How Technology is Changing Chinese

Punning is a long established part of Chinese culture which has found fertile new soil online. Often, the focus falls on wordplay used to circumvent political censorship, of which examples can be found in CDT’s Grass Mud Horse Lexicon and Word of the Week series. At PRI’s The World, Nina Porzuki explores other factors that have fed the phenomenon, such as pinyin input methods presenting users with a buffet of homonyms every time they compose a text or email.

“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 [American linguist David] 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, 玻璃, 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The Internet has even given out-of-date Chinese characters new life.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 is 囧 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 囧 and part of the fun is mining these forgotten characters to create new meanings.