Connected \\ February 4, 2022

Phillips Library digitizes dictionaries from Vietnam and unlocks stories of museum founders and their travels

Two recently digitized manuscript dictionaries in the Phillips Library collection are once again sparking conversation. In 1819, John White, a lieutenant in the US Navy, received dictionaries from an Italian Catholic priest named Joseph Morrone in Saigon and deposited them with the East India Marine Society in Salem. The members of the East India Marine Society were the founders of what is today the Peabody Essex Museum. Published in the US in 1838, the dictionaries fueled a trans-Atlantic debate about the nature of Asian languages. Catholic missionaries, their Vietnamese interlocutors, and Salem mariners made the initial connections that allowed for the scholarly conversation that played out in the pages of journals including The North American Review, The Foreign Quarterly Review, and The Canton Register.

Peter Stephen Du Ponceau, the President of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, borrowed the manuscripts from the East India Marine Society and published them as an appendix to his A Dissertation on the Nature and Character of the Chinese Writing System. Introducing the dictionaries, Du Ponceau wrote, “The United States, therefore, will have the honour of being the first to publish authentic documents respecting the language of Cochinchina, and to introduce that curious idiom to the literary world.” The digitization of the source manuscripts allows us to revisit this early engagement of the United States with Vietnam.

The digitization of the two manuscripts — made possible with funding from James T. Lap, in memory of his mother Anna Nguyễn Thị Diệc (1909-1958) — allows researchers to appreciate anew these important sources and the conditions of their creation. Unlike du Ponceau’s published account, the manuscripts preserve the character-based Vietnamese demotic script, Nôm, as well as the marks left by their creators and users. Du Ponceau published his Dissertation to disprove the theory that Chinese was a universal language written in an ideographic script. He used Nôm as an example to make the point that Chinese characters could not be adopted universally by speakers of other languages. In contrast, the dictionaries were meant as language-learning tools to aid in the proselytization of Catholicism. The manuscripts preserve faint traces of the communication between missionaries and their Vietnamese converts.

The first, a Latin-Vietnamese dictionary called Lexicon Cochin-Sinense Latinum ad usum missionarium, as du Ponceau tells us, is a version of a dictionary circulating in Vietnam for two centuries. New European arrivals would copy the dictionary for their own use, and annotate it as needed. Arranged alphabetically in two columns with Romanized Vietnamese headwords, the dictionary fills 139 pages. The wastepaper binding of the manuscript is made of calligraphy practice sheets, possibly of a European priest following the model of a Vietnamese teacher.

Book cover with vietnamese characters

Waste paper used in binding of Lexicon Cochin-Sinese Latinum ad usum missionarium.


Could they have been Morrone’s practice pages? Du Ponceau thought he could use the practice: “The writing of that missionary is very bad; his characters are ill formed, and with a rapidity that has not allowed us to decipher them at all.”

A page from the manuscript records the Lord’s Prayer and Hail Mary in Vietnamese with explanations

Loose page with Lord's Prayer and Hail Mary found within Lexicon Cochin-Sinese Latinum ad usum missionarium.


A loose page tucked inside the manuscript records the Lord’s Prayer and Hail Mary in Vietnamese with explanations, perhaps notes a priest would have used while preaching in the vernacular. Vietnamese must have used such dictionaries for their own purposes, which extended beyond understanding Christian teachings. John White and his crew discovered this firsthand when a Vietnamese government official, finding no mutually intelligible spoken language, wrote down “Quid interrogas?,” initiating a written conversation in Latin with the surprised American crew.

The second dictionary, Vocabulaire domestique Cochinchinois Français, may be the earliest surviving Vietnamese-French dictionary

First page of dictionary showing the first section, Heaven, and the second section, Time. Vocabulaire domestique Cochinchinois Francais.


The second dictionary, Vocabulaire domestique Cochinchinois Français, may be the earliest surviving Vietnamese-French dictionary. Remarkably, it contains both Romanized Vietnamese (quốc ngữ) and in the character-based Nôm. The use of Nôm attests to the missionaries’ commitment to learning and preaching in vernacular Vietnamese.

In the Vietnamese fashion, it is hierarchically arranged by category. Thus, the first section is “Heaven” and the first two entries in that section are “Heaven” and “the ruler of Heaven” (i.e. God). The section “On Mankind” precedes the section “On Animals,” and within the former, the entry for “a man” precedes the entry for “a woman.” Du Ponceau rearranged the sections in his publication without comment, elevating the sections on “Mankind” and on “The World” above sections on household items and clothing, just one of many discrepancies between the manuscripts and the published version. Morrone appears to have copied the dictionary for White as a gift, inscribing it as a letter to “monsieur.”

Vietnamese sentence to a musical scale as a demonstration of the six tones

Musical scale denoting the six tones. Vocabulaire domestique Cochinchinois Francais.


Father Morrone charmingly set a Vietnamese sentence to a musical scale as a demonstration of the pitch of the six tones. It translates as, “I hope the captain will return to his home in good health. The good Lord be with you and with all of your companions. Farewell.” Father Morrone had learned Vietnamese from his unnamed Vietnamese teachers, perhaps Catholic converts. By sharing his knowledge with White, it was disseminated to others eager for linguistic information about Vietnamese.

Like du Ponceau, I first learned of the dictionaries by reading East India Marine Society member John White’s History of a Voyage to the China Sea. White assiduously collected items to deposit at the museum, including clothing, shoes, and even two tigers that perished on the return voyage. Just as Father Morrone presented the second dictionary as a letter to Captain White, du Ponceau composed his Dissertation as a letter to John Vaughan, a merchant and librarian of the American Philosophical Society. The dictionaries trace a conversation between missionaries, merchants, and academics. My interest in the dictionaries led me to curator George Schwartz’s Collecting the Globe: The Salem East India Marine Society Museum and to Phillips librarian Jennifer Hornsby. My conversations with them shaped my understanding of the dictionaries, their travels, and of a neglected period of American interest in Vietnam. I was astonished to find that my “discovery” of the dictionaries was in fact a re-discovery, and that du Ponceau’s publication was widely distributed and discussed at the time, on both sides of the Atlantic. The manuscripts continue to get people talking. And unlike du Ponceau’s published version, the manuscripts allow us to look beyond the collecting and conversing of Western missionaries, merchants, and academics to catch a glimpse of the unnamed Vietnamese interlocutors who taught them what they sought to know.

Kathlene Baldanza

Kathlene Baldanza is the author of Ming China and Vietnam: Negotiating Borders in Early Modern Asia (Cambridge University Press, 2016). She is Associate Professor of History and Asian Studies at the Pennsylvania State University, where she teaches classes on East Asian and Southeast Asian history and culture.


Editor's Note: PEM's Phillips Library continues to prioritize digitization in order to make its collections more widely available to researchers and the public.

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