In an article entitled “On the Title ‘Hùng King’” (Về Danh Hiệu ‘Hùng Vương’”) in the third Hùng Vương Dụng Nước volume (this volume was published in 1973, but the article was presented at a conference in the late 1960s), Trần Quốc Vượng argued that “Hùng” was perhaps the ancient Việt pronunciation for a word which signified a leader of a nation/ality. This is similar, he notes, to the term “khun” which is used by various Mon-Khmer and Tai speakers.
Trần Quốc Vượng also says that it is related to the Mundari term, “khunzt.” Mundari is an Autroasiatic language spoken by a people in the area of what is today northeastern India, Bangladesh and Nepal known as the Munda people.
Trần Quốc Vượng then uses this information to say that this demonstrates that in antiquity, during the period when the “Hùng Kings established the country,” there was a close relationship between the speakers of Austroasiatic and Tai languages.
There are numerous problems with Trần Quốc Vượng’s linguistic argument here, which I’ll turn to below. Ultimately, however, this article is not about linguistics, but is nationalist propaganda posing as a scholarly study. What Trần Quốc Vượng wanted to demonstrate was that the various peoples who inhabit the modern nation-state of Vietnam have been in close, and friendly, contact since the beginning of time.
In 1983, Keith Taylor cited this article by Trần Quốc Vượng when he wrote in his The Birth of Vietnam that “According to a recent Vietnamese study, the name Hùng derives from an Austroasiatic title of chieftanship that has persisted up to the present time in the languages of Mon-Khmer-speaking peoples living in the mountains of Southeast Asia, as well as in Mường, the upland sister language of Vietnamese; the title is also found among the Munda of northeast India, who speak the most western of the surviving Austrasiatic languages” (3).
Taylor left out mention of the Tai, probably because his mission in this book was to demonstrate that there was a direct line which linked the “Vietnamese” of the period of the “Hùng Kings” with those who emerged “independent” in the tenth century with the “birth of Vietnam.” Taylor was not as concerned with the non-Kinh population. He simply wanted to demonstrate that the Kinh had their own language and culture prior to the period of Chinese rule, and that they persisted and survived through that thousand-year period.
Let’s now look at Trần Quốc Vượng’s evidence. He says that the following three words are related: hùng, khun, and khunzt.
First of all, words do not simultaneously appear in languages from different language families. A word must appear in one language first, and then it can be adopted in others. When this happens, some sounds might change. However, linguists establish rules for this.
Trần Quốc Vượng says that linguists argue that the initial “h,” “kh,” and “k” are all interchangeable. To some extent this is true, but linguists establish rules by looking at multiple examples to say, for instance, that when a word which begins with “kh” in language A is adopted by speakers of language B, the initial “k” gets dropped and they keep the “h.” The same holds for the endings of words, such as the very different “n,” “ng,” and “nzt,” which Trần Quốc Vượng does not address.
In other words Trần Quốc Vượng did not make a believable argument in this paper. He has three words which seem to resemble each other, but he doesn’t explain what the original word was, which languages it was adopted into, and what linguistic changes took place when this happened.
Finally, the source for the Mundari term, “kunzt” (Bhaduri’s, A Mundari-English Dictionary, 1931) which Trần Quốc Vượng used is not the best source for that language, but it was probably all that was available to him at that time. A better source is John Hoffmann’s multi-volume Encylcopaedia Mundarica (1930-79), where this term is transcribed as “khut,” a transcription which lessens the similarity with “khun” and “hùng.”
Now that I have criticized Trần Quốc Vượng linguistic knowledge, I am going to put forth my own undocumented argument, but it is one which I have had confirmed by Tai linguists. The term “khun” is a term which we find in Southwestern Tai languages. Southwestern Tai languages started to develop separately from other Tai languages around the time of the ninth or tenth century or so. In Vietnam today, the languages which are spoken by “Thái” are Southwestern Tai languages.
So while “khun” is in Southwestern Tai languages, it is a word which was borrowed from the Chinese 君. This is pronounced “jun” in modern Mandarin, but in the middle period it was pronounced differently, and it is where the “khun” in Southwestern Tai comes from, as well as the “cun/khun” in Mườmg, and even the “kun” in Japanese, a term which is today used as a particle which is added to names when referring to someone in an informal manner, such as “Koji-kun,” but in centuries past it had a different usage.
In other words, there is a term which was historically shared by Tai and Mường speakers in Vietnam (and probably by proto-Việt speakers as well). However, it has nothing to do with antiquity, the ancient Việt language, or the Hùng Kings. My guess is that it was a word which entered these languages near the end of the millennium of Chinese rule in the region, when Southwestern Tai was starting to develop.
Regardless of what I think, it is clear that Trần Quốc Vượng’s linguistic argument is unfounded, and yet this point has been repeated over and over and over in Vietnamese texts (for a recent example, see page 25 of Nguyễn Quang Ngọc, ed., Tiến Trình Lịch Sử Việt Nam).
This is one small example of a problem which is ubiquitous in Vietnamese scholarship. Someone comes up with a crazy idea. Scholars might know that it is incorrect, but no one writes anything which directly refutes it. And then since there is no peer review process, the idea can easily get repeated and re-published over and over and over again. The result is that scholarship never progresses. The same bad ideas stay in circulation for decades.
Trần Quốc Vượng: