China’s ‘network words’ spawn new dialect

By Hui Luo

Do you know Chinese? If you do, you should at least know “怎么 (how)”, “什么 (what)” and “喜欢 (like)”. However, when you are surfing the Internet in Chinese websites and forums, you may find that you cannot understand the whole sentence at all due to some particular words. We call them network words, and you cannot find them in dictionaries.

Let’s take a look this sentence, “你怎么了”, it means “how are you”. But the Chinese youngsters will write it into “你肿么了”. Even if you do not know Chinese, you can tell the characters “怎” and “肿” are different. As I said before, “怎” means how, but “肿” means swollen. They are such two distinct words so how can they have the same meaning?

At first, we have to know something about the Chinese pronunciation system. English has the syllables to tell you how to read words, and Chinese has pinyin to achieve that. Basically, you can read any Chinese word if you have learned pinyin and the four tones. But Chinese words which have the same pronunciations will have separate meanings. In fact, half of these words will have the same pronunciations but mean variety things, range from noun, adjective, adverb and verb. Take the example of “怎” and “肿”, they have similar intonation although their pinyin are different as “zen” and “zhong”. The other examples are “什么 (what)” and “喜欢 (like)”, they also have their twins which are “神马 (mystery horse)” and “稀饭 (porridge)”.

If we use English to explain it further, it is just like we say “hit” instead of “heat”, or say “kid” instead of “kit”. Although it does not make sense when you read it, you will understand it in some way by listening and speaking. In other words, it sounds like you have an accent.

We have no idea when these network words started to be used. But we do know that they were employed by the adolescents who were born between 1980s and 1990s. And it has become a popular trend in China right now.

Why do people use such bizarre words?

The main reason is that China has many dialects. Mandarin is the official language in China. But different provinces even different cities have their own dialects. Some of them are similar to Mandarin but the others are different, such as Cantonese, Beijing Hua and Shanghai Hua.

Chinese are required to use Mandarin in formal places, such as offices and schools. However, people are more likely to speak their dialects with people who come from their hometowns. With the development of the Internet, citizens who live in different areas can easily find these people. Hence, they will use dialects to talk with each other on the Internet.

These dialects will contain their own particular words, which are very novel to people who do not know them. And people began to copy some words from others’ dialects into dialogues in Mandarin or their local speeches. This was the beginning of the network words.

Sometimes it is impolite to use these words in formal conversations because of the weird pronunciations, that is why just Chinese youngsters used them at first. But then, people found out that it is more amiable when you are expressing your feelings and thoughts when you are speaking your dialect. Thus, Chinese start to use different idioms to share their ideas on the Internet.

The other reason for the popularity of the use of network words is Chinese censorship. As we all know, China censors nearly everything.

There is a sensitive words database used by Chinese censors, such as some foul language and words related to sensitive affairs. The government will update the database frequently. If you publish some articles with any words in the database, your articles are most likely to be deleted automatically. For example, when there were insurrections in Tunisia and Egypt, the word “Jasmine Revolution” became a sensitive word for nearly half a year.

There are hundreds and thousands of words in the list of sensitive words which have interrupted people’s normal conversations through the Internet. As a result, people tried to use another word to replace the “sensitive” one. It turns out that the network words are the best alternatives because it is understandable and you can create your own words.

Nowadays, you can find the network words are used in spoken language, dramas and even books. They are not only existing on the Internet, but also appearing in daily life.

Hui Luo is a Regional Representative for Asian Correspondent reporting for Mainland China