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Alexandre de Rhodes is not the father of the Vietnamese script?

The question that who was the first one to lay the foundation for the Vietnamese script and the quest to find the “cradle” of the Vietnamese script through decades of research, so far has not been answered in the most appropriate way.

A workshop was held in Hoi An City (Quang Nam) with the theme “Thanh Chiem Palace and the Vietnamese script” in order to reach a scientific unification in 2016.

Priest Francisco De Pina or Alexandre de Rhodes?

Together with the two “Thanh Chiem Palace” workshops in 2002 and the “Thanh Chiem Palace Festival” in 2007, the seminar “Thanh Chiem Palace and the Vietnamese script” again confirmed that Priest Francisco De Pina (1585-1625) was the first to lay the foundations of the Vietnamese script, not Alexandre de Rhodes (1593-1660), as it had been known until now.

Historian Duong Trung Quoc said that for a very long time we had mentioned Alexandre des Rhodes and that he had a very important role for the Vietnamese script, the most important monuments he left to this day was the Vietnamese-Portuguese- Latin dictionary and the book “Cathechismvs” (published in 1651). And in the context of the documentary, it was clear that Alexandre de Rhodes was a great contributor.

Missionary Alexandre de Rhodes

“However, later when we have more research conditions, including international friends, we have ability to access to very difficultly accessible sources such as the archives of the Pope, the archives of Portugal… they can see that Mr. Pina is not only the pioneer but he is also a teacher, leaving a lot of hallmarks and historical evidence proving that he is the earliest and best in The Vietnamese script at that time. We honor in a fair way, but not so as to lower this person, to honor the other but to make the truth clearer, the more accurate honor.” – Historian Duong Trung Quoc confirmed.

On the same point, Researcher Bui Van Tue said that Pina learned Vietnamese and became the first missioner to preach to indigenous followers without translation. He also taught Vietnamese for other missioners including Alexandre de Rhodes (French), Antonio de Fonte (Portuguese) or Girolarmo Majorica (Italian),…who were sent to Thanh Chiem at the end of 1624. Also in Thanh Chiem, Pina had compiled documents on the method of Latinization in Vietnamese and the Vietnamese Grammar Book, established the school of Portuguese interpreting, mainly for missionary work.

In the preface of the Vietnamese-Portuguese- Latin dictionary, Alexandre de Rhodes wrote, “In addition, I have take advantage of the work of other Jesuits, especially Gaspar do Amaral and António Barbosa. Both of them did each of them a vocabulary, Gaspar do Amaral made the book Vietnamese – Portuguese , António Barbosa made Portuguese – Vietnamese, but unfortunately they both died early. I take advantage of their work to write a new dictionary, which contains additionally Latin.”

“I studied with Francisco De Pina, our humble Jesuit of Portugal. He is very good at native speakers and is the first person to teach in native language” – de Rhodes acknowledged.

At the workshop, delegates also came to the conclusion that Francisco de Pina was the one who laid the foundation for the birth of The Vietnamese script, Alexandre de Rhodes was the one who contributed to the revising, editing and remediation of an embryonic words. Possibly, de Rhodes was not as good at the Vietnamese script as the priests of Pina, Amaral or Barbosa, but he was more fortunate than the other missioners that his books had been published and existed up to now. Therefore, it may be that he does not keep his first merit, but that one is also worthy of honor.

The proposal to recognize Thanh Chiem as a national monument

Of the 69 speeches (bilingual English-Vietnamese) sent to the seminar, there are 30 speeches discussing the topic “Thanh Chiem Palace and The Vietnamese script”. There are 22 speeches stating that Thanh Chiem is the birthplace of the Vietnamese script, 4 speeches recording “Thanh Chiem is one of the first important cradle to create the Vietnamese script” and 1 speech indicating that the birthplace of The Vietnamese script is not Thanh Chiem but Can Huc Palace (Quang Nam) as it is the place where Quang Nam Palace is located and “We have not found a document that clearly states Thanh Chiem is the location of Quang Nam Palace, or the birthplace of Vietnamese langua”- the speech of Mr. Ngo Van Minh confirmed this.

Thanh Chiem village hall today. Picture: Hoang Yen
Thanh Chiem village hall today. Picture: Hoang Yen

Mr. Ngo Van Minh said that in the letter written by priest Pina in 1623 to his father superior, “When it comes to language, it is always the best place in Ke Cham.” And missioner Cristoforo Borri in his report on Cochinchina only wrote: “Cochinchina is divided into five provinces. The first one is the place where the lord living near to Tokin called Thuan Hoa. The second province is Cacciam, where the prince is the governor. The third province is Quamguia. The fourth province is Quingnim, the Portuguese name this is Pulucambis and the fifth province is Reran”, without a word Thanh Chiem so it can not say that Thanh Chiem is the birthplace of the first palace of Quang Nam province under Nguyen lord.

According to Mr. Minh, if we want to find out where the birthplace of the Vietnamese script, it have to find the chief town location of the Quang Nam palace of the Nguyen lords. Meanwhile, historical documents and sites, remains in Duy Xuyen show that the original chief town of the Quang Nam palace in the Nguyen lord dynasty are located in Duy Xuyen district (specifically, the villages My Xuyen, My Xuyen, now in Nam Phuoc town, Duy Xuyen district, Quang Nam province).

According to Dr. Tran Duc Anh Son, many scholars believe that the birth of The Vietnamese script is a long and a chain not limited to Thanh Chiem but the role of Nuoc Man, Duy Xuyen, that is the process involved many people. However, Thanh Chiem was the place where the first meritorious deacon, Francisco De Pina, had chosen to come here and from there he began to build the Latin alphabet for the Vietnamese transliteration severed for his mission. Form then, this is the first birthplace of The Vietnamese script.

According to Mr. Son, priest Francisco De Pina frequently traveled between Thanh Chiem and Nuoc Man, but he chose this place as a place to pronounce the Vietnamese script.

An Phu Phu Yen Catholic Church, Thanh Chiem 2 Village, Dien Phuoc Commune, Dien Ban Town, Quang Nam - The place where Priest Francisco de Pina laid the foundation for The Vietnamese script. Picture: Hoang Yen
An Phu Phu Yen Catholic Church, Thanh Chiem 2 Village, Dien Phuoc Commune, Dien Ban Town, Quang Nam – The place where Priest Francisco de Pina laid the foundation for The Vietnamese script. Picture: Hoang Yen

In his letter to his father superior in Macao on the reasons for moving from Hoi An to Thanh Chiem Palace in 1619, Pina said he wanted to learn a pure language and avoid the negative effects of learning Vietnamese that might be arising in Hoi An because of the phenomenon of hybrid language, because Pho Khach was the interference of the cultures of Vietnam, China, Japan, Portugal … moreover, in Hoi An, people only cared about trading so he decided to move to Thanh Chiem Palace to study Vietnamese and transcribe phonetically Latin.

Although the majority of delegates attending the seminar came to the conclusion that Thanh Chiem was the first birthplace of The Vietnamese script but the organizers had not come to a final conclusion.

Mr. Le Van Thanh, Vice Chairman of the People’s Committee of Quang Nam province, said that the local authorities hoped in addition to clarifying the founders of The Vietnamese script, finding the “cradle” of the Vietnamese script, the workshop would be the basis for the province to compile scientific dossiers requesting the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism to recognize national historical relics.

“In 2008, Thanh Chiem Palace was ranked by the provincial People’s Committee as a historical-cultural relic. In the up coming time, we will continue to implement restoration and preservation of monuments in order to honor and promote the historical and cultural values ​​of monuments and The Vietnamese script. The purpose is to make the Palace famous once ranked national historical relic for better preservation,” said Le Van Thanh.

(By Sports & Culture)

Additional information:

In the early seventeenth century, a Christian congregation of more than 20 Jesuits, priests and teachers of Portuguese, Italian and French, was sent to Cochinchina instead of Japan for the purpose of Catholic missionary.

In 1615, the pioneers of the congregation came to Da Nang to find a way to set up a missionary base. Until 1623, two main evangelical offices were opened in Hoi An (Quang Nam) and Salt Water (Quy Nhon), two years later (1625), the third mission was established in Thanh Chiem.

Initially, the mission of spreading the faith of Catholic was difficult because of the language gap, the missioners could not understand what the locals said here because the language was a “language like music, listening like birds singing”.

The missioners used Latin characters to write The Vietnamese script for native language study and, more importantly, to be able to preach directly without translation. Unbelievably, for the purpose of missionary, the missioners left a great treasure for the Vietnamese people, The Vietnamese script.

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