Particularly in the earlier days of the Internet, the online world was not an accommodating place for the Chinese language. As its origins were in the US, the Internet has long exhibited a bias towards English-speaking web users, favoring Latinate alphabets, by virtue of their simplicity – at least, compared to character-based scripts like Mandarin.
It would be another few years until Chinese characters (and other more complex scripts and writing systems) made their crucial transition into keyboard- and Internet-friendly forms.
However, the difficulties in rendering Mandarin a feasible language for use on computers did not hinder netizens from using their language online. In fact, this hindrance may have even served as an advantage in the long run, as it permitted (and in fact, required) creative reimaginings of the Chinese written word, adapted for use within the confines of a Latinate keyboard.
Today of course, dozens of programs have been introduced to facilitate writing Mandarin electronically. However this has not put an end to the vibrant and varied ways in which Chinese Internet users communicate.
With over 500 million Internet users – more than any other country in the world – Chinese are reshaping their language in playful but powerful ways, which indulge the language-lover in all of us. Esteemed linguist David Moser, and many others, have lauded these changes, claiming they inject humor and charm into the Chinese language in idiosyncratic ways, which would not be possible in any other language.
The sound of Chinese numbers has given rise to a new set of Chinese words; is “Martian” the new Mandarin? [Tweet this]
Meaning by Numbers
The use of written numbers was, and continues to be, a fascinating spinoff on written Chinese characters. Not only do numbers have heavy connotations within traditional Chinese superstitions and folklore, but they also provide a form within which Chinese characters can be rendered, using homophones or other methods of linguistic play.
Furthermore, in contrast to Latin/Roman alphabets, Arabic numerals (i.e. 1, 2, 3, …) are ubiquitous in China and instantly recognizable to all – like many other countries, China uses Arabic numerals in phone numbers, prices, calculations, lists, and many more. These are some of the reasons why so many Chinese web URL addresses – especially older ones – contain numbers, while Western ones use them more sparingly.
As URL addresses only recently started accepting Chinese characters as allowed characters in them, numbers have traditionally featured prominently in web addresses in China. (Do you recognize the website name 163.com?) There are many lesser-known websites, which exploit the flexibility and flair that numbers grant them.
6.cn, a popular video-sharing site, benefits from the fact that the Mandarin word for the number six, liù, sounds the same as 流 (liú), a Chinese verb which means “to stream”. In a similar vein, the job-hunting site 51job.com plays on how the numbers 51 (wǔyāo) sound almost identical to the Chinese phrase 我要 (wǒyào), meaning “I want”: thus “51job.com” means, “I want a job”. Even the global fast-food powerhouse McDonalds have taken advantage of the clever “51” pun: their Chinese delivery website ends with “517-517.com”. Since when spoken, “517” (wǔyaoqī) sounds just like 我要吃(wǒyàochī), the fast-food delivery giant’s Chinese web address means, very appropriately, “I want to eat, I want to eat!
Chinese often use numberical URLS: 51: “51job.com” sounds like (wǔyāo) sound almost identical to 我要 (wǒyào), meaning “I want” [Tweet this]
Deciphering Numbers in Chinese Internet Shorthand
The malleability of number-homophones has given rise to a set of very widely used shorthand forms of common Chinese words, used in combination with other numbers, Chinese characters, English letters, symbols, and many more:
|Chinese||Corresponds with||English Meaning|
|1 (yī; yāo)||要 (yào)||“want”|
|2 (èr)||爱 (ài)||“love”|
|3 (sān)||想 (xiǎng)||“want, hope”|
|4 (sì)||死 (sǐ)||“dead”|
|5 (wǔ)||我 (wǒ)||“I”|
|6 (liù)||了 (le)||(tense particle, time marker)|
|7 (qī)||妻 (qī)||“wife”|
|8 (bā)||别 (bié)||“don’t”|
|9 (jiǔ)||酒 (jiǔ)||“alcohol”|
|久 (jiǔ)||“long time”|
|0 (líng)||你 (nǐ)||“you”|
These slang forms are used all over Chinese social media sites and services, from Weibo to WeiXin (WeChat). Number-based language games are a wonderful way for early learners of Chinese to expand their vocabulary, learn mnemonic shortcuts to associate sounds with meanings, as well as participate and understand the colorful world of the Chinese Internet. There are also many numbers-only shorthand phrases, which have firmly established themselves as mainstays in Chinese popular culture.
|Chinese||Corresponds with||English meaning|
|88 (bābā)||拜拜 (bàibài)||“Bye bye”|
|520 (wǔèr ling)||我爱你 (wǒàinǐ)||“I love you”|
|521 (wǔèryī)||我爱你 (wǒàinǐ)||“I love you”|
|5376 (wǔsānqīliù)||我生气了 (wǒshēngqìle)||“I’m angry”|
|8147 (bāyaosìqī)||不要生气 (búyàoshēngqì)||“Don’t be angry”|
|770880 (qīqī ling bābā ling)||亲亲你抱抱你 (qīnqīnnǐbàobàonǐ)||“Kiss kiss you, hug hug you”|
|360 (sānliùlíng)||思恋你 (sīliànnǐ)||“Miss you”|
|04551 (ling sìwǔwǔyī)||你是我唯一（nǐshìwǒwéiyī）||“You are my one and only”|
|5170 (wǔyaoqī ling)||我要娶你 (wǒyàoqǔnǐ)||“I want to marry you”|
|51 (wǔyāo)||我要 (wǒyào)||“I want…”|
|596 (wǔjiǔliù)||我走了 (wǒzǒuliǎo)||“I have to go”|
|098 (ling jiǔbā)||你走吧 (nǐzǒuba)||“Okay, go!”|
See this website for a much more extensive list of popular shortenings.
Chinese numerical abbreviations: 8147 (bāyaosìqī) = 不要生气 (búyàoshēngqì) = “Don’t be angry” [Tweet this]
A Clash Between Slang and Tradition
On one hand, “Martian Script”’s disobedience to grammatical and orthographic norms leave a sour taste in the mouths of older, well-educated Chinese who appreciate the traditions of their writing system. Having said that, however, when Chinese characters were first simplified on a grand scale under Mao Zedong’s leadership in the 1950s, these simplifications and shortcuts were met with similar disdain.
And now, these resulting simplified characters are what all Chinese know and use, with traditional characters surviving only in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, and some other scattered communities.
Is “Martian” the New Mandarin?
A 2008 survey of thousands of Chinese teenagers (aged 15 to 20) revealed that over 80 percent regularly use “Martian Script” when communicating online or over text (source: huoxingwen.com). It has drawn praise as a cultural and linguistic movement, with the power and scope to alter the future of the Chinese language in fundamental ways. Of course, it seems unlikely that such radical slang forms will supersede conventional characters any time soon. However, one can argue that some forms are here to stay. Similar phenomenons can be found in European languages, e.g. in English where ‘4’ can mean ‘for’ and ‘2’ can be used instead of ‘to’ or ‘too’. However a sentence like ‘I g2g, TTYL’ will presumably never be standardized.
But who’s to say what the “Chinese language” will look like in writing in 100, 200, 300 years?
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