Digraphia and intentional miswriting

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I received the following message from David Moser on 6/2/11, but it got lost in my inbox until just now when I was able to retrieve it while cleaning out a bunch of old and unwanted messages:

Wow, talk about digraphia!  I just got this text message on my cell phone here in Beijing:

本酒店为您 ti 供大学笙,模 te, 空 jie及外国 nv 孩。需要请拨打电话1374980598. 张经理。

Even those who don't read Chinese will notice the romanized syllables scattered among the characters.  Since we've been discussing digraphia quite a bit lately, especially in connection with Jackie Chan's amazing "Duang", this is a good time to rediscover David's peculiar specimen.

First, let me put the whole thing in characters, transcribe it in Pinyin, and translate it into English:

Běn jiǔdiàn wèi nín tígōng dàxuéshēng, mótè, kōngjiě jí wàiguó nǚhái. Xūyào qǐng bōdǎ diànhuà 1374980598. Zhāng jīnglǐ.

本酒店为您提供大学生,模特, 空姐及外国女孩。需要请拨打电话1374980598. 张经理。

This hotel offers you university students, models, stewardesses, and foreign girls. If you are in need (of such services), please dial 1374980598.  Manager Zhang.

Not only did the sender sprinkle in Pinyin here and there, they also substituted homophonous shēng 笙 ("reedpipe") for shēng 生 ("student").  They undoubtedly used such tactics to avoid triggering some automatic character-string search that China Unicom might employ to weed out spam.

Such messages are used not merely for kinky fetish sex trade, I receive them in my e-mail for fake IDs, fake licenses, fake tickets, fake diplomas, and so forth.  If you walk around China's cities, you'll see cell phone numbers scrawled all over the sidewalks, buildings, and other available surfaces advertising a wide variety of suspect and illegal services.  Those who want to circulate such ads on the internet or via mobile phones have long since discovered the utility of digraphia and homophony as means for avoiding the censors and blockers.


  1. Freddy Hill said,

    March 12, 2015 @ 12:22 pm

    This seems analogous to those emails that advertised "pr0n." Does the use of numerals to stand for letters qualify as digraphia?

    I don't recall getting these lately, perhaps because the spam detecting algorithms are catching up. I'll bet the same is happening in Chinese.

  2. JB said,

    March 12, 2015 @ 2:54 pm

    This kind of message, with pinyin thrown in with characters, is more often than not a case of typing error: the pinyin will remain as Latin letters should the return key be pressed rather than the spacebar.

    Of course, as the Grass-Mud-Horse and related examples show, use of homophones and/or similar looking characters is common in circumventing various restrictions.

  3. Michael Watts said,

    March 12, 2015 @ 3:27 pm

    This particular message, though, is quite obviously not a case of typing error. That kind of pinyin-instead-of-a-character error usually only happens with the final word of a message, and it takes real effort to type 大学笙 instead of 大学生. Notice how every single word that might trigger censorship, or draw unwelcome attention, has one character fuzzed (the ti of tigong, the sheng of (da)xuesheng, the te of mote, the jie of kongjie, and the nv of nvhai). You think it could be a coincidence?

  4. Michael Watts said,

    March 12, 2015 @ 3:31 pm

    (Oh, for reference: tigong means "offer". The other fuzzed words are (da)xuesheng "(college) student", mote "model" (a loan word from english), kongjie "airline stewardess", and nvhai "girl".

  5. Matt said,

    March 12, 2015 @ 4:46 pm

    What's up with "nv" instead of "nu"? Is that a standard romanization for that syllable, or is it a second-level fuzzing to evade filters that have learned to search for "nu" as well as "女"?

  6. Michael Watts said,

    March 12, 2015 @ 5:28 pm

    It's not a fuzzing. "Nu" is a different syllable; 女 is thought of by Chinese people in China as having the pinyin representation "nv" because that's what you type to get it in a pinyin IME. Lots of keyboards have a v key; very few have a ü.

  7. Skyelar Raiti said,

    March 12, 2015 @ 5:32 pm

    @Matt: When typing Pinyin, the letter "v" is often used as a substitute for "ü" when the latter isn't readily available.

  8. Jongseong Park said,

    March 12, 2015 @ 5:35 pm

    @Matt, "v" is a pretty common ASCII substitute for "ü" in pinyin, which must be familiar to most Chinese speakers who use pinyin. Disregarding tone marks, "ü" is the only pinyin letter that is not an ASCII letter.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    March 12, 2015 @ 6:22 pm

    The liberal use of Pinyin in this message, even as single syllables and without tone marks, shows how broadly familiar it has become in China. Moreover, bear in mind that neither the writer nor the expected readers are linguists or language scholars, but just common folk.

    As I have often said, the near universality of Pinyin inputting, plus the fact that all children in China begin to learn to read and write via Pinyin, are contributing to what I call the "emerging digraphia" in the PRC.

  10. Nimbusaeta said,

    March 13, 2015 @ 4:57 am

    Seems like me, a student of Chinese, when I have to write a short essay in Chinese without the dictionary: the characters I don't know, I write in pinyin. Could it be the case? I don't think so but there's a slight possibility…

  11. Victor Mair said,

    March 13, 2015 @ 6:43 am


    That's a good suggestion, and here at Language Log we've studied many such cases of students using Pinyin when they didn't know how to write certain characters. However, as carefully analyzed by Michael Watts in his comments above, that's not the case here. This is clearly a conscious attempt by the spammer to throw off the censors and blockers.

  12. Carlos Lascoutx said,

    March 13, 2015 @ 10:52 am

    cool. here are some more morphs which work for all idioms: u/w/v/b/p,
    e.g., iueli=iberia/siberia/hibernia/river/berlin/bern/bear.
    iueli pantli(N)=powerful flag,=elephant.
    poder oso(Sp).

  13. John Rohsenow said,

    March 13, 2015 @ 7:48 pm

    And, if fact, students learning HYPY first and characters later in the hey-
    day of the ZT or "Zhu Yin Shi Zi, Tiqian Du-xie" experimental classes in the 1980s where encouraged to mix the twom and to write HYPY when they couldn't think of a character.

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