The Many Faces of the Internet in the Hokkien Language


The Internet is both a force of centralization and decentralization. This allows a handful of companies located in Silicon Valley to amass more wealth, power and control than most governments and kingdoms in history. Meanwhile, as the internet grows, groups are forming around big nodes on big social media sites. Countercultures and communities centered on hyperspecific interests have emerged. Using algorithm-driven search results, people with all kinds of niche interests can find each other, build communities, and create new connections that span across locations and time zones.

The ripple effects of this dual process have been felt in a range of areas, whether in the hollowing out of mid-level musical artists to the benefit of a handful of massive hits and masses of small names, from the number followers of Twitter accounts. This trend is also true for online languages. As we increasingly connect across national borders, lingua francas have a clear advantage and tend to be massively overrepresented. In January 2020, 25% of all internet content was in English.

As Daniel Cunliffe suggested in 2007, this does not mean that minority languages ​​are simply “victims of the Internet”. The Internet has created new spaces for minority language users to come together, engage in minority language activism, and create new resources for the preservation and promotion of their languages. Examples in Taiwan include the website (愛台語), which outsources translations of Mandarin Chinese terms into Taiwanese Hokkien, and the , which are both extensions of the g0v community’s mengdian project. YouTube and Facebook have provided platforms for creators to produce content in a range of native Taiwanese languages, and Taiwanese Hokkien podcasts have also appeared.

Minority cultures and languages ​​should not be seen simply as victims of the Internet or as passive recipients of Internet technology, services and content. Instead, it should be recognized that they have the potential to be active shapers of this technology, able to create their own tools, adapt existing tools to local needs, and create culturally authentic Indigenous Internet media. (Cunliffe, 2007, p147)

However, few have noted the emergence of transnational southern Hokkien/min language communities online. In the Taiwanese context, we are perhaps accustomed to thinking of the conflict between Hokkien and modern standardized Mandarin (hereafter, “Mandarin”), as a mirror of conflicting nationalisms. Taiwanese Hokkien was once banned from public spaces by the Kuomintang government as part of a mission to “sinicize” Taiwan. In recent years, there have been more and more attempts to promote and revive the language, but they have often been presented as efforts to desinize Taiwan and establish a more “Taiwanese” identity.

This narrative overlooks the inherently transnational nature of Hokkien language and culture. Hokkien, or Southern Min, refers to the series of mostly mutually intelligible languages ​​that first emerged in the modern Quanzhou, Fuzhou, and Xiamen regions of Fujian Province. Successive and overlapping waves of migration have brought various varieties of Southern Min to Taiwan (where it is often called Taiwanese, taigi, or Taiwanese Hokkien), Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, and North America. Unlike the more dominant Mandarin, Southern Min tends to be very receptive to loanwords, and due to a historical lack of a consistent prestige dialect, Southern Min is an impressive set of language varieties that continue to evolve. (For example, speakers familiar with Taiwanese Hokkien may be interested in the English and Malay terms used in the Singaporean-Hokkien show “”).

In addition to shared vocabulary and grammar, the almost ubiquitous persecution and marginalization of the language seems to have united users. Since at least the middle of the 20th century, Mandarin has been the preferred language of Chinese regimes (PRC and ROC) and of regimes wishing to normalize and institutionalize minority languages ​​of specific ethnic communities (Malaysia and Singapore).

Despite such repression, Hokkien culture has crossed borders and crossed a range of media. In his study, the emergence of Hokkien-language films, pop music, and television content produced and consumed in the Hokkien-speaking region after the war. The Xiamen (Amoy) Hokkien Film Studios emerged and filmed Hokkien operas in the Philippines and Singapore, seeking to capture a transnational market. The Taiwanese film industry Hokkien in the 1950s learned to rebrand “Taiwanese-language films” (台語片) to the more transnational “Southern Min films” (閩南片) to appeal to Southeast Asian audiences. East. Despite the history of these flows, as Taylor notes, such transnationalism is often absent from our cultural memories, and these cultural products are now seen only as part of Singaporean film history or film history. Taiwanese, for example, rather than as part of a Hokkien film. the story.

This linguistic transnationalism never died. In the digital age, online content clearly aimed at promoting Taiwanese Hokkien in Taiwan abounds, but there is also a wide range of content created by communities interested in Hokkien in general. Hokkien-speaking populations across national borders have also found each other and formed groups on social media. They share, remix and collate the content of these spaces rather than promoting particular types of language use. For example, “Min Peoples, Min Languages” (閩人閩語), a Facebook group with nearly 20,000 members from Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan and China, is dedicated to “sharing all things cultural (folk) Southern Min (folk) Southern Min songs and languages.

These groups represent a new type of transnational linguistic exchange adapted to the digital age. To quote Cunliffe again, Hokkien-speaking Internet users have created “their own tools, adapt[ed] existing tools at the local level [or translocal] needs” and created “culturally authentic indigenous Internet media”.

The diversity of language uses often poses a dilemma for language activists: promoting a singular variety of the language risks harming others. Some online tools like Itaigi address this problem by allowing users to provide and vote for Hokkien translations of Mandarin words. In “Min Peoples, Min Languages, this linguistic diversity is turned into a kind of game. Users share with each other how they say a particular word in Hokkien where they live. They also post videos from TikTok or YouTube and ask people to identify which variety of Hokkien language is spoken.

Notably, the vast majority of the group’s content is not produced by the users themselves, but rather shared from YouTube, Tik Tok, or other Facebook groups. Also, all types of content are welcome: people singing in Hokkien, comedy sketches, videos, religious holidays, links to historical texts, and even language tests. A group like “Min Peoples, Min Languages” only exists as an aggregator of Min-related content circulating on the Internet. was born in Quanzhou, a Malaysian Hokkien song, a post celebrating Mazu’s birthday, and a nearly two-hour video of a woman singing Hokkien karaoke.

Rather than building a community, “Min Peoples, Min Languages” is more of a way for users to get more Min content into Facebook feeds and share Min content across the internet. Despite the number of members, most posts receive only a few comments, and even when a question is asked, there are usually only a handful of replies.

But faster internet speeds and new computer technologies have been a major force behind the growth of these groups. Many posts from these groups contain audio-visual content, as the number of Hokkien speakers who are fluent in the language is far greater than the number who can read and write in any of the language’s many writing systems. .

Groups like “Min Peoples, Min Languages” make it easy and convenient for users to break out of minority language spaces and integrate them into their web experience in other languages. With the increase in the number of like-minded groups and groups focused on language activism, it is also becoming easier for internet users to decide how much time to spend on the internet in the Hokkien language. Much like offline, the Hokkien-language web is one that exists in a set of interrelated clusters, whether with Hokkien content appearing in a majority Mandarin-language stream, or with Mandarin-language commentary discussing a Hokkien-language video. on a page like Min Peoples, Min Langues. Importantly, this online form of code-switching differs from its offline form in one crucial way: when Hokkien-language users interact with the Hokkien-language Internet, they can find content specifically from their region or country, or enter a transnational space of content from multiple locations and comprising a polyphony of linguistic varieties.

I don’t mean to suggest that the sites emerging on the Internet in the Hokkien language represent the future of language activism, nor that they will revive the Hokkien language. The site promotes superficial engagement with content and encourages language consumption, but not necessarily language use.

Min Peoples, Min Languages ​​is not trying to save Hokkien (although many online groups are), but it reflects the transnational flows of Min languages ​​and cultures in the digital age. The group promotes the plurality of Hokkien cultures, pollinating and interacting with each other across East, Southeast Asia and beyond. Above all, the group also shows the creative power of Hokkien users to create content, create new forms of connection, and use digital tools to find new ways to engage with their common, intertwined language and stories.

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TNL Editor: Bryan Chou (@thenewslensintl)

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