This kind of number-language has become an infinitely malleable shorthand among Chinese web users: 1 means “want,” 2 means “love,” 4 means “dead” or “world” or “is,” 5 means “I,” 7 means “wife” or “eat,” 8 means “get rich” or “not,” and 9 means “long time” or “alcohol.” The numbers 5201314, for example, mean 我爱你一生一世, or “I will love you forever”; 0748 means “go die”; and 687 means “I’m sorry.” (See here for more examples.) Chinese has plenty of other number-based slang, such as erbaiwu, or “250,” which means “idiot,” or “38,” pronounced sanba, which means “bitch.” And of course there’s the association of certain numbers with good or bad luck, and the subsequent demand for addresses and phone numbers with lots of 8s (“get rich”) and minimal 4s (“die”). Back in 2003, a Chinese airline paid $280,000 for the phone number 88888888.
The Secret Messages Inside Chinese URLs – New Republic
There are a few alternate pronunciations that I didn’t know about—they’re used in the military, railways, and aviation to make sure that numbers (e.g. qī vs. yī) don’t get misheard. 零 is also “dòng”, 一 is also “yāo”, 四 is also “dāo”, 七 is also “guǎi”, 九 is also “gōu”. People on the mainland “usually use ‘yao’ when reading numerical serial numbers, digit by digit” [via].
What this excerpt doesn’t really explain (but the full article does) is that it’s not that numbers “mean” something, it’s that they sound like another word because Mandarin is a homophone explosion. So where we can do for example h8, or 4get; 5 in Mandarin is pronounced wǔ, which is a lot like “I” (我), wǒ. Here is another shorter article on number phrases.
A language is more than just a complex of sounds and structures and word-meanings. It’s also the bearer of a culture, an incredible freight of human knowledge and experience and understanding—of epics, myths, nursery rhymes, proverbs, parables, ritual formulae, jokes, love-songs, dirges. When a language dies, all this dies with it. Think about that, then multiply it by the literally thousands of languages now at risk.
It was only a sunny smile, and little it cost in the giving, but like morning light it scattered the night and made the day worth living.
Call your mother. Tell her you love her. Remember you’re the only person who knows what her heart sounds like from the inside.