How internet slang expands Chinese vocabulary

Source:Chinese Social Sciences Today 2023-05-05

The emergence of Chinese internet slang is an innovation to language amid the advancement of network technology, and its form is constantly evolving as social culture develops. Chinese internet slang originates from online conversations, can reflect social life and changes, and is a dynamic and changing innovation. From early technical terms, such as “browser” and “favorites,” to common words used online to record social events such as “fu yun” (fleeting cloud), “tu hao” (newly rich) and “po fang” (overwhelmed), as well as symbols and emojis that combine letters, numbers, punctuation and other forms, internet slang has endlessly documented the most updated evolution in social life. Thanks to network technologies, internet slang transforms the rich context that people could otherwise not simply describe in vivid language, which not only enriches our current language life, but also provides vast resources for exploring future trends in the language domain.

Bridging oral, written languages

In the context of network communication, internet slang is a type of “written word” in which language users creatively describe online social life, thoughts, and emotions via network technology. For example, due to the general rules of word formation, some oral expressions that have only relied on gestures, expressions, and tones in the past, have now become language symbols in a written form.

The Modern Chinese Dictionary defines a “yue jie” (overstepping) as “going beyond limits or boundaries,” emphasizing its dynamic process and attributes. The derivation, development, and evolution of internet slang poses challenges to the inherent boundaries of traditional language, nationality, ethnic groups, and more. To a certain extent, it erodes and even crosses inherent language boundaries with increasingly evident overstep. In fact, since the birth of internet slang, crossing language boundaries has become an important source of word-formation, which is well manifested in code-mixed words, internet acronyms, homophonic words, and so on.

With the continuous development of the internet, internet slang is not only a means of language expression that records people’s everyday social life, but also changes the operation of network media and guides public opinions, thus providing a channel to build language users’ identities. Internet slang highlights the application and development of traditional words in the context of network communication and reflects the overstepping characteristics of words that break the boundaries of daily social life in cyberspace.

In terms of social and cultural evolution, language overstep is the inevitable result of contact with language, including both contact between different languages, and the interaction and mixture of different elements of the same language. At present, internet slang has crossed new boundaries and entered the field of daily language use, even appearing in official news media. It has become an important means to record public opinions, build a healthy social language life, and gather social consensus.

Innovation is king

In the early days, Chinese internet slang was only the innovative use of daily language in the context of network communication, and most slang was a visual interpretation of “spoken language” that could be typed on a keyboard. When the informal Chinese which is used daily moved onto the internet it met a network communication demand for speed, novelty, and difference. As the internet has taken a central role in people’s real social lives, internet slang has now become a part of people’s daily conversation. This shows the dynamic flow from the “internet” to “daily communication” and even to “official media,” with a dynamic evolution from “Chinese words–network context–internet slang–daily communication–official media or formal style.” The concept of slang as an overstep also reflects the network itself as it transforms from virtual to real, revealing the strength of the language system.

Whether the Modern Chinese Dictionary (6th edition) takes in online slang such as “lei ren” (shocking), “zhai nan” (gamer), and “shan zhai” (copycat), or “gei li” (giving energy, or awesome), “ren xing” (wayward), and “ying he” (hardcore) are widely used in official media, all reflect the proliferation of Chinese internet slang.

If the last generation of Chinese internet slang was just Chinese spoken language crossing the boundary into the written system, then more slang terms entering online media, even official broadcast media or print, actually represents language breaking boundaries. On the one hand, the overstepping Chinese internet slang reflects the innovation and adaptation of the language system itself, which demonstrates the powerful creativity and dynamic adaptability of Chinese. On the other hand, it reflects official and mainstream media responding with tolerance and acceptance to the discourse system of private language in the process of linguistic contact. This not only helps to reflect the reality of social life and language, but also helps to standardize and guide the positive and healthy development of online discourse and online public opinions. The overstep of Chinese internet slang is a bottom-up language flow, and plays a positive role by building harmonious public opinions online and creates a purer online environment.

As the internet grows in popularity, the barrier between virtual networks and real life becomes transitory. Internet slang is more widely used in news, government documents, and academic writing within fields such as literature, sociology, and communication. Over the course of human history, though there have been many symbolized language expressions, only in today’s internet era has this kind of “transliteration” of folk oral content into vivid and diversified written words that are easy to identify and inherit happened on such a large scale.

Just as the internet is increasingly breaking the barrier between virtual and real life, Chinese internet slang has both the characteristics of spoken and written language at its source and is moving beyond the differentiation between spoken and written language. Internet slang realizes both the written form of spoken language and the spoken form of written language. As a language variant, Chinese internet slang offers higher freedom of communication, stronger individual innovation, and wider penetration into social life than Chinese spoken language. This makes it capable of recording social changes, depicting language life development, and carrying forward the spirit and culture of the times. This generation of Chinese internet slang breathes new life into language, which has the potential to build an open, inclusive, free, and equal language life.

Going forward

The overstep of Chinese internet slang is essentially the evolution of language itself. It is a natural result of language’s adjustment and adaptation in the internet era. Whether slang is the conversion of spoken language to written language, or the flow from casual use in daily life to official or mainstream media, Chinese internet slang which successfully crosses boundaries needs to conform to modern Chinese phonetic, lexical, and grammatical norms. This represents a general evolutionary process from replication through adaptive variation to selective survival.

For this reason, it is not appropriate to fully accept or passively resist the overstep of Chinese internet slang. Instead, we must actively explore language planning policies in line with the laws of language evolution and expand the guidance, communicative power, and influence of mainstream media. For example, in recent years, some mainstream media platforms have used terms such as “tui qun” (withdraw from a group), “shuai guo” (shirk one’s responsibility), “zhai jingji” (stay-at-home economy), “da kao” (cheer for somebody), “ge jiucai” (being played for suckers), “nei juan” (rat race) or “tang ping” (lying flat) in reporting livelihood issues and other news reports. This effectively shortens the communication distance between mainstream media and internet users. While strengthening their focus on serving the public, this type of content also supports the media’s positive role in leading and regulating the use of internet slang, eradicating internet swearwords, and creating a clean and harmonious online public opinion culture.

Since its beginning, Chinese internet slang has been a comprehensive language variant that integrates computer technology and traditional language symbols, breaking the boundary between the real world and the virtual world, and catering to the many communication needs of the internet era. Whether it is a novel and unique network language or a combination of fashionable codes, Chinese internet slang that has successfully crossed the boundary not only reflects the spirit of the Chinese protocol system, but also follows the social context of the internet. These words conform to the general laws of evolution and reflect the broad adaptability and tenacious vitality of the Chinese language.

In addition, as a variant form, the emergence and overstep of Chinese internet slang is also a result of social protocols and collective selection, and their overstep reflects people’s general interpretation of social events in the internet era, showing an increasing tendency toward cross-sector integration.

While constantly influencing and changing human society, the internet has also reshaped life, including language life, and is accelerating the evolution from virtual to reality. The overstep of Chinese internet slang is the result of this large-scale evolution. While strengthening the influence of language communication, it is constantly dispelling and blurring its various inherent “boundaries.” Internet slang records changes in social life in the new era and extends people’s cognition and understanding of the world.

Going forward, research on Chinese internet slang should pay more attention to its overstepping nature, systematically analyze the types, characteristics, and distribution of this language, and analyze the motivation, rationale, and mechanisms of social understandings behind it. We should devote ourselves to promoting the in-depth development of Chinese internet slang. However, it is also necessary to discuss the “language turn” or even “internet slang turn” in economic, political, and other facets of social life, to help build a healthy, upward, positive, and harmonious language life.


Wang Yong is a professor from the College of Foreign Languages at Hainan University.

Editor:Yu Hui

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