Rhotacization and the ‘Beijing Sm...
Journal of Sociolinguistics 12/2, 2008: 201���222 Rhotacization and the ���Beijing Smooth Operator���: The social meaning of a linguistic variable1 Qing Zhang University of Texas at Austin Recent sociolinguistic studies on style have focused much attention on the construction of social meaning in situated discursive practices. Despite a general recognition that the linguistic resources used are often already imbued with social meanings, little research has been done on what these meanings may be. Focusing on rhotacization, a sociolinguistic variable in Beijing Mandarin, this article explores its imbued social meanings and sociocultural associations. I demonstrate that rhotacization takes on semiotic saliency through co-occurrence with key Beijing cultural terms and frequent use in written representations of authentic Beijing-ness. Furthermore, this feature is associated with the ���Beijing Smooth Operator,��� a salient male local character type, and is ideologically construed as reflecting its characterological attributes. The findings of this study shed light on the meaning potential of a linguistic variable, rhotacization in this case, which can enhance understanding of the possibilities and constraints for its use and meaning in new contexts. KEYWORDS: Social meaning, linguistic variable, meaning potential, stereotype, ideology, character type, rhotacization, Mandarin Chinese Jing you-zi, Wei zui-zi, Baodingfu de gou tui-zi Beijing Smooth Operator, Tianjin Talker, Baoding Henchman (A well-known Chinese saying about three local stereotypes) In fact, Beijingers are said to be smooth, the so-called ���Beijing Smooth Operator���, mainly because Beijing speech has a lot of rhotacization. Beijingers are naturally gifted with gab, and with heavy r-sounding, then [Beijingers] appear to be smooth. Have you heard anybody saying the Cantonese have ���oily accent, slippery tone?��� That���s because their tongues can���t curl. (Liu, a 38-year-old male chief representative of a foreign bank) 1. INTRODUCTION In recent years, an outpouring of studies have examined linguistic variation as a resource for the construction of identities and styles (e.g. Bucholtz 1996 C The author 2008 Journal compilation C Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2008 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK, and 350 Main Street, Malden MA 02148, USA
202 ZHANG Coupland 2001a Eckert 2000 Eckert and Rickford 2001 Schilling-Estes 1998). This focus is part of a broader move in sociolinguistics, particularly variationist sociolinguistics, to adopt practice-based approaches to the study of linguistic variation (e.g. Eckert and McConnell-Ginet 1992). Compared with earlier variationist studies, this strand of research pays more attention to speaker agency and the ways in which social meanings are constructed through deployment of linguistic and other semiotic resources. These studies demonstrate that speakers often draw on pre-existing linguistic resources that are already imbued with social meanings through their association with a social group or character type. When these linguistic features are used to construct a different style or persona, their existent meanings are transformed. Hence, the employment of a pre-existing linguistic element in a new context, or what Bauman and Briggs (1990) call ���recontextualization,��� is a transformational process wherein new meaning emerges. Although much focus has been on investigating the emergent meanings of linguistic features, more work is needed from sociolinguists to explore the imbued meanings that the recontextualized element brings with it. A better understanding of imbued meanings helps to address a crucial question in the study of style and social meaning: how do linguistic resources become available for appropriation by new groups? Thus, the main concern of this article is to explore the meanings and sociocultural associations imbued in a salient linguistic feature that make it amenable to stylistic work. Specifically, this article examines rhotacization in Beijing Mandarin, a locally salient sociolinguistic variable. The questions to be addressedare:(1)howdoesrhotacizationtakeonsocialsaliencyandconsequently semiotic potential to do stylistic work? and (2) what are the social meanings and associations that this feature carries with it? This empirical investigation draws on insights from the recent work of Agha (2003) on the historical development of the cultural value of Received Pronunciation and those of Johnstone and her associates on the social history of ���Pittsburghese��� (Johnstone, Andrus and Danielson 2006 Johnstone, Bhasin and Wittkofski 2002). The goal of this study is to contribute to the ongoing efforts in developing ���a coherent theory of the social meaning of variables��� (Eckert 2004: 41). 2. THE SIGNIFICANCE OF IMBUED SOCIAL MEANING The present study builds on insights from recent sociolinguistic research on the use of linguistic resources in the construction of identities, styles, and personae (Bell 1999, 2001 Bucholtz 1996, 2001 Cameron 2000 Chun 2007 Coupland 2001a, 2001b Eckert 2000 Mendoza-Denton 2007 Podesva 2007 Schilling- Estes 1998, 2004 Q. Zhang 2005 studies in the Journal of Sociolinguistics 1999 special issue on styling). Treating styles and personae as dynamic and motivated semioticprocesses,thesestudieselucidatehowsocialmeaningsemergeinsituated discursive practices, or ���the situated face of meaning��� in Eckert and McConnell- Ginet���s (1992: 474) terms. In addition, many of the studies cited above attest to C The author 2008 Journal compilation C Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2008
SOCIAL MEANING OF A LINGUISTIC VARIABLE 203 a tendency among speakers to draw on a limited set of such resources that are already imbued with social meanings. However, not much attention has been devoted to investigating what the meanings are. Employing linguistic resources with imbued meanings is a key strategy in Bell���s (1984, 2001) conceptualization of initiative style in his audience design framework. As illustrated in his studies of New Zealand television commercials (Bell 1992, 1999), the language varieties and features used in the advertisements are saturated with meanings through their associations with salient social groups and cultural stereotypes. Such meanings and sociocultural associations constitute the indexical potential for these resources to carry out new stylistic work in the advertisements. Similarly, salient dialect features and repertoires of Welsh English with conventionalized meanings are deployed in the stylized performance by two Welsh radio presenters examined in Coupland (2001a). The reworking of existing resources for new purposes in these cases points to what Bakhtin (1981) refers to as the dialogic orientation of language, which both Bell and Coupland draw on in their work on styles (e.g. Bell 2001 Coupland 2001a). According to Bakhtin���s (1981: 293) notion of ���dialogism,��� language ���lives a socially charged life��� and carries tastes of its past uses and users. The Bakhtinian dialogic view of language has profound implications for investigating social meaning beyond the immediate context. As Ochs (1992: 383) notes, ���[p]art of the meaning of any utterance (spoken and written) is its social history, its social presence, and its social future.��� Bauman and Briggs (1990) operationalize Bakhtin���s rather abstract notion of dialogism in terms of decontextualization and recontextualization, two aspects of a transformational process wherein ready- made discourse is extracted from one context and fitted into another (Bauman 1996: 301). As Bauman and Briggs (1990: 75) point out, ���[b]ecause the process is transformational, we must now determine what the recontextualized text brings with it from its earlier context(s) and what emergent form, function, and meaning it is given as it is recentered.��� Sociolinguistic studies on style tend to focus on the transformed, emergent aspect of social meaning. As linguistic features and styles bear traces of their past uses and users real and imagined (Irvine 1996: 151), the sociocultural associations that they bring from their ���socially charged life��� (Bakhtin 1981: 293) constitute potential for, as well as constraints on, their uses in the present and future contexts. Hence, it is important for analysts to explore the meanings imbued in a linguistic feature that make it available for stylistic work. Particularly relevant to the case presented in this article is work by Agha (2003) and Johnstone, Andrus and Danielson (2006). Agha (2003) traces the ���enregisterment��� processes whereby the Received Pronunciation has taken on a specific scheme of cultural values linked to correctness and a prestigious social status. Whereas Agha (2003) examines the historical emergence of a supralocal variety, Johnstone, Andrus and Danielson (2006) explore that of a named local variety, ���Pittsburghese.��� Using multiple methods, including historical research, ethnography, discourses analysis, and sociolinguistic interviews, Johnstone, C The author 2008 Journal compilation C Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2008