữ quốc ngữ, is now the de facto writing standard for most Kinh Vietnamese today. Popularized by Portuguese missionaries during the 17th century as a tool for their evangelical mission, chữ quốc ngữ is the romanization of the Vietnamese spoken language.

Despite its original use, during French colonialism, many Vietnamese scholars saw a different opportunity in chữ quốc ngữ — a tool for liberation from Chinese imperialism and the feudalistic system of thought that could lead the country to modernism. Despite opposition by rigid Confucian scholars and nationalists as a reaction against French and Western culture, several anti-colonial movements by the intellectual class in the early 19th century such as the Duy Tan movement, Dong Du movement and Tonkin Free School (Đông Kinh Nghĩa Thục in Vietnamese) promoted learning chữ quốc ngữ and using it as the official language of Vietnam.

Quốc ngữ was legalized as the official language of Vietnam as the result of the Decree 81 issued on April 6 in 1878.

Quốc ngữ found itself in an odd position. It was supported by both French colonizers and some of their Vietnamese opponents. For the French, due to its Latin tradition, chữ quốc ngữ was integral to their cultural homogenization efforst and a convenient compromise between chữ Hán (Chinese script) and French. For several anti-colonial movements and scholars, because chữ quốc ngữ reflected the complexities of Vietnamese tonation, it was both a manifestation of a national identity and the nation's road to modernism. In a country that was trying to claim its own voice at the intersection of two imperialist regimes — China and France — chữ quốc ngữ was an inevitable option.

Colonial Technologies, Local Ownership: The Birth of Telex

As a result of France's economic exploitation and efforts in gaining systematic control and a monopoly over public services and goods, a wide variety of new technologies were brought into Vietnam. The typewriter is an example of an everyday technology advertised to Vietnamese. It's unclear when the typewriter first appeared in Vietnam; however, a look through several newspaper advertisements suggests that the typewriter was available in Vietnam as early as 1929.

While the QWERTY keyboard is the most well-known layout for the Western world, the first typewriters in Vietnam followed the Franco-centric AZERTY layout.

The AZERTY keyboard layout (top) and the Hermes Baby (bottom). Screenshot via Larousse mensuel illustré (top). Photo via Retro Tech Geneva (bottom).

In Cycles of Empowerment? The Bicycle and Everyday Technology in Colonial India and Vietnam and Everyday Technology in South and Southeast Asia: An Introduction, David Arnold and Erich DeWald make the case for considering colonial technology changes from local perspectives rather than viewing them as one-way transfers from European and American countries. This shift from seeing technology as wholly Euro-centric gives more credit to the bargaining power indigenous people can have against colonial control. The modified AĐERTY aligns well with this angle.

When and how the curious typewriter layout emerged is an arbitrary matter. According to Arnold and DeWald, quốc ngữ keyboard has been around since the late 1920s and early 1930s. A 1960 proposal written by Daniel Loren Carmicheal from the Michigan State University Vietnam Advisory Group suggests that it has been around since 1947. An article penned by journalist and translator Nguyen Van Vinh suggests that since 1922, typewriters from brands such as Underwood and Royal had been altering the traditional keyboard layout to fit chữ quốc ngữ. Vietnamese typewriters existed through the American War — when it was used by the national liberation front of South — until the late 1980s, when being a typist was still a viable career option in many newsrooms and offices.

The Olympia Splendid 33 with an AĐERTY layout used in the 1960s currently displayed at the Ho Chi Minh Museum. Photo via WikiCommons.

The typewriter is not an exclusive example of technological appropriation that made Western technologies compatible with Vietnam. Many printing technologies such as linotypes and the letterpress were adapted to be able to print chữ quốc ngữ. French type foundry Deberney & Peignot created 127 typefaces for chữ quốc ngữ, some of which were printed and recorded in book three of its typeface catalog series Caractères Étranger (loosely translated to "strange characters" in English) in 1930.

Screenshots via Caractères ètrangers.

Technology appropriation that involves typing served important logistical functions. In the early 1860s, the French built telegraph networks throughout Vietnam and Indochina to establish a coherent communication connection between different colonial authorities. The first post office was built by the French in 1862 in Saigon. In his memoir L'Indochine Francaise, former Governor of the colony Paul Doumer states that at the end of 1901, the French's telegraph network had covered 18,000 kilometers of Indochina. Local Vietnamese called French telegraph posts nhà dây thép, which translates to "house of steel wires," referring to the method of sending messages using wires with steel conduits. Sending a telegram was commonly known as đánh dây thép, which literally translates to "hitting the steel wire."

The telegraph's clientele in the early days was exclusively French officers and elites. However, as the number of Vietnamese staff in French postal offices increased and telegraph service got cheaper, there was a need to communicate quốc ngữ via Morse code, the common telegraph language. Vietnamese used a system called Telex, which is a set of rules that can convey Vietnamese diacritical marks that are not available in Morse code. The person commonly credited with coming up with Telex is Nguyen Van Vinh.

One of quốc ngữ biggest advocates, Vinh was a nationalist and anti-Confucian modernizer who believed that the future of Vietnam rested on quốc ngữ. A narrative account suggests that after witnessing a local Vietnamese receive a telegram sent from Nam Dinh that only read "vo de" — which could either be interpreted as vỡ đê ("the embankment broke" in English) or vợ đẻ ("wife is in labor" in English) due to the lack of accented marks — Vinh came up with a set of rules to include diacritical marks using the Franco-centric keyboard.

In 1929, Vinh published his ideas in an article in Trung Bac Tan Van, a paper of which he served as editor. The gist of his argument was the value of replacing diacritics with alphabetical characters that either didn't exist in Vietnamese or would never be placed together. Vinh even went to the extent of proposing that in traditional writing, these alphabetical characters should replace diacritical and tone marks altogether, in order to make the language even more compatible with Western telecommunication standards. However, his idea was rejected as many wanted to reserve Vietnamese tonal marks.

An article in Khoa Hoc Tap Chi about changing quốc ngữ. Screenshots via National Library of Vietnam.

Nguyen Van Vinh was not the first person to think of replacing Vietnamese tonal marks with alphabet letters. According to a 1933 article in Khoa Hoc Tap Chi, in 1919 a scholar named Pho Duc Thanh wrote an article in Trung Bac Tan Van proposing that the characters B, D, K, L, Q could be used to convey quốc ngữ tonal marks. A response published on the same page argued that using the five letters B, D, K, L, Q would only be effective in some cases and could not be applied as a general rule that works every time. The response also suggests that there were some similar systems that were already proposed by the managing editor, F. H. Sneichder.

These attempts to come up with a rule set for communicating Vietnamese in Morse codes were later adapted to the Anglo-centric and Franco-centric keyboards. The postal industry shaped the Telex rule many Vietnamese are using to type Vietnamese on a computer today. The current Telex rule can be seen in the images below: 

Screenshots via Wikipedia entry of Telex.

The Computerized War

The early development of computer science and information technology in Vietnam happened when the country was partitioned after the Geneva Conference in 1954. While the north was building a socialist society, with help from Soviet Union countries, the south was backed by France and the United States. The partition put the status of early computers in Vietnam during the 1960s and the 1970s on two different trajectories: one influenced by the computing tradition in the Soviet sphere and another influenced by the Americans.

The first computer to ever arrive in northern Vietnam was the Minsk-22, produced by the Byelorussian SSR — a federal unit of the USSR whose territory is now shared between Belarus, Lithuania, Poland and Russia — in 1965 and imported to Vietnam in 1968. The Minsk-22 was a model of the famous Minsk family of macro computers that were employed in planning and economic calculations. Like most early computers at the time, the Minsk was mostly used for research and calculation purposes. Vietnamese system engineers during this time had to learn to operate the Minsk-22 and later computers such as Minsk-32 or the Polish-made ODRA 1304 using Russian.

A scene in a 1979 movie Con Chim Biet Chon Hat showing a computer scientist operating a mainframe computer produced in the Soviet sphere.

In southern Vietnam, the role of computers and computing possesses was important for the US military as tools to computerize the war and to collect and process data on northern Vietnamese troops. In a journal article titled 'Computers, Electronic Data, and the Vietnam War,' historian Donald Fisher Harrison argues that the American war was the first war in history to be aided by full-scale electronic data. The US military built many computer centers and stations throughout Vietnam where data processing of the war was conducted. In After Pinkville, Noam Chomsky described the American War as the country's intention to "to turn the land of Vietnam into an automated murder machine."

The computerization project of the American troops was supported by International Business Machines Corporation (IBM), the leading computer manufacturer that was producing America's most advanced computer technology at the time. Some of these advanced IBM mainframes and smaller computers that were imported to South Vietnam included the IBM 1400 series and various models of the IBM System/360.

An article published in The Misc in 1970 about IBM's involvement in the Vietnam War (left) and a photo showing Nguyen Thi Nhin fetching information from the computer's memory bank (right). Image via Vassar Archive (left). Photo by Douglas Pike via Vietnam Center and Archive (right).

According to a New York Times article from October 1, 1969, on the Combined Intelligence Center in Saigon (where most of the IBM mainframes were based), the facility was rather complex: "Day and night in its antiseptic interior, a family of blinking, whirring computers devours, digests, spews out a Gargantuan diet of information about the enemy."

The amount of data that the American troops were collecting on its opponent was astounding, as the Times articulated: "The landscape of Vietnam and the border regions are studded with electronic sensors that beep information into the banks of computers. Radar, cameras, infrared detectors and a growing array of more exotic devices contribute to the mass of information. Not long ago reconnaissance planes began carrying television cameras."

During this turbulent period, one of the first attempts to make the Vietnamese language compatible with early computers started to take shape. In When Big Blue Went To War and White Shirts and Ties, a former IBM expert who used to work in Saigon, Dan Feltham, recalls that  from 1965 to 1973, there were 250 IBM computer experts working in the city. These experts' jobs often included writing software applications, building computer centers and training data-processing and programming skills for Vietnamese professionals. Some of the computer languages taught included FORTRAN, COBOL and PL/1.

A group of Vietnamese keypunch operators, most of which were top students. Photo by Douglas Pike via Vietnam Center and Archive.

On March 26, 1970, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) supported a project which called for printing in Vietnamese. Because the machine was incompatible with Vietnamese diacritics, technicians working on the project had to print the unaccented Vietnamese writing first using the IBM 1403 — a computer equipped with a line printer and a keyboard — then add the diacritical marks by hand later. However, the IBM system engineers figured out a solution that would allow typing Vietnamese documents with Vietnamese diacritics right from the machine. It was called the 1403 Vietnamese print chain.

The 1403 print chain at work. Screenshot via When Big Blue Went To War.

Keypunch operator Tran Thi Minh Huong transfers data onto punch cards. Photo by Douglas Pike via Vietnam Center and Archive.

The 1403 print chain required translation, a unique program and a special type slug. The engineers would encode the English into Vietnamese with diacritical marks and punch that encoded data into punch cards. Each letter with Vietnamese diacritical marks would need two spaces representing two bytes on a A Brief History of the Internet in Vietnam on Its 20th Birthday as opposed to one for the English alphabet due to the added marks. This caused the computer to read the letter as two characters, so a program in Assembly was written to manipulate the process by instructing the computer to read the accented letter as one character. A special type slug manufactured for the Vietnamese language was then needed to print out these accented letters. 

This is the end of part 1 of our two-part series on the history of Vietnamese-centric typing technologies. 

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