SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. A lot of Chinese websites seem to have a different form of URLs or web addresses. They use numbers not the names, long numbers too, seemingly at random. McDonald's website isn't spelled McDonald's, it's 4008-517-517.cn. A dating website is 5201314.com. Why? Christopher Beam, staff writer with The New Republic who lives in Beijing, wondered and that's when he began to notice that the numbers are hardly random. Mr. Beam joins us from Beijing. Thanks very much for being with us.
CHRISTOPHER BEAM: It's great to be here. Thanks, Scott.
SIMON: Why these long sequences of digits?
BEAM: Well, the short answer is that it is possible to create a URL that is Mandarin characters, but that's a relatively recent thing. A lot of devices require a certain plug-in to convert those Chinese characters to information that your browser can read.
So a lot of these companies just take a shortcut and use digits. If you're an English speaker, you'd think that it's much easier to remember a URL that's spelled with letters than it is if it's spelled with numbers. But for the Chinese audience it's the opposite.
For them, remembering digits is much easier than remembering the Roman alphabet. Even though they learn the letters, they're often still more comfortable with numbers. And they remember them a lot more clearly.
SIMON: So when they read the numbers out loud, do they have some meaning in Mandarin?
BEAM: Yeah, I mean, a lot of the URLs, the strings of digits, do have some meaning. For example, there are tons of URLs that are homophones for other Chinese phrases. So you gave the example of the McDonald's URL - 4008-517-517 - that's because when you say 517 in Mandarin it's (Mandarin spoken) and that sounds somewhat (Mandarin spoken), which means I want to eat.
They sort of have infinite flexibility to spell out phrases and create these little sentences. So the example you gave of the dating website, which is 5201314.com, that string of digits means, (Mandarin spoken), which means I will love you forever. So that's something that people will use a lot when chatting online with their friends or they'll shorten it to 520, which just means I love you.
SIMON: Now websites and URL aside, is there an extra language that people in China would use online to be able to say - I don't know - our equivalent of hello, thank you, or for that matter, LOL?
BEAM: (Laughing) Yeah. As a general rule, you could say, you know, 1 means to want, 2 can mean to love, 4 can mean dead or death, 5 can mean I. So you've got all these phrases that come out of this little numerical language. For example, if you want to say I'm sorry, it's 687 because those numbers, (Mandarin spoken), sounds kind of like (Mandarin spoken), which means I'm sorry.
If you want to say thank you, some people will just say 3Q because in Chinese that's pronounced (Mandarin spoken), which sounds kind of like thank you if you're saying it in a Chinese accent. And also, instead of saying goodbye or spelling out bye-bye some people will just write 88, which is pronounced (Mandarin spoken), which is close enough.
SIMON: Christopher Beam of The New Republic, 3Q to you, sir.
BEAM: (Laughing) 3Q to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.