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This article examines the use of Pinyin acronyms on the Chinese Internet, with a focus on their use as a strategy for producing taboo language in online interaction. The popularization of the Internet and the high penetration of Internet use among young users in Mainland China have given rise to numerous new sociolinguistic phenomena regarding the official language of the country, Mandarin Chinese, among them Pinyin acronyms, which are the combination of initials of Romanized Chinese words. According to the results of a questionnaire administered in this study, young Chinese Internet users mainly attribute the invention and conventionalization of Pinyin acronyms to overcoming the limitations of Pinyin input to enhance efficiency, softening the effect of taboo language, and defying the keyword-filtering mechanism of Chinese Internet censorship during online interaction.


With the world’s largest Internet population, China witnessed the number of its Internet users grow by the end of June 2013 to 591 million (44% of the entire population), over 57% of whom were under the age of 30.1 The high penetration of Internet use among young people in China has brought about numerous new sociolinguistic phenomena concerning the country’s official language, Mandarin Chinese, as a result of online interaction.

This paper examines the use of Pinyin acronyms invented and conventionalized by Mandarin-speaking Internet users in Mainland China. Popular online Pinyin acronyms, such as TMD for the common Chinese insult Tā Mā De,2 which literally means ‘his mother’s,’ are formed by combining the initial letters of Pinyin words transcribed from Chinese characters into a new “word” (see Appendix I for a short list of popular Pinyin acronyms). By conducting an online questionnaire targeting young Chinese Internet users and analyzing the results, I investigate the function of Pinyin acronyms as a strategy for producing taboo language on the Internet in Mainland China.

Theoretical Background

The popularization of the Internet seems to have affected human society in numerous ways, and there is no reason why natural languages should be an exception. From a language point of view, the Internet offers a new domain of communication and gives rise to new linguistic phenomena. The aspect of computer-mediated communication (CMC) that this paper explores concentrates on language use for interaction, “natural language usage carried via the Internet,” excluding special coding systems (e.g., C++, Python) for constructing communication or gathering information (Baron, 2003, p. 60).

Natural language use on the Internet has distinctive characteristics compared with face-to-face communication. Crystal (2006) claims that written languages on the Internet are more like speech than writing. Unlike traditional writing, “writing” in synchronous CMC, especially during instant messaging, allows for immediate feedback and spontaneous interaction much like that in face-to-face communication (Baron, 2003). A fast pace of spontaneous interaction during synchronous CMC (and to some extent, in asynchronous CMC) is desirable. This desire for speed leads to the formation of acronyms in online language, as an attempt to “conserve energy and space” during CMC (Baron, 2003). Although acronyms have also been traditionally used in handwriting and printing, the popularization of the Internet and CMC has significantly increased the number of acronyms and the frequency of use of acronyms in such languages as Chinese and English (Tagliamonte & Denis, 2008). Acronyms invented on the Internet are often described as a type of “Internet slang” which is “created, conventionalized, and transmitted (at least at the earliest stage) in written form on the Internet” (Battistella, 2005). They are a feature of what Crystal (2001/2006) calls Netspeak, the semi-conventionalized language variety associated with informal Internet communication. Acronym use is not extremely frequent in absolute terms compared with spelt-out words, but it is frequent enough relative to offline language that it is widely considered to be characteristic of CMC. One of the most popular acronyms on the Internet is OMG, abbreviated from the English phrase ‘Oh My God’ (see Appendix II for a short list of popular English acronyms).

A number of studies have reported on the use of acronyms in English CMC. Baron (2004) examined a corpus of 23 instant messaging interactions between American undergraduate students, and identified four “lexical issues,” including acronyms. Although the number of acronyms only made up about 0.8% of the total words in this corpus, Baron terms them CMC acronyms because they seem to be specific to CMC communication. Moreover, Baron (2004) reported that the most frequently used acronym in her corpus, “lol,” is also found in the spoken language of some university students. Lewin and Donner (2002) also identify the use of acronyms as a key feature of CMC, although acronyms only occur in 5% of the total words from a corpus of 200 Internet messages they selected from five asynchronous bulletin boards based in countries where “English is the official language.”. As the bulletin boards are a place for people to exchange information and share opinions (e.g., about television shows), the acronym ‘FAQ’ accounts for about 50% of all the acronyms that appear in the corpus. Based on this finding, Lewin and Donner (2002) suggest that the popularity of special CMC features such as acronyms is actually limited, but it is also possible that they are an emerging feature yet to become influential. Another study that analyzed acronym frequency online was conducted by Viberg (2013), who reports the use of a set of CMC-typical acronyms – taken from prior studies and from Crystal (2006, p. 91) – in an asynchronous discussion forum. Similar to Baron’s study, Viberg found only a 0.5% frequency in the use of these acronyms, and there appeared to be no increase in the frequency of acronym use on the forum between 2010 and 2013. Viberg (2013) concludes that acronyms are used infrequently in asynchronous environments due to the fact that asynchronous online communication allows more time for Internet users to write things down, compared with synchronous online communication, which displays more frequent use of acronyms. However, this conclusion is not fully consistent with the studies reviewed above, in that instant messaging is synchronous, yet it had a lower frequency of acronyms, as reported by Baron (2004), than the asynchronous forums studied by Lewin and Donner (2002).

Mandarin Chinese is a logographic language in which each character represents a word or a syllable and is not decomposable into individual sounds/letters. As a result, it seems like it is not possible to produce acronyms – in the sense of combinations of initials – in Mandarin Chinese, because there is no such thing as an “initial” in this language. However, the Romanized system Pinyin,3 which transcribes the sounds of each Chinese character in the Latin alphabet, enables Mandarin-speaking Internet users to create acronyms using an international keyboard. Pinyin was developed in the 1950s for educational purposes: to teach Chinese people the pronunciation of Modern Standard Chinese and improve the literacy rate among Chinese adults (Hanyu Pinyin system turns 50, 2008). More recently, Pinyin has been adopted as the major input mode for CMC in China (Chen & Lee, 2000). Chinese Internet users type the Romanized transcription of Chinese words and phrases in Pinyin, and their text is converted into Chinese characters.

Language use on the Internet, including the use of acronyms, has given rise to the study of “Internet linguistics,” which focuses on emerging linguistic styles and forms under the influence of CMC, as advocated by linguists such as David Crystal (2001/2006). In particular, the use of taboo language on the Internet is of considerable interest to sociolinguists. Typically taboo subjects are associated with "the creator of life, the beginning of life, and the end of life; that is God, sex and death" (Shipley, 1977, p. 153), which may lead to prohibitions on certain linguistic expression. Accordingly, taboo language typically references bodies and their effluvia, organs and acts of sex, disease/death/killing, naming/addressing/touching sacred beings, and even food gathering and consumption, which “arise out of social constraints on the individual’s behavior where it can cause discomfort, harm, or injury,” putting the speaker at a metaphysical, moral, or physical risk (Allan & Burridge, 2006, p. 1). Jay (2009, p. 155) states that taboo language exists and persists because taboo words can “intensify emotional communication to a degree that non-taboo words cannot.” A study of the use of English taboo language in CMC by Al-Sa’Di and Hamdan (2005) examined the frequency of taboo words in a corpus of 20 natural-occurring synchronous interactions in English. The results confirmed the researchers’ initial hypothesis that a sample is perceived as “dreadfully lecherous” if one taboo word occurs in at least every 10 sentences. Some researchers also believe that Internet users tend to use more taboo language than they do offline, because anonymity can give voice to constrained emotions or personalities (Zhou, 2010).

General categories of taboo language have been proposed by Jay (1999), Battistella (2005), and Zhou (2010). One of their common findings is that different categories of taboo language often overlap, and there is little agreement on how taboo language should be categorized. This is because the actual use of taboo words is by and large culture-bound, and what is considered an insult in one language may sound benign in another. As Allan and Burridge point out, “nothing is taboo for all people, under all circumstances, for all time” (p. 9). For example, “his mother’s” is one of the most common insults in Mandarin Chinese, but to native speakers of English it may sound rather absurd as an insult. The types of Internet taboo language that I have selected for the purpose of this study fall into three categories: insults, sexuality-related phrases, and politically sensitive phrases.

Internet users in Mainland China employ various linguistic strategies to “organize online interaction and defy Internet censorship” (Yuan, 2011, p. 266). Use of Pinyin acronyms is a strategy for expressing taboo language on the Chinese Internet. Cognitively, this means of producing taboo language can be related to cross-language transfer. Pavlenko’s (2006) studies show that people report stronger emotional intensity when “using taboo words in their first language” as compared to their second language, or in a linguistic system they are much less familiar with (p. 259). Pinyin as a Romanized system that represents the pronunciation of Mandarin Chinese is distant from the Chinese writing system, which is fundamentally logographic and does not attempt to represent the sounds of logograms. Because Pinyin uses the Latin alphabet, acquiring Pinyin is similar to learning a “second language” in terms of its writing system. Taboo language is said to be used to “to express frustration or to otherwise vent emotionally,” and its effect may be related to the linguistic form it takes (Moore, Bindler, & Pandich, 2007). Pinyin acronyms take a different linguistic form from Chinese characters; they use letters from the Latin alphabet to replace Chinese characters, resulting in a visual distancing between the taboo words and the Internet users. Therefore, Pinyin acronyms may ease the tension that is normally aroused by taboo language when it is written in Chinese characters.


This investigation aims to determine: 1) what the functions are of Pinyin acronyms; 2) whether the use of Pinyin acronyms has become conventionalized, namely whether they are consistently associated with certain interpretations by Chinese Internet users; and 3) to what extent these acronyms have extended to another domain of language use, i.e., from written form on the Internet to spoken form in daily interpersonal communication. Based on informal observation, I expect that their main function is as a strategy for producing taboo language on the Internet in Mainland China. It is also expected that the use of some Pinyin acronyms has become conventionalized and has extended beyond the domain of the Internet into oral interaction.

For the purposes of this study, I recruited native speakers of Mandarin Chinese from Mainland China. An online questionnaire was posted via Google Docs and made available through a link that I shared on two major Chinese social media platforms: QZone and Renren, both of which are popular social network sites in Mainland China, similar to Facebook, where users post status updates and share pictures. The participants, self-selected or upon invitation of their friends, obtained access to the questionnaire via the link and filled out the questionnaire online according to the instructions provided throughout the document. The participants were also encouraged by the author, directly or indirectly, to invite more native speakers of Mandarin Chinese to participate in the study. The responses of all participants were collected automatically by Google Docs.

Three types of Pinyin acronyms, namely insults, sexuality-related phrases, and politically sensitive phrases, were selected to allow in-depth exploration in each type. Insults and sexuality-related phrases are common categories of taboo words in most studies of taboo language, and politically sensitive phrases were chosen based on my previous observations The linguistic items included in my questionnaire contain the 15 most commonly used Pinyin acronyms (see Table 1) according to Internet reports (Popular Chinese Internet Memes, Slang, Expressions, Acronyms, n.d.; List of Internet slang in Mainland China, n.d.) and my personal observations between June 2011 and September 2013 (italicized) on the Chinese Internet.

Table 1. Popular Pinyin acronyms on the Internet

Out of 158 responses received, 157 were valid and were adopted for data analysis. The respondents are roughly gender balanced, with 77 males and 80 females. All of them are younger than 33 years old, and most of them (90%) are younger than 23 years old. The questionnaire respondents were all active Internet users, based on their answer to the question “How much time do you spend on the Internet every day?” Information about the demographics of the survey respondents is presented graphically in Figures 1-4 below. (The numbering at the top right refers to the item number in the questionnaire.)

Figure 1. Respondents’ gender

Figure 2. Respondents’ age group

Figure 3. Responses to “How much time do you spend on the Internet every day?”

Questions concerning the recognition (e.g., Q.4, Q.7, Q.10) and use (e.g., Q.5, Q.8, Q.11) of each category of Pinyin acronyms were set as multiple choices, while questions that ask “why do you use the Pinyin you ticked in the last question” (Q.6, Q.9, Q.12) were set as open-ended questions.4 Open-ended questions were coded based on keywords mentioned by the respondents and were categorized accordingly. The quantitative results of the questionnaire are presented in bar charts and pie graphs.


The questionnaire results show varying degrees of recognition and usage for different categories of Pinyin acronyms. They also suggest various reasons underlying the conventionalization and popularization of Pinyin acronyms. The main function of the Pinyin acronyms studied seems to be as a strategy for producing taboo language. According to the questionnaire results, the use of some Pinyin acronyms, such as TMD and SB, has been conventionalized and has entered the domain of oral interaction in Mandarin speakers’ daily life.

The first category of acronyms, insults, shows the highest degree of recognition. Two items, TMD (‘his mother’s’) and SB (‘silly vagina’; used somewhat like ‘silly cow’ in English), were recognized and associated with a Chinese phrase by all 157 participants, and most items in this category were recognized by over 95% of the participants (Figure 4). The acronym SB also had the highest reported rate of use (45.2%), followed by TMD (29.9%), despite the fact that 41.4% of the participants claimed that they never use any of the Pinyin acronyms related to insults (Figure 5). When asked why they chose to use these Pinyin acronyms instead of their Chinese character counterparts, 52% of the participants reported that it was an attempt to “sound less aggressive or offensive,” and 35% mentioned that using the Pinyin acronyms enhances efficiency during online communication (Figure 6).

Figure 4. “Which of the following Pinyin acronyms can you recognize/easily associate with certain Chinese phrases?”

Figure 5. “Which of the following Pinyin acronyms do you USE on the Internet?”

Figure 6. “Why do you use the Pinyin acronyms you ticked in the last question?”

For the category of acronyms related to sexuality, the respondents showed a degree of recognition between 58.6% and 89.2%, and only 7% of respondents reported that they did not know what these Pinyin acronyms stood for (Figure 7). However, most items in this category were used only by 4.5% to 8.3% of the respondents, except for YY (‘fantasizing’), which has a high degree of use at 52.2%. Additionally, 42% of the participants claim that they never use Pinyin acronyms associated with sexuality (Figure 8). Among those who do use them, reasons include “to feel less awkward when talking about sex-related topics” (49%), efficiency (27%), “to feel cool or funny,” and “to follow the trend” (Figure 9).

Figure 7. “Which of the following Pinyin acronyms can you recognize/easily associate with certain Chinese phrases?”

Figure 8. “Which of the following Pinyin acronyms do you USE on the Internet?”

Figure 9. “Why do you use the Pinyin acronyms you ticked in the last question?”

The respondents show the least degree of recognition and use of the third category of acronyms, politically sensitive phrases. 17.2% to 58% of the respondents report that they know which Chinese characters these Pinyin acronyms represent (Figure 10), with ZF (‘government’) at the top of the list, followed by (GC)D (‘communist party’). However, only 2% to 17.2% of the respondents report using these acronyms (Figure 11). The most notable finding concerning the third type of Pinyin acronyms is that 82% of the participants who use these acronyms say they choose to use acronyms rather than their Chinese character counterparts because they can circumvent Internet censorship by doing so (Figure 12).

Figure 10. “Which of the following Pinyin acronyms can you recognize/easily associate with certain Chinese phrases?”

Figure 11. “Which of the following Pinyin acronyms do you USE on the Internet?”

Figure 12. “Why do you use the Pinyin acronyms you ticked in the last question?”

Figure 13 shows that Pinyin acronyms are used in both synchronous and asynchronous CMC. They are used in typical synchronous modes, such as the instant messaging service QQ, and also in asynchronous modes, such as email, bulletin boards (BBS), and online news commentary. The situation becomes more complex when Pinyin acronyms occur on social media platforms where both synchronous modes and asynchronous modes are involved; for example, Renren, like Facebook, includes both synchronous functions such as ‘chat’ and asynchronous ones such as ‘status updates.’ Nevertheless, the results support Viberg’s (2013) claim that CMC acronyms, even for Romanized Mandarin Chinese, are used more in synchronous than asynchronous CMC, based on the fact that 58% of the respondents report using Pinyin acronyms during instant messaging, and 75.8% report using them on social media platforms where synchronous modes are available. In contrast, the use of Pinyin acronyms in asynchronous modes is not as frequent: Only 28% of the respondents report using them on BBS, and fewer than 15% use them in other asynchronous modes.

Figure 13. Responses to “Where do you usually use the above-mentioned Pinyin Acronyms (if applicable)?”

Finally, the respondents were asked whether they use any of the aforementioned acronyms in spoken language. Although almost half of them (47.8%) claimed that they never do, 51% indicated that they use the Pinyin acronyms in their speech (Figure 14).

Figure 14. “Do you use the aforementioned acronyms in your spoken language? For example, using TMD rather than Tā Mā De?”


In light of the results of the questionnaire, I argue that the Pinyin acronyms investigated in this study are consistently associated with certain interpretations, albeit to different degrees and for different reasons. The insults and sexuality-related phrases are extensively used on the Chinese Internet for the purposes of efficiency and speech indirectness, and the politically sensitive phrases function as an attempt to circumvent Chinese Internet censorship. The results also suggest that some of the Pinyin acronyms have extended beyond the domain of Internet, and a few have even entered the daily interpersonal communication of the younger generation in Mainland China.

Efficiency was one of the main reasons mentioned when the respondents were asked why they used the Pinyin acronyms. With an internationally shared alphabetic keyboard, Pinyin input produces expressions that are “QWERTY-driven and economic” (Thurlow, 2001). Pinyin input transcribes Chinese characters into the Latin alphabet; however, it does not provide any indication of their tone. To produce output in Chinese characters, users must choose the desired character from a list of homophones that share the same pronunciation except for tone. (This is important, since Chinese is a tonal language, and a difference in tone can result in a different word.) When Chinese Internet users are typing one of the expressions investigated in this study, the choice is not between an acronym and the spelled-out version of it in Pinyin, as it would be in English, but rather between an acronym in Pinyin and the full expression in Chinese characters. The latter may not be any “longer” than the acronym in terms of number of characters, as in the first examples below. Rather, efficiency takes on a different meaning in this context – not length, but the time saved by not having to select from a series of homophones. For example, compare the following utterance in example 1:

with its alternative utterance using a Pinyin acronym in example 2:

“Ma Bi” may be input in Pinyin with the intended reference Mā Bī, which literally means ‘mother’s vagina.’ But with the lack of tonal indication, it could also go to Má Bì (paralysis) or Mǎ Bì (Malaysian dollars), leaving the user at least three choices when converting Pinyin into Chinese characters. Alternatively, users can directly type “M” and “B” to refer to the phrase ‘mother’s vagina,’ since the reference has been conventionalized. Thus, by using Pinyin acronyms, Mandarin-speaking Internet users are able to express certain Chinese phrases within limited space and time constraints during CMC.

Another function of Pinyin acronyms appears to be to soften the expression; it seems to function as a strategy of speech indirectness. The survey respondents reported that the acronyms “sound less aggressive or offensive” and that they use them in order to “feel less awkward.” Pinyin acronyms are distancing compared to the Chinese characters that spell out the expressions explicitly. The acronyms take the form of letters derived from the Latin alphabet, a linguistic system that is further from the CMC participants than their native language Mandarin Chinese, and the relevant Chinese characters are not visible. This softening function is especially evident for traditional taboo expressions such as insults and sexuality-related phrases: insults such as Tā Mā De ‘his mother’s,’ which is used in a similar way as ‘Damn!’ in English; and sexuality-related phrases that refer to “sex-differentiating anatomy and/or sexual and excretory functions in a crude way” (Battistella, 2005, p. 72), for example, Cào Nĭ Mā ‘fuck your mother,’ which is “semantically linked to sexuality” that takes an extremely harsh form (Moore, Bindler & Pandich, 2007). Compare:

with its alternative utterance using a Pinyin acronym:

Such taboo expressions are used to express strong emotion. Cognitive linguists have found that language users show “a greater emotional resonance in the native/first language” (Dewaele, 2004). Thus it is not surprising that Chinese taboo language on the Internet often takes the form of Pinyin acronyms, which are transcribed in a linguistic system that is distinct from Mandarin Chinese. The relevant taboo characters are not visually present, and thus may have less effect in arousing the emotions of Mandarin-speaking CMC participants.

This finding is particularly fascinating given that taboo-related Pinyin acronyms mitigate the force of the taboo expression, whereas the ostensible purpose of taboo language is to aggravate the force. Pinyin acronym use in such cases may be related to the specific interlocutor and context in which the online conversation occurs; for example, when communicating with one’s close friends online, one may insult as a joke rather than to give offense. However, since textual online conversation appears in written form, it inherently lacks indication of paralinguistic cues, such as intonation and emotion, that are supplementary to the message. In such cases, use of a Pinyin acronym serves as a means for users to mitigate the offense and indicate light-hearted joking. However, a question remains as to the initial cause-effect relation of using Pinyin acronyms: Did Pinyin acronym creators actively intend the use of Pinyin acronyms as a way to mitigate sensitive language, or were the acronyms devised for other reasons but have come to function as mitigators because they involve the use of a different linguistic system? More research is needed in order to reveal the motivations for the genesis of Pinyin acronyms and how they have come to function as they do today.

Additionally, although it is not possible to know on the basis of the present study how strongly Chinese Internet censorship might have affected the use of Pinyin acronyms, the evidence that 82% of the survey respondents who use politically sensitive phrases mention that they use these Pinyin acronyms to “avoid censorship” when talking about politics suggests that young Internet users in Mainland China are aware that their language use on the Internet is being strictly monitored. Politically sensitive phrases include names of people, things, and organizations that the “Internet police” in Mainland China forbid and aim to eliminate from the Internet. When online discussions slip into mention of political issues in China, most major Chinese websites supervised by the Chinese government rely on “keyword-based filtering” for the website to “self-censor undesirable comments on [the] site” (Yuan, 2011, p. 274). Imagine, for example, that a user comments on a Chinese website as follows:

After this comment is submitted, either the submitter will be advised that it is “inappropriate to publish online,” or the word “government” will be replaced with “***.” Even if the comment is successfully published on the website as is, it runs the risk of being deleted shortly thereafter by a website administrator.

Using Pinyin acronyms is a strategy to conceal real referential entities and to avoid having one’s political comment “harmonized” by website administrators. Indeed, Pinyin acronyms are actively employed by Chinese Internet users as a type of coded language to bypass mechanisms for keyword-based filtering (Yuan, 2011, p. 275). Thus the aforementioned comment can be “translated” using a Pinyin acronym as:

However, it is important to point out that the Pinyin acronyms themselves as well as the Chinese characters they represent are still “politically sensitive” in China; they only live on because the Chinese websites’ filtering mechanisms are “insensitive” to them. Viewed from this perspective, using Pinyin acronyms instead of politically sensitive Chinese characters is not only a strategy, but also a compromise: In the context of censorship, there are still Internet users in Mainland China who wish to discuss politically sensitive topics despite the fact that it is undesirable or even illegal, and they are obliged to use some linguistic strategy, such as Pinyin acronyms, in order to express their political stance.

Finally, some young Internet users in China have been extending these Pinyin acronyms, which are often considered a form of “Internet slang” (Li & Yarowsky, 2008), into their spoken language to different extents. Acronyms, as an example of the nonstandard orthography that is “a defining characteristic” of CMC, manifest the creativity of online interaction and are sometimes used for humorous effect (Herring, 2012). Some scholars have predicted that the widespread use of nonstandard forms of language in CMC will eventually emerge into language use offline and accelerate language change (Stein, 2006; cf. Herring, 2012). Recent studies show an increase in the use of CMC-typical expressions offline among the younger generations (Pew, 2009), which adds fuel to the heated debate as to whether or not these features of CMC will impoverish people’s language skills (cf. Thurlow, 2006).

A question that remains is: If the Pinyin acronyms are conventionalized through extensive use by the younger generation, why is there a high degree of recognition but a much lower degree of self-reported actual use? One possible explanation could be that the participants have concealed their actual use of Pinyin acronyms from the researcher. Like all questionnaire-based studies, this research suffers from the limitation of self-reporting. It could also be explained if the premise of the question turns out to be false, that is to say, if most Chinese Internet users are just observers while only a small portion are active adopters of Pinyin acronyms, and the conventionalization of Pinyin acronyms need not arise through extensive use. Under that scenario, Internet users would not have to personally use Pinyin acronyms in order to store them in mind.


This study examined the understanding and motivations for use of Pinyin acronyms on the Chinese Internet. The use of a number of Pinyin acronyms has become conventionalized on the Internet in Mainland China. The results of a survey of young Internet users suggest that Pinyin acronyms are used for the purpose of communication efficiency and speech indirectness. Furthermore, politically-oriented Pinyin acronyms in Mandarin Chinese represent a form of resistance against Internet censorship imposed by the Chinese government; it is a compromise that Chinese Internet users have made in the face of government authority and political power. All three motivations can be summarized as an attempt to “maximize the effectiveness and functionality” of online communication (Yang, 2007). Some evidence was also found that Pinyin acronyms invented and conventionalized online are entering the daily spoken communication of young people in Mainland China.

As the number and uses of Pinyin acronyms continue to expand, it appears that young Mandarin-speaking Internet users are introducing changes to written Chinese. One of the typical features of Mandarin Chinese CMC is a mixed use of logographic and alphabetic writing systems. Su (2003) described how Taiwanese college students creatively make use of multiple orthographies in web-based bulletin board systems, including Mandarin characters, Taiwanese characters, a transliteration alphabet used in elementary education, and the Latin alphabet. This kind of “linguistic creativity with writing systems” is commonly reported in CMC studies of languages that are not written in the Latin alphabet. In addition to creativity, technological constraints are another reason for the use of Latin writing. Palfreyman and Khalil (2003), in their study of instant messaging by young Arabic speakers, explains that the adoption of Latin script in Arabic CMC is due to the fact that the use of Arabic characters was not widely supported by keyboards, computers, operating systems, and servers at the time. A similar situation obtained for Greek, resulting in “Greeklish,” the use of Romanized Greek in CMC (Tseliga, 2007). The existence of Greeklish gave rise to concerns that the Greek alphabet was endangered on the Internet, and that Romanization and English influence would spread beyond the Internet and compromise the purity of the Greek language (Koutsogiannis & Mitsikopoulou, 2007). Nevertheless, technological advancements have since made the use of the Greek alphabet more accessible and convenient for Internet users, and there is a strong positive attitude among native speakers toward the resilience of the Greek alphabet and the survival of the Greek language (Koutsogiannis & Mitsikopoulou, 2007).

As Pinyin input is taking over in current CMC in Mainland China, there has been a similar concern about the purity of Mandarin Chinese, a concern that is closely related to a linguistic insecurity about the Chinese language in the face of the global dominance of English and “the intrusion of English into [the] Chinese sphere” (Li, 2004). It remains unclear what Romanization in CMC implies for a logographic language such as Mandarin Chinese. Is the language becoming more dynamic, or is this the start of a more complete Romanization of the Chinese language? Will this phenomenon lead to an eventual loss of the logographic Chinese writing system, or does it present an opportunity to develop alternative Chinese input for online communication? A stroke-based input method, “Wu Bi,” was developed for CMC in Mainland China, but it is far less popular than Pinyin input these days because the use of Wu Bi input requires adaptation of the international keyboard and extensive memorization and practice, in comparison with Pinyin input. Change is the only constant in language, and we as linguists humbly await the answer of time.


I am truly grateful to Professor Susan Herring for her generous and detailed feedback on earlier drafts of this article. I also thank Dylan for his patience in listening to me talking about linguistics all the time.


  1. As reported by the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) on July 17, 2013, retrieved from http://www1.cnnic.cn/IDR/ReportDownloads/201310/P020131029430558704972.pdf .

  2. Translations and explanations of all Pinyin acronyms can be found in the Method section. Diacritics above Romanized letters indicate tones.

  3. The word ‘Pinyin’ literally means “spelled-out sounds.”

  4. Respondents who do not use Pinyin acronyms were advised to answer “N/A” for these questions.


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Appendix I. Popular English Acronyms on the Internet (Source: Wiktionary, 2013)

Appendix II. Questionnaire

* Required

  1. 本次问卷调查为墨尔本大学社会语言学研究课题,调查内容及结果仅用于学术研究。受访者完全匿名,其个人信息将收到保护。受访者可以无条件退出调查。内含咒骂词汇并无冒犯之意,望受访者理解. *

    This questionnaire contains what may be deemed offensive language; please bear in mind that the content of this questionnaire is designed for academic use only. By checking the box below, I agree that the researcher can collect and analyze data I provide on this questionnaire. I understand that I will remain completely anonymous and that my identity will not be revealed to a third party. I also understand that I can withdraw form this study at any time without negative consequences for me.

    • 理解并继续 Yes, I understand and wish to proceed

    • 不理解并停止受访 No, I do not wish to proceed

  2. 你的性别是?*

    Your gender?

    • 男 Male

    • 女 Female

  3. 你的年龄区间在? *

    Please indicate your age group

    • 80后 Post-80 generation [1]

    • 90后 Post-90 generation [2]

  4. 你每天用互联网的时间大致是多少? *

    How much time do you normally spend on the Internet every day?

    • 1小时及以下 Less than 1 hour

    • 1小时-5小时 Between 1 and 5 hours

    • 5小时及以上 More than 5 hours

  1. 在以下拼音缩写中,你认识的(能与其完整中文表达对应的)有哪些? *

    Which following Pinyin acronyms can you recognize/easily associate with certain Chinese phrases?

    • TMD

    • TNND

    • BT

    • MB

    • SB

    • NC

    • 都不认识 None of above

  1. 在以下拼音缩写中,你会在网络上使用哪些? *

    Which following Pinyin acronyms do you USE on the Internet?

    • TMD

    • TNND

    • BT

    • MB

    • SB

    • NC

    • 都不用 None of above

  2. 对于上一题中所选的缩写,相比其完整中文表达,为什么你会选用这些缩写? *

    Why do you use the Pinyin acronyms you ticked in the last question?

    • [Text]

  1. 在以下拼音缩写中,你认识的(能与其完整中文表达对应的)有哪些? *

    Which following Pinyin acronyms can you recognize/easily associate with certain Chinese phrases?

    • YY

    • JJ

    • TT

    • YD

    • QJ

    • 都不认识 None of above

  1. 在以下拼音缩写中,你会在网络上使用哪些? *

    Which following Pinyin acronyms do you USE on the Internet?

    • YY

    • JJ

    • TT

    • YD

    • QJ

    • 都不用 None of above

  2. 对于上一题中所选的缩写,相比其完整中文表达,为什么你会选用这些缩写? *

    Why do you use the Pinyin acronyms you ticked in the last question?

    • [Text]

  1. 在以下拼音缩写中,你认识的(能与其完整中文表达对应的)有哪些? *

    Which following Pinyin acronyms can you recognize/easily associate with certain Chinese phrases?

    • ZF

    • (GC)D

    • DLLM

    • FLG

    • 都不认识 None of above

  1. 在以下拼音缩写中,你会在网络上使用哪些? *

    Which following Pinyin acronyms do you USE on the Internet?

    • ZF

    • (GC)D

    • DLLM

    • FLG

    • 都不用 None of above

  2. 对于上一题中所选的缩写,相比其完整中文表达,为什么你会选用这些缩写? *

    Why do you use the Pinyin acronyms you ticked in the last question?

    • [Text]

  1. 你会在哪些网站使用这些拼音缩写? *

    Where do you use these Pinyin acronyms on the Internet?

    • 社交网站(如人人,微博,豆瓣) Social networks (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Blog)

    • 新闻评论类网站 (如搜狐新闻,网易新闻) Online news commentary (e.g. commenting on New York Times website)

    • 知识交流类网站(如百度知道) Knowledge exchange (e.g. Q&A)

    • 论坛类 BBS

    • 即时讯息交流 (如QQ) Instant messaging (e.g. MSN)

    • 电子邮件 Email

    • Other: [Text]

  1. 你会在日常口头交流中使用网络拼音缩写词吗?例如用TMD来代替“他妈的”

    Do you use the aforementioned acronyms in your spoken language? For example, using TMD rather than Ta Ma De?

    • 非常频繁地使用 Very frequently

    • 较频繁使用 Frequently

    • 偶尔使用 Occasionally

    • 较少/极少使用 Rarely

    • 从不使用 Never

  1. 如果你在网络中还用到过其他拼音缩写词,请举一些例子

    If you use other Pinyin acronyms on the Internet, please give us some examples

    • [Text]

[1] a common way to address the generation born in the 1980s

[2] a way to address the generation born in the 1990s

Biographical Note

Sherry Yong Chen [schen613@connect.hku.hk] is an undergraduate student at the University of Hong Kong who aspires to become a sociolinguist some day. Her research interests lie in the areas of intercultural communication, workplace discourse, code-switching, rhetoric, and computer-mediated communication.


Any party may pass on this Work by electronic means and make it available for download under the terms and conditions of the Digital Peer Publishing License. The text of the license may be accessed and retrieved at http://www.dipp.nrw.de/lizenzen/dppl/dppl/DPPL_v2_en_06-2004.html.