Elegant Language in the Cyber World 网络世界的高雅语言

By Qinan Li

李琪楠

NANJING, CHINA — Two Chinese idioms, yang chun bai xue and xia li ba ren, can be used to distinguish between different types of art. The former refers to high-class art, meaning art which can only be created, mastered, and appreciated by people who have received high levels of education. The latter means popular works, or mass art. There is no strict definition of art, so pinning down its origins is difficult, but the origination of language can be more closely tracked. Language is one of the most universal art forms, used every day by almost everyone.

中国,南京 — 中文里有两个成语,即“阳春白雪”与“下里巴人”。它们可用以指代两种不同类型的艺术。前者指的是不通俗的艺术,暗指少数的且受过高等教育或者精英教育的人可以创造、掌握与欣赏的艺术。后者指的是通俗的艺术作品,意指大众艺术。由于人们对艺术的定义百家纷说,其具体诞日我们难以确定。但我们所使用的种种语言和文字都具有更强的可溯源性。而且语言是最普世的艺术之一,几乎所有人每天都在运用着它。

It may be said that productivity is the troika of civilization, both accelerating and being accelerated by industrial revolutions. Yet even as China has become more economically productive in recent decades, Chinese yang chun bai xue – elegant language – has been fading. The wane of elegant language has occurred in several countries, but the Chinese case is notable because language is one of the most profound links between the present day and China’s ancient cultural heritage. Chinese society should protect elegant language and seek to reverse its decline, especially among young people.

生产力是文明的三驾马车之一,其与工业革命相得益彰。然于往昔数十载,虽中国之生产力携中国之经济迅跃,中文里的“阳春白雪”,即高雅语言却在倚日褪去。尽管其他国家或民族也面临着高雅语言式微的问题,但中国的情况值得注意,因为中文是中国当代文化与古代文化最深刻的连结之一。中国社会应当保护高雅语言,并设法扭转它的衰退,特别是在年轻群体中。

Elegant language is an expressive type of language to which people must dedicate time, resources and effort in order to master. Contrary to popular misconceptions, elegant language is not necessarily an abstruse, wordy, or convoluted dialect.

实际上,高雅语言是一种人们需要通过相对多的时间、资源和努力才可以掌握的语言表达形式。然而,很多人却将其刻板理解为一种极尽词藻的、过分修饰的或仅仅文采卓然的词语、句子或语段。

Technology is fueling the decline of elegant language in China. Abbreviations of pinyin have become more and more popular. For instance, YYDS, XSWL, PYQ, and ZQSG – acronyms representing the pinyin version of the Chinese phrases yongyuan de shen (someone performs almost perfect every time), xiao si wo le (really funny), pengyou quan (Wechat Moments), and zhen qing shi gan (genuine) – have become common parlance in Chinese-language cyberspace. These abbreviations resemble acronyms like LOL and ROFL in English-language social media but actually go a step further. Chinese is a logographic language, and pinyin – the Romanized version of Chinese characters – is already a digression from the original language. The most efficient computer typing systems are based on pinyin, so young people today who were born into the digital world are alienated from their language to an unparalleled degree.

在一定程度上,现代技术加速了中国高雅语言的衰退。拼音缩写方兴未艾,且有大行其道之势。例如,YYDS(永远的神),XSWL(笑死我了),PYQ(朋友圈),ZQSG(真情实感)等等缩写,正越来越多地出现在年轻人的网络与现实生活的交流里。这种缩写类似于社交媒体中英语缩写LOL和ROLF。但是实质上,这些中文拼音缩写比后者更进了一步。要知道,汉字是一种表意文字,而拼音,即汉字的罗马化版本——是已经脱离了其原始的语言的。目前,最有效的计算机打字系统是基于拼音的,所以就出生在数字化时代的年轻人们而言,他们对语言的疏离程度达到了前所未有的地步。

Sometimes, entire sentences are abbreviated into groupings of four syllables. Four-character phrases cannot be equated with idioms. The biggest and indispensable feature of the former is that all four characters are selected from the original sentence. For example, lei jue bu ai is composed of four characters, which comes from hen lei, gan jue bu hui ai le. However, the four characters in traditional sayings are often not selected and combined from the Chinese characters in the sentences they express. It’s reasonable and inevitable that the digital age tends to produce more concise and efficient communication methods, but many of these have digressed into stereotyped expressions. We should eschew these stereotyped expressions, not thoughtful and orderly expressions of language.

有时候,中国网民也会把完整的句子缩减为仅剩四个字的短语。四字短语不可等同于成语。前者最大且不可或缺的特征为:四个字都是从原句里挑选出来的。比如,“累觉不爱”是从“很累,感觉不会爱了。”这句话中挑选了“累”、“觉”、“不”、“爱”四个字组合而成的。而成语里的四个字,往往并不是从其表达的句子中的汉字里挑选与组合而成的。在数字时代,人们无可厚非地会倾向于更简洁、更高效的交流方式。但是我们要警惕其脱轨驶向固化的、刻板的、机械的表达方式。我们应该避免这种刻板桎梏的表达方式,即缺乏思考的、甚至难寻秩序的语言表达方式。

Both popular trendsetters and typical social media users perpetuate these changes in language, the former through star power and the latter through replication. On Chinese media platofrms such as Weibo, Red Book, and Tik Tok, the vast majority of young people follow at least one “Big V” – a high-profile online celebrity or account. The way these “Big V”s express themselves on platforms is often imitated by their fans, who collectively spread this language across the internet. For example, YYDS reached ultra-high exposure when some ‘Big V’s used it in their evaluations of popular Chinese reality shows.

各式缩写的流行不仅了受到弄潮儿们的推波,也得到了自媒体的助澜。前者的明星力量,后者庞大的用户基群使得这类缩写得到了不计其数的复制。在微博、小红书、抖音等中国社交媒体上,绝大多数年轻人都至少关注了一个大V。而这些大V在平台上的表达方式或多或少会被他们的粉丝所模仿。比如,“YYDS”就是在各路大V于其账户上评价中国最红的几档真人秀时,在互联网上得到了超高的曝光率。

This phenomenon prompts several questions: What does the rise of internet celebrities mean for the future of media? Will internet celebrities influence the opions and attitudes of people outside of social media in the same way they influence how people express themselves? If social media users are participating in a form of media which can influence public life, should we standardize our content (i.e., decrease the prevalence of harmful content such as of pornography and violence ) and their expression (i.e., our language)?

对此,笔者禁不住提出如下疑问:网络名人的崛起对媒体的未来意味着什么?他们是否会像现在影响人们表达方式一样,在未来影响人们对公共事务的态度与意见?这样的影响是否将会扩大到网络世界之外?假使在未来,社交媒体成为了公民社会生活中不可或缺的社会广场之一,我们是否需要规范其用户的表达内容(减少色情、暴力的暗示)与表达方式?

Fast-paced society promotes fast-paced language. The popularity of living life in a more individualistic and utilitarian way – that is, only doing things that benefit oneself – makes people meaner and meaner vis-à-vis their language. Some view elegant language as a high-cost, low-reward luxury which requires too much time, resources, and energy to master.  Other critics view elegant language as a privilege reserved for aristocrats, and thus as a manifestation of class divisions. In this view, elegant language is a tool of oppression, and the aspiration to master elegant language is class betrayal.

快节奏的社会催生了快节奏的语言。功利主义与个人主义,即人们只做对自己有益的事情的生活方式,的流行让人们对语言——这一最大众的艺术都越来越吝啬。部分年轻人认为,高雅语言是一种高成本、低回报的奢侈品,因为学习与掌握之往往需要花费大量的时间、资源和精力。还有一些批评者认为:实际上,与其他的高雅艺术一样,高雅语言是阶级的体现,是贵族的专属,是压迫的工具,因而渴望与掌握之是对大众的背叛。

Notwithstanding these criticisms, elegant language still has special value in modern society. It is diversified language expression which reflects the humanistic spirit. Elegant language contains order and rationality; it can show the level of a community’s civility, as the degree of a society’s sophistication is often reflected by the language expression of its residents. The memory of social history also hides between the lines of elegant language, especially in places like China with rich literary histories. On an individual level, individuals can improve their communication skills by learning elegant language.

尽管有这些批评,高雅语言对于现代社会仍有其特殊的价值。其一,高雅语言是语言多样化表达的结果之一,其背后是丰富多彩的人文精神;其二,高雅语言是一种理性且有序的语言表达方式;其三,它可以反映出一个社会的文明程度,因为居民的语言表达能力在一定程度上可以折射出该社会的文明程度;其四,高雅语言字里行间涌动着使用群体的历史与社会记忆,尤其是对于中国这样有着漫长文学史的国家。最后,对于个人来说,学习与掌握高雅语言亦能提高个人的沟通技巧。

Critics of elegant language argue that times have changed and the will of the majority is best, so we should let elegant language extinguish by itself. This is not a wise choice. As cybserspace permeates our lives more and more every day, our written expressions on the internet have extended to the non-cyber world. This trend is deeply impactful because language and thought influence each other in subtle yet profound ways. The widespread use of abbreviations and simplifications is making it more and more difficult for people to remember the original words, phrases, and historical memory underpinning their language. Just as the Newspeak Dictionary in George Orwell’s 1984 decreases the richness of expression, helping a governing group to control people’s thoughts, the simplification of complex expression in modern society will inevitably lead to the decline of our thinking and public discourse. Although science and technology are advancing, human thinking could regress to pre-Enlightenment levels. Thus, the most fundamental reason to give elegant language spaces to flourish on the internet is to protect the freedom of human thought in the internet age.           

有些人会说:“时代早就变了,大多数人选择的就是好的。用高雅语言的人太少了,就让它自身自灭吧!”笔者认为,摒弃与遗忘“高雅语言”实非明智之举。随着越来越多的人使用网络和网络越来越深入我们的生活,网络上的文字表达越来越多地被应用于现实生活的口语与书面语中。随着缩写、简单改写被广泛使用,人们越来越难记住支撑他们语言的原始单词、短语和历史记忆。就像乔治·奥威尔《1984》中的新话词典一样(新话词典在统治集团的要求下,删减了很多词语、词组以及句子的表达方法,希冀以此来控制民众的思想),语言表达形式的减少,势必会引致多元思想的式微。倘若我们不对此重视,未来,虽然科技日新月异,但人类的思想将倒退回启蒙时代以前。因此,笔者认为,在网络上给予“高雅语言”寸亩之地,最根本的原因是为了守护互联网时代下人类思想的自由。

Imagine standing on the bank of the Yellow River, and you can only conjure the words “big river.” Imagine leaning on the bank and looking at the sea, but only the words “big sea” arise in your mind. Wouldn’t it feel a bit unsatisfactory? We should take joy in elegant language, recognizing its romantic and descriptive beauty. Whenever you see magnificent mountains and rivers, and whenever you meet the people you love, may you vividly and charmingly express the endless, surging fluctuations of abstract emotions in your heart, even if you can’t express them out loud.

试想,当你立于黄河之畔时,仅浮一词“大河”,倚岸眺海时,仅坠一词“大海”,是否稍有些捉襟见肘?高雅语言浪漫和描述性的美,本就是人人可享之。愿诸君在见壮阔山河之时,遇所爱之人时,能将自己绵绵不绝、汹涌澎湃的抽象的情感波动,生动、迷人地表达出来,于心于口,是为二美。

Qinan Li is reporting from Nanjing, China.

李琪楠,报道于中国南京。

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