Teens are from Mars

Alvin Yuen
Alvin Yuen |

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Young Internet users communicating in a unique language only they understand, writes Alvin Yuen

Virtually everyone knows the acronyms lol ('laugh out loud'), brb ('be right back') and t2ul ('talk to you later'), but these short-cuts are just the tip of the iceberg - if you know Martian.

Martian is thought to have evolved in Taiwan, probably starting around 2004, but in the past two or three years it has also become popular in Hong Kong and on the mainland with young internet users. It takes a combination of the English alphabet, the components of characters, whole characters and even ancient characters that have become obsolete to express things in a way that parents and teachers - almost anyone over the age of 20 - cannot decipher.

Take 3q, which means 'thank you'. If you are wondering why, it is because "three" is pronounced 'san' in Putonghua. So 'san q' sounds like English for 'thank you'.

There are even odder things in this peculiar, evolving language. The Cantonese word, gwing, for example, colloquially used to mean 'bright'. But in Martian it is represented by an ancient and - until recently - no-longer used character, and the meaning has shifted to "embarrassed". Meanwhile, if you are writing in Martian and you want to say you cannot decide between two things, you can type in 15/16 - a useful short-cut if you are multi-tasking online and want to briefly describe a dilemma to a friend.

For Patrick Wong Ho-cheong, a Year One student at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Martian is a convenient way of communicating with friends online.

'I think Martian makes it easy to transmit our messages faster,' he says.

But critics say that it can get in the way of young people's formal literacy. Students who habitually express themselves in slang represented in English and in non-standard Chinese characters can end up having serious problems when they are presented with the challenge of formal academic writing in an essay or examination situation.

Critics also point out that heavy users of Martian may find it increasingly difficult to express complex emotions. Take the Martian 'word', ':(', which expresses a general feeling of unhappiness. The problem, say Martian critics, is that it gives no indication as to the degree of unhappiness or what kind of unhappiness - sorrow, loss and so on. Emotions are complex states, they say, and it is not possible to express them using the Martian equivalent of emoticons. Feelings of regret and anguish due to a life-changing event cannot be expressed simply with ':('.

Imagine trying to explain to a friend how you felt about having to change schools. In person, you might say how worried you were and how anxious you felt about the challenge of having to make new friends. In Martian, it would be very difficult to express the complexity of those feelings.

But, for Wong, Martian is just an alternative to the formal language he has to use at university - and, he says, it is still evolving.

"I think Martian is an interesting phenomenon that is part of the way that our communication with each other is constantly changing,' Wong says.

Alvin is a Young Post intern

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