Sunday, July 16, 2006

Destroying the Chinese language(s?); iconic texting

Greetings from Hong Kong, where I am busy catching up on all the interesting reading my parents have set aside for me from the past year's South China Morning Post. Unfortunately, because SCMP is lame and keeps almost nothing online for free, I have been unable to link to many interesting things for my other blog. For this blog though, there's a story good enough (or at least just relevant enough, to know it exists) that I will take the sweet time to transcribe it for y'all.

You see, apparently English is not the only language threatened by the Web and its emergent linguistic properties. People are concerned about Chinese, too (presumably this article means Putonghua [Mandarin] though it just says "Chinese" throughout). It's fascinating that this is a media issue not just in the US, but the world over. There are also some interesting differences in the alarmism over English v. the alarmism over Chinese, which have to do with the state and status of the languages within their respective societies and the function they are perceived to have in terms of nationhood. "Chinese" (as I have learned through museum visits here) is a very important concept for China. One placard I saw at a museum actually credited written Chinese with the maintenance of China's political unity for the past several centuries. Plus China's political structure is very, uh, different from that in the US, and language - and control of language - is a part of that too.

[As a sidenote - does anyone have any representative media articles about the ruin of English in Britain or Australia or Canada?]

It's also interesting for its discussion of what the Chinese "cyber slang" actually is, and its attribution (by a linguist, yay!) to the desire for speed in online communications. Enjoy!
WAR OF WORDS (June 7, 2006)
China, like the rest of the world, is experiencing a language evolution as Web jargon enters the vernacular. But some purists are not impressed, writes Ma Jie

Initially coined for convenience, internet slang has crept into everyday conversation on the mainland, and not everyone is :) (smiling) about it.

In an article on the internet, writer Zhang Xinxin listed "dismembering and sabotaging the language" as one of its 10 most harmful effects. And author Zhu Jing singled out online slang and so-called Chinglish phrases as threats in his book, The Crisis of the Chinese Language, which was published last year.

This digital divide is aggravated by a generational gulf: 52 per cent of the mainland's 110 million internet users are under the age of 24, according to a survey by China Internet Network Information Centre last year.

The experiences of Yao Zhu, who teaches English at Beijing Railway No 3 High School, illustrates the challenges. At the start of the semester, she received a puzzling note from a student, Lu Mengnan. Written in what Yao describes as "Martian" language, it was a confusing array of symbols, phrases and acronyms.

A regular Web surfer, the 23-year-old teacher is in touch with teen jargon. Even so, it took her a while to decipher the note. "It was amusing, and a lovely gift after I finally figured out the meaning," she says.

The note had been sent as a brainteaser. "It was just for fun," says 16-year-old Mengnan. "Because Miss Yao is young and fashionable, I like to share interesting things with her." And she is proud to be communicating in "Martian."

"It's a language that belongs to a new generation. Everybody my age knows what cyber slang means," she says. "If you don't, you're out."

Mengnan and her classmates' fluency in cyber slang gives them a handy advantage when they pass notes in class. "Even if we're caught, most teachers won't understand what the messages are about. It's like a secret code." But Mengnan says she wouldn't write a similar letter to her Chinese-language teacher. That would be "disrespectful and meaningless."

Mi, the word meaning "fanatic" or "fan," is old hat now. According to a lexicon of online slang by Hui Tiangang, to be published later this year, the trendy word to use is fen si - the English homonym that computer programs translate as "vermicelli" or "glass noodles." The work will update a glossary of 1,300 cyber slang phrases compiled five years ago by linguist Yu Genyuan of the Communications University of China in Beijing.

A student of Yu's, Hui hopes to include more words which have recently crossed over into the everyday conversation of schoolchildren, taxi drivers and television programme anchors - potentially doubling the list compiled by his teacher. They include terms such as hong pei ji (literally, baked chicken), to mean homepage, kong long or dinosaur, to describe an unattractive woman, and quing wa (frog) for an ugly man. However, some expressions such as cai niao, meaning "newbie," have popped up out of nowhere.

Then there are expressions made up of Arabic numerals and English letters, or a combination of the two. Some are relatively easy to decipher: "bf" for boyfriend, "gg" for ge ge or elder brother in Putonghua. Others take a little lateral thinking: "3ks" is "san," plus "ks." Put together, it sounds like "thanks."

Then there are the odd combinations that require some knowledge of Putonghua to work out: "55555," or wuwuwuwuwu, is a long "boohoo" in English, while "9494," or jiusijiusi, means "that's right." Having fun with these expressions is just a bonus. The real reason for all the wordy weirdness is speed, says Zhang Pu, a professor of linguistics at the Beijing Language and Culture University.

To chat in cyberspace, surfers have to move quickly or lose their place. Typing some conventional words on a keyboard can involve too many keystrokes. Surfers soon reject the slowpokes who don't know the shortcuts, especially with broadband access costing a minimum 80 yuan a month. Coining a new word saves time, cash and wins kudos from peers.

Not surprisingly, the trend has drawn flak from some traditionalists. Such innovation is unhealthy for the development of Chinese culture, according to Li Rulong, a professor at Xiamen University in Fujian province. Li, 70, fears teenage slang is contaminating the centuries-old language.

But Yu argues that all people are equal in contributing new words and expressions to the languages. "Since the internet has become an indispensable medium of communication, online jargon is surely not something to be banned and its impact on real-world communication is unavoidable," the linguist says.

That won't stop some authorities from trying. In March, the Shanghai legislature prohibited the use of cyber slang in its media and textbooks, the first ban of its kind on the mainland. Textbooks and media are models for language usage and should not be allowed to adopt "sub-standard" cyber slang, says Wang Yaoxi, a member of the legislative affairs committee of the Shanghai Municipal People's Congress.

Others suggest the flap over proliferating cyber slang is unwarranted. "There's no need to overreact," says Zhang of the Beijing Language and Culture University. "Most youngsters are capable of distinguishing between the appropriate and inappropriate use of internet slang."

Far from being a threat, Zhang says new words help enrich the language with youngsters' creativity and verve.

"Some new words from cyberspace will be gradually accepted by the public and assimilated into everyday language, while others that don't have legs, will fade away," he says. "It takes time, but the language will work out eventually. It's just a necessary stage in the development of modern Chinese."

The anti-slang drive infuriates many young net users. "There's no reason to discriminate against online language," writes Mu Yifei on

Mu and other critics ridicule the guardians of the Chinese language. If fen si is out, they say, then what about sha fa, or sofa, which entered the Chinese dictionary in the last century? And if WTO and GFP can appear in official documents and textbooks, then why not PK [Player Kills, a term derived from computer games]?

Sitting at a school computer, Mengnan suggests the language guardians face a losing battle even if they may have a point.

"Internet dialect has become a part of our life and I don't think it can be banned," she says. "After all, you cannot silence us by stopping up our mouths."
Also, from the land of self-promotion-but-you-also-might-be-interested-in-this-new-technology, I was interviewed a few weeks ago for a UPI story (Me little late meeting sorry sorry) about Zlango, which is a soon-to-be-released SMS platform that communicates through a "lexicon" of icons, with the option to add in text at any point, though the point is to use less letters and words altogether, and more pictures. I hadn't heard of it before but there is some buzz about it in the blogosphere.

I had assumed that English couldn’t be the only language where the digital influence is sending people into a tizzy, but this is the first time I’m actually hearing about it happening somewhere else. Comments –

I wonder what part of the language purists’ concern is on Chinese deteriorating because of these new CMD-based trends becoming common use and what part is concern over a lot of these trends bringing a mess of English calques and cognates and things into the language (a la hong pei ji [homepage], bf [boyfriend]. I’m also curious to what degree the online portions of other languages are getting an influx of English-based (or insert-other-language-here-based) terms. Anyone we know of writing on these things?

I’ve noticed in the small influx of articles being written on CMD that the terms “digital dialect” or “internet dialect” are being used to describe online language. How do we fell about the word dialect, which I’ve always seen in academic circles as reserved for describing regional speech (as opposed to sociolects or ethnolects or blah blah blah which have their own connotations), being used like this? (All nitty-gritty complaints about internet language being described as one monolithic language aside).

I love that the kid called his teacher young and fashionable.

I like that kids in China are using CMD-jargon to pass notes offline, and aren’t just porting them right out of the online medium to a spoken medium. This has got to be happening in U.S. schools, no? There’s more than enough written on kids using online jargon while online to throw their parents off the trail, but not so much on the same thing happening while writing offline. Kids still pass notes on paper and stuff around here, right?

Also interesting was that they mentioned the term ‘PK’ as something that might potentially enter the Chinese lexicon, since that’s a term taken from MMO (online games) discourse rather than broadly from online discourse – you don’t really see much (any?) MMO -> English shifting going on round these parts (at least within a general English-speaking audience rather than a particular [geeky?] social group).

I don’t think I did comment on the Zlango article when I saw it way back when, but I’d like to see if that actually catches on (and awesome on the interview, ms-media-savvy). I’m pretty SMS-stupid though, so someone post about it when it comes stateside!
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