Recent "puns" are showing a big change in pronunciation:

  • 神马 [play on 什么 | me -> mǎ]

  • 妹纸 [play on 妹子 | zi -> zhǐ]

  • 歪果 [play on 外国 | wài -> wāi && guó -> guǒ]

  • 肿么 [play on 怎么 | zěn -> zhǒng]

We have (quite big!) changes in tones and changes in actual 'sound' pronunciation (pinyin, if you will).

  • Does pronunciation matter that much any more?

  • Is it easier to be understood these days with poor pronunciation?

  • Are people more accustomed to "accents" and variants in pronunciation?

  • 1
    I think this is mostly in colloquial context, especially on the internet. I don't think people use them otherwise. Take U.S.A. as an example – some people say "y'all gon get dat fixed" but pronunciation/grammar/spelling still matter. Commented Apr 20, 2015 at 13:17
  • 1
    Right, maybe before internet/TV/etc "y'all gon get dat fixed" would have sounded almost retarded in standard American English, but now there isn't hatful even one person who would misunderstand this. The world is a far smaller place now.
    – Mou某
    Commented Apr 21, 2015 at 13:50
  • I don't think using certain new characters or words in text on the internet as puns means that people normally pronounce these words like this. There would only be a shift in pronunciation if saying wāiguǒ when referring to foreigners became the norm and I don't think that's happening.
    – Olle Linge
    Commented May 11, 2015 at 22:05
  • @OlleLinge Well, even if saying wāiguǒ for 外国 was understandable, I think that would indicate quite a big difference from how Chinese was understood years ago.
    – Mou某
    Commented May 12, 2015 at 4:00

5 Answers 5


My observation is that there is a trend in the internet that some people, especially the youths, intentionally alter the "Han Zi" expression of some frequently used words. It is a way they make fun of their text and want to be more attractive.

The reason is not because the tone in the language is less important or has any change. It is simply a technical issue. Most of the PinYin input systems in computers and smart phones do not request a tone input. Instead, the screen may display a list of homophones to choose. This provides a chance for the youths to play with different characters.

While most of the "experiments" are wrong, a few of them indeed makes sense. For example, "什么都是浮云" (什么金银财宝对于人生来讲,都是过眼烟云,不值一提)was changed to "神马都是浮云". It has an apparent meaning that the shape of a horse in the sky is actually cloud. But the readers still are able to connect it to its original meaning.


Prononciation still matters.

You can see those informal puns as new words. And they are associated with certain pronunciations even though they have same meanings as the words the derived from.

In translation, there is a basic rule of preserving the content and intent of the source message. This is the same for processing a message in same language.

This means 什么 still reads as "shen me". If somebody says shen ma, it should be transcript as 神马 not 什么. However in real life there some times are additional step (or intentions of the receiver of the message) a person would take based on personal references by converting them back and forth.

Let me make a hypothetical but rather common example. Say a uptight person A is taking to his or her funny friend B. A always uses 什么, B always uses 神马. And even B is quoting A, B still substitute all "什么" with "神马". But if you let B write it in an essay, he still writes 什么.

So this doesn't mean the the pronunciation, which in my opinion is a basic aspect of a language, has changed. Rather, it is the higher level aspect, which could be generally called "usage", of the language has changed.

Therefore, I don't think it pronunciation isn't important anymore, its just the usage and manipulation of the languages is more various than stricter to the dictionary.


They are invented on the internet, and mostly used on the internet. Indeed, they are written but not spoken on the internet, thus I think there is no change in the pronunciation, for example, the pinyin of 歪果 is still wāiguǒ and not wàiguó.

  • So if I use wāiguǒ in a sentence I will be understood, no problem?
    – Mou某
    Commented Apr 21, 2015 at 7:04
  • 1
    it depends on the contexts as well as the reader.
    – lxg
    Commented Apr 21, 2015 at 7:06

Those puns are mainly slang. People online use words of similar pronunciation to replace an one word when chatting online, therefore puns are formed. But if you check up with a dictionary, the pronunciation is not changed.
1. Pronunciation still matters. Having more slang does not mean that people no longer value pronunciation. If you pronounce a word wrongly, which is different from he original word and the pun, people may have difficulty understanding you as Chinese is a language with a lot of words of same sound.
2. There used to be a lot of different languages in China. But now everyone speaks Mandarin so I don't hink people are more custom to accents.


To focus on the pronunciation aspect of this question:

I am an American living in Shanghai, my mandarin is early intermediate at best, and I'm very poor with implementing tones, consequently, I get stares and non-replies more often than not because the citizens do not understand what I'm saying.

So YES, as with any language, if your accent (or poor comprehension of pronunciation) is way off, people will have a hard time understanding what you are saying.

To add to what was said about the internet 'speech', it is also done to avoid the monitors who are looking for controversial dialogue so they can curtail it. It's just a good habit to be in.

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