When Sabrina Zhang and Jack Wang took their high school writing exam in China they remember a funny new rule written at the bottom of the test.
"You can't use Internet words in the writing," remembers Zhang. But, says Wang, "It's just natural right when we use it. It's the youth way of expressing ourselves."
What might seem like the petty irritation of an old-fashioned professor might actually be something bigger. There are now more than 500 million people online in China. They are microblogging, instant messaging, texting. The result is changing the Chinese language says David Moser, an American linguist living in Beijing.
According to Moser, the Internet has become a place for people to play with the Chinese language. Puns and wordplay have a long history in Chinese culture. Chinese is the perfect language for punning because nearly every Chinese word has multiple homophones. Homophones are two words that sound similar but have different meanings like hare that rabbit-like creature and the hair on your head. In Chinese there are endless homophones.
"Because there are so many homophones there's sort of a fetish about them," says Moser. "As far as the culture goes back you have cases of homophone usage and homophone humor." Many times forbidden or taboo words in Chinese are taboo precisely because they sound like another word.
A good example of this is the number four, which in Chinese sounds like the word for death and the number eight, which sounds like the word for prosperity. Moser has a Chinese aunt who used to work for the phone company and she could make money selling phone numbers. People would beg her for a phone number with a lot of eights. "People would actually give her gifts or bribes for an auspicious phone number," says Moser.
Today, wordplay online has less to do with getting auspicious numbers and more to do with getting around censorship. Moser cites an example of a recent phrase he saw online mentioning the Tiananmen Square incident — only the netizen didn't use the words "Tiananmen Square" or even 6/4, which refers to the date the incident took place. Tiananmen Square and 6/4 are both censored online. Instead the netizen referred to the "eight times eight incident." Moser was confused when he first saw the reference. "And then I figured out, eight times eight is 64," says Moser.
The Internet is ripe with clever examples of how people evade the censors. However, censorship is just one reason netizens play with words online. Another is the very technology that enables people today to input Chinese characters onto their cell phones and computers.
Jack Wang explains how he types Chinese characters with his phone. He uses an English keyboard and uses the pinyin system. Pinyin is the method for converting Chinese characters into our alphabet. For example, the Chinese word for "today" is ä»?å¤©, which is rendered into pinyin as "jintian."
Wang types the English letters "jintian" on his phone. As he types the first three letters, "jin" a list of Chinese characters pops up on the screen. Each different character sounds just like the word for today, "jin" but means something completely different. Wang points to each possible character and explains its different meaning: gold, clothes, only, and finally ä»?, the character for "today."
Everyday, people are typing in a word like "today" and seeing all of the potential homophones for that word. This says David Moser has fueled wordplay like never before.
"I think that's given rise to a lot more puns then would normally have been uttered in the earlier days when you had to just pull everything out of your head," says Moser.
People have gotten even more creative playing with this input system to intentionally create new Chinese slang, translating English phrases into pinyin and then into Chinese characters. The meaning of these new words can seem random but they're not. For example the Chinese character for glass, ç?»ç??, pronounced "boli" has come to mean "gay man." Turns out, the slang term actually comes from an English phrase, "boy love." But netizens have abbreviated the phrase into the English letters "B L" and then they looked for a similar abbreviation in Chinese, typing "B-L" into their computers and out popped the character for glass. "Suddenly the word glass was being used for male homosexuals," says Moser.
The Internet has even given out-of-date Chinese characters new life. One of the most popular of these new old characters iså?§ pronounced "jiong." The character looks like an unhappy face with drooping eyes and a frown. People started using the character like an emoticon, representing embarrassment or frustration. However, virtually nobody knows what the character originally meant. There are thousands of obsolete characters like å?§and part of the fun is mining these forgotten characters to create new meanings.
But, this casual inattention to the meanings of these characters online concerns some linguists like John Pasden. "We're getting weird mutations of the language mixing with English phasing in and out of Chinese and non-Chinese," says Pasden. "This complete disregard for the meaning of the characters has some serious long-term implications if it keep going on."
Pasden worries that once people divorce the meaning from the character they will start wondering, "Why am I writing all these strokes if I'm just using it as a sound?" Then its a slippery slope towards simplifying to a phonetic writing system says Pasden.
For 19-year-old Jack Wang, this is not a problem. This new word play is the future. "I think we should catch up with the time," says Wang. "If people use it, we should use it." Then right on cue his phone buzzed with a new text.
Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.