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Pop around Town﹕Youth and cyber language in chat forums

【明報專訊】CHAT FORUMS in cyberspace came into existence almost as soon as the internet was launched to become a popular pursuit. Remember Friendster, AOL, and MSN? These older chat forums from the early 2000s were replaced by what we have today, because Snapchat, Twitter and others can afford a much more elaborate space for chatters to engage in ever‑diversifying topics with higher speed. In Hong Kong, online forums like HKGolden, and more recently LIHKG, have captured many people's energy by providing the space to voice opinions, debate politics, express social concerns, criticise the government, share insights, mobilise collective actions, and of course to also engage in idle chatting.

Significantly, these chat forums represent many young people's thoughts and feelings. They also capture their creative language use. Many of them spend hours on the forums, despite objections by many educators, parents and adults. With respect to cyber language used by local youth, the media generally claim that cyber language is negatively affecting the proper language skills of teenagers. Many school teachers complain that their students use "the language from Mars" in their written work. Examples of "the language from Mars" include using numbers to represent words with similar sound (e.g. using "5" to represent "not" in Cantonese), and English spelling in place of Cantonese writing (e.g. using "ng" to refer to the word "唔" ("don't") in "唔知" ("don't know") in Cantonese). Also, since most teenagers use Chinese input methods such as Cangjie and Pinyin while chatting on the internet, they develop the habit of inputting a character's components and pronunciation instead of the character itself. Also, they tend to rely on the provision of related characters by the input software, so much so that the users forget how to write those characters in the absence of the computer. Local media call this phenomenon "neo‑illiteracy". Some commentators regarded the creation of "non‑mainstream" language as irreverent to the Chinese language.

The education and media sectors have continuously encouraged parents to learn their children's cyber language in order to combat the linguistic generation gap. Meanwhile, other columnists and journalists have defended the development of cyber language as a process of local language evolution. They argue that informal "bad language" has been an effective communication tool on the internet among teenagers; it will be replaced once it loses its utility. Besides, creativity abounds with the combination of both English and Chinese in an expression. Remember the classic local phrase "升呢"? It combines the Chinese characters "升", which signifies "raise", and "呢", which is a Cantonese phonetic adaptation of the English word "level". Together, they signify "raising of levels" commonly used in video game playing, as well as "let's improve ourselves" more generally. In this way, cyber language adequately represents Hong Kong's local culture by showing that Cantonese is a living language.

■Writer's Profile

John Erni is a university professor at Hong Kong Baptist University. He thinks everyday culture is complex but always enchanting.

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