An Innovative Linguistic Style for a New Lifestyle: A Case Study of a Chinese Television Program

Qing Zhang

University of Texas at Austin, United States of America


Numerous sociolinguistic studies have demonstrated that linguistic variation does not merely mirror macro-level social formations and transformations but constitutes a key resource in effecting social distinctiveness. However, research in this area, largely concerned with Western industrialized societies, has not paid much attention to the ways in which linguistic innovation is employed to effect new social distinctions. As a country undergoing rapid socioeconomic restructuring, China provides a dynamic site for research on the constitutive role that linguistic innovation plays in socioeconomic transformations. This paper presents a case study of the linguistic practices of two hosts in a Mandarin Chinese television program that promotes a new cosmopolitan lifestyle through consumption.

Based on 16 recorded episodes of the program “S Information Station,” the study finds that the two hosts, both native speakers of Tianjin Mandarin, a Northern Mandarin variety, employ a range of innovative linguistic features to form an innovative Mandarin style. These features include new lexical items, English expressions, and two sound features, namely, the limited use of rhotacization of the syllable rhyme and the frequent use of a full tone in a neutral tone environment. Both rhotacization and neutral tone are salient features associated with northern Mandarin varieties, including Tianjin Mandarin and the Beijing Mandarin-based standard variety of Mainland China, i.e. Putonghua. The use of the alternative variants of the two features, non-rhotacization and full tone, by Northern Mandarin speakers is found to be indicative of the influence of non-Mainland Mandarin varieties on standard Putonghua (Anonymous 2005).

Regarding the new lexical items and English expressions, a majority of them are found to have counterparts in the conservative variety of Putonghua. Analysis of the two sound features reveals that among 526 potential environments for rhotacization, the hosts “de-rhotacize” at a high rate of 97%; and among 121 cases where a neutral tone is obligatory in standard Putonghua, they use a full tone at a frequency of 12%. The results show that the hosts’ linguistic practices counter the mounting government efforts to make the Beijing Mandarin-based standard Putonghua the single legitimate Mandarin variety in the broadcasting media. In stark contrast to standard Putonghua which is conventional and regional (i.e. Mainland China), their innovative linguistic style is non-conventional and trans-local.

Analysis of the discourse of the hosts demonstrates that on the one hand, the new Mandarin style is used to index their cool, trendy and cosmopolitan persona. On the other hand, and more importantly, features of the new linguistic style are found to merge with the content of their talk about new consumer products/services, urban trends, and new lifestyle practices. Thus the new linguistic style and its constitutive features are employed as part of the semiotic resources in the construction of the distinctiveness of a new cosmopolitan lifestyle and its associated personae. This study demonstrates that micro-level analysis of innovative linguistic practice is crucial in revealing the constitutive role of linguistic innovation in macro-level social transformations.

Anonymous. 2005. Omitted to avoid identification of the author.

Session: Paper session
Television 1
Friday, April 4, 2008, 10:30-12:00
room: 03