Sinologists in Bydgoszcz

Ting-Ting Christina HSU

Topic: Exploring the Ways New Words Are Formed in Oral and Written Texts

New words are formed when a group of speakers need to express a new concept or to refer to a new object. Boycott exemplifies the former case, and hoover the latter; in both cases, the strategy eponym, which uses a person’s name to call a new object or a new idea, is involved. New words can also be created by processes like compounding and blending, which combine more than two units together, or clipping and acronym, which reduces the length of the units. Chinese words used to be monomorphemic (Li, 2013), but now most of the Mandarin words are made up with more than one character (or morpheme in a broad sense), with some of the characters just serving as a place holder that ensures the multisyllabic status of the word, such as the character lao ‘old’ in the word laohu ‘tiger’. In this talk, Dr. Hsu will show that new Mandarin words created in Taiwan colloquial oral and written texts are made by either simple processes, like combining two words to make a compound, or more complex processes, like clipping after borrowing, or compounding with a rebus translation. She argues that the complex processes of word formation in Taiwan increases the opacity of word-meaning relationships in those new words (Booij 2010; Goldberg 1995; Jackendoff 2013), which leads Mandarin to a mixture of logographic and syllabic language that uses characters not only as symbols of meanings or meaning clusters, but also as symbols of sounds.

To reflect the actual usages of new words in Taiwan Mandarin, both oral and written texts in this study are selected from the top-ranked social media sites. The oral texts are selected from the recently uploaded videos of the top-100 YouTube channels in Taiwan, and the written texts are from the recently posted articles of the top-100 blogs in Taiwan. A total of 2000 YouTube clips and blog posts is used as our database for observing the use of the new words. New words are identified after they pass the “dictionary test” to prove that they have not been collected into the official Mandarin dictionary of Taiwan yet. The results show that borrowing and compounding are the two primary word formation processes in Taiwan Mandarin, in both oral and written texts. However, some subtypes of borrowing and compounding are preferred in written but not oral texts, and vice versa. For example, direct borrowing of Japanese or Korean words is more favored in blogs than in videos, but a direct borrowing of sounds is very few in blogs. Besides, new words created in oral texts are looser in structure than those created in written texts, such as mao-T ‘hoodie’, which combines a Mandarin word mao ‘hat’ with an English letter ‘T’, referring to a T-shirt with a hat attached. Those differences may be accounted for by the prevalence of code-switching in oral communication, the less restrictive style of speech, the inconvenience of font change in written styles, and the shared character system between Mandarin and Northeast Asian countries. The desire for more speed and efficiency of communication also influences the way new words are coined. For example, sentences or phrases are reduced into words, and words into symbols. This can be observed in words like dapingshuo ‘ended in a standoff’, and bangQQ ‘to cry for him/her’. Those creative ways of word formation can gradually change the behaviors and the meaning components of participating words, eventually make Mandarin words less predictable in distribution.


Booij, Geert. 2010. Construction Morphology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Goldberg, Adele. 1995. Constructions: A Construction Grammar Approach to Argument Structure. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Jackendoff, Ray. 2013. Constructions in the parallel architecture. In Thomas Hoffmann and Graeme Trousdale (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Construction Grammar, pp. 70–92. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Li, Jian. 2013. The Rise of Disyllables in Old Chinese: The Role of Lianmian Words. Ph.D. dissertation, The City University of New York.