What is the likelihood that one of the world’s most ancient languages, spoken by a fifth of the world’s population, will change faster in our lifetimes than it has over the past several centuries? It’s actually happening as we speak.
A family of related dialects, the Chinese language dates back to 1122 BCE (Before the Common Era or 1122 BC). With a plethora of influences from surrounding nations, the development of the language over thousands of years has been complex – and often slow. Despite the best efforts of the Qing dynasty in the mid-1600’s to standardize on pronunciation, isolation constrained interaction and most Chinese spoke only their native local dialect.
Fast forward to the last century, when the Chinese government succeeded in standardizing Mandarin through a nation-wide compulsory school system. Superimpose upon this somewhat uniform platform the power of social media, along with cheap technology and the iron fist of Chinese censorship and a netizenry craving connectivity. Add one of the Chinese language’s more unique features, the prevalence of homophones. All of these factors combine to accelerate the effect of technology on changes to the Chinese language.
Homophones are words that sound alike but have different meanings. (Think of night vs. knight) According to David Moser, an American linguist living in Beijing, Chinese is rife with homophones. Nearly every word has several. Wordplay and puns, says Moser, have always been popular with Chinese speakers.
Texting and its dependence on abbreviations allow a nation confounded by censorship some interesting opportunities to encode topics of the day. For instance, a recent text about the Tiananmen Square violence referred to it as the “8x8 incident”. 8×8 = 64, and the Tiananmen Square incident occurred on June 4. The word “Tiananmen” is forbidden on internet traffic, as is the date of the incident – 6/4. Homophones allow for other possibilities though.
Consider our own thought process when asked to name a number of homophones – we stop, we think about it. Several may come to mind at once, then a few more. In China, a person texting types the Romanized version of the pronunciation of the word he or she wants to send, using an alphabet known as Pinyin. Because of the homophonic nature of the language, the syllables could mean many things. So the texting service provides all the possible characters that share the same pronunciation. Suddenly Chinese speakers have all the possibilities before them. According to a recent post on the Public Radio International (PRI) site, that has given them unlimited possibilities for language innovation.
Take for example, recently the term “boy love” or its abbreviation “BL” from English have come to refer to homosexual men in Chinese. The term evolved into “boli”, which happens to be the pronunciation for the Chinese characters for the word “glass”. Those characters are now a homophone for gay men.
The easy access to these character dictionaries has made people aware of old characters that are rarely used, and they are being revived to suit the needs for new meanings – occasionally as emoticons.
While some appreciate this innovation, linguists fear that the language may change too quickly to retain some of its richest features.
“We’re getting weird mutations of the language mixing with English phasing in and out of Chinese and non-Chinese,” says John Pasden of Sinosplice in Shanghai. “This complete disregard for the meaning of the characters has some serious long-term implications if it keeps going on.” So what’s next for the Chinese language? Could we see new characters or characters that completely change meaning?
Other experts are less concerned. Professor David Crystal, honorary professor of lingusitics at the University of Bangor, has noted that while the internet has profoundly accelerated the speed at which slang is shared and adopted, it’s still slang. Much of the appeal of this hip new language lies in its exclusive use by hipsters.
Recently quoted by the BBC News Website about this, he described a recent example. “Remember a few years ago, West Indians started talking about ‘bling’. Then the white middle classes started talking about it and they stopped using it,” said Crystal. “That’s typical of slang – it happens with internet slang as well.”
Change is inevitable, particularly with that thing that is so magnificently and so perplexingly human: our use of language. To what extent technology will change language in the long term; is a story still in the writing, and the telling?