Using Chinese nonstandard characters to talk cute

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Nikita Kuzmin told me about a trend among young Chinese to exchange certain characters with other phonetically close characters in their Internet writings, so that the words sound more "cute".

Here are some examples of such substitutions:

jiègè 介個 —  zhège 這個 ("this")
pényǒu 盆友 — péngyǒu 朋友 ("friend")
nánpiào 男票 — nán péngyǒu 男朋友 ("boyfriend")
xièxiè 蟹蟹 — xièxiè 謝謝 ("thanks")
kāisēn 開森 — kāixīn 開心 ("happy")
suìjué/jiào 碎觉 — shuìjiào 睡覺 ("sleep")

Don't worry overmuch about the meanings of the characters in the first half of each pair, because they are being used for their sound.  Still, in this kind of word play, the latent meanings of the substituted characters often add another level of levity.

jiègè 介個 ("interpose piece")
pényǒu 盆友 ("basin friend")
nánpiào 男票 ("male ticket")
xièxiè 蟹蟹 ("crab crab")
kāisēn 開森 ("open forest")
suìjué/jiào 碎觉 ("shattered awake/asleep")

One of Nikita's Chinese friends told him that this type of word play is due to the influence of Taiwanese guoyu (Mandarin) pronunciation, as well as to the influence of the topolects.

This is but one way in which netizens today are playing with the characters to achieve all sorts of special effects, both phonetic and semantic.  Taiwan is an especially fertile place for this kind of linguistic legerdemain, e.g.:

"Further evidence of mixed script writing in Chinese" (1/19/18)

"The Westernization of Chinese" (9/6/12)


  1. Guy_H said,

    January 21, 2018 @ 9:38 am

    I wonder what the gender split of this is? Without meaning to sound gender conformist, I have a hard time imagining grown men in mainland China wanting to write cutesy/baby talk.

  2. Shihchuan said,

    January 21, 2018 @ 9:45 am

    As a Taiwanese, I confirm that this is very common – it's worth noting that it's not limited to one gender (as nowadays it's often used to sound "cute" in a facetious or ironic way).

    I've personally never heard of or used 碎覺 or 男票; on the other hand a common alternative for 謝謝 is 洩洩 – often used to sound vulgar as 洩 means "leak".

    It also reminds me of a common "Chinglish" slang – UCCU, shorthand for "you see see you" (你看看你 nǐ kàn kàn nǐ, used as a reproach to someone's wrongdoing to their own detriment, in a schadenfreude way)

    I feel that this is the milder (less stigmatized) end of a continuum that goes all the way to 火星文 (huǒxīngwén, "martian text", basically meaning Chinese internet slang)

  3. Shihchuan said,

    January 21, 2018 @ 9:51 am

    Two other examples are 桑心 or 桑辛 (sāng xīn) for 傷心 (shāng xīn, "sad), and 森企 or even 森企企 / 森77 (sēn qì / sēn
    qì qì /sēn qī qī) for 生氣 (shēng qì, "angry")

    Of course I suspect that even though it's used by young males and females in Taiwan alike, it's still more used by females (on the other hand… females might be more stigmatized when they use it, as it's very stereotypical)

  4. Mark Meckes said,

    January 21, 2018 @ 10:37 am

    This reminds me of "chez pas" in Francophone texting/Internet-speak for for "je ne sais pas" (which is generally pronounced more like "chez pas" in colloquial speech).

  5. Tom davidson said,

    January 21, 2018 @ 12:12 pm

    This topic was covered by my linguistics teacher林尹 way back in the 1970s at NTNU in Taiwan.

  6. John Rohsenow said,

    January 21, 2018 @ 4:23 pm

    Just to keep the thread going, let me repeat part of "my" contribution to
    VM's previous posting (jump back two previous postings above) and here
    repeat the second part of Prof. YC Li's extended comment on the HEN
    posting: He said; "In addition, " 很 is often replaced with 粉. Some of us [TW spkrs of Mdn] do have f/h confusion. That’s why they pronounce 很 hen like 粉 fen , and thus write 粉 fen to represent their true pronunciation. (For the same reason, they write 偶 to represent 我.)"
    [To which I could only comment :"Sounds like a lot of "fun"(糞) to me. JSR]
    But then do look at Jonathan Smith's informative response to that, plus VM's insightful comments thereon. — JSR

  7. Michael Watts said,

    January 22, 2018 @ 1:03 am

    UCCU, shorthand for "you see see you" (你看看你 nǐ kàn kàn nǐ, used as a reproach to someone's wrongdoing to their own detriment, in a schadenfreude way)

    The actual English would of course be "look at yourself".

    It's interesting to me that "see" is used here. Foreign speakers often don't understand the distinction between atelic "look" and telic "see", but this shouldn't be a problem for Chinese speakers – Mandarin draws the distinction even more obviously than English does, making it a syntactic feature rather than a vocabulary choice. 看 is "look"; see is 看到, something like "look-and-succeed". Compare 听 "listen", 听到 "hear"; 找 "search", 找到 "find".

  8. Phil H said,

    January 23, 2018 @ 8:52 am

    Ahem, as a non-female who doesn’t really fall into the young category any more, I have no business using these… but sometimes I do, because they’re fun. In my office (Shenzhen, staffed by a number of women in their 20s) we use:
    不造 bu2zao4 for 不知道 bu4zhi1dao4 don’t know
    酱紫 jiang4zi3 for 这样子 zhe4yang4zi oh, I see
    木有 mu4you3 for 没有 mei2you3 no/have not

    And I’m sure many more which don’t leap to mind right now. I like the first one because of the sneaky sandhi!

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