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How Autocorrect is Creating New Chinese Slang

BY Nick Judd | Monday, July 16 2012

Public Radio International's The World has a fascinating look at how it looks like the autocomplete functionality on mobile phones is changing the way some Chinese people are using their language.

PRI reports that as users of phones with English-language keyboards begin typing Chinese in pinyin, the system for transliterating between Chinese characters and the English alphabet, they are presented with the vast array of homophones each word may have. So each time someone starts typing a text message, they're assisted in wordplay by the autocomplete function on their phones.

In Chinese, many words sound very similar to words that mean nowhere near the same thing. This is helping people to develop new slang and is giving people the opportunity to resurrect old words, PRI reports:

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The Internet has even given out-of-date Chinese characters new life.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.

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."

An Xiao Mina, the artist and researcher who passes this along, explained to me in June how people in China use the same concepts to circumvent censorship.