Full Tone to Sound Feminine: Analyzing the Role of Tonal Variants in Identity Construction

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University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics
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Gao, Feier

Tone neutralization in Standard Mandarin requires syllables in a weakly-stressed position to be destressed and toneless (Chao, 1968), yet such a process is often incomplete in some Mandarin dialects, e.g., Taiwanese-accented Mandarin (Huang, 2012, 2018). For instance, the metrically weak syllable bai in míng2bai0 (‘to understand, clear’) is usually destressed in Standard Mandarin but fully realized as a rising tone (míng2bái2) in non-standard varieties. Recent studies have observed that Standard Mandarin speakers, especially young females, tend to performatively adopt this supraregional linguistic feature to index their “cosmopolitan” and “youthful” social personae (Zhang 2005, 2018). The current study provides a spoken-corpus analysis to address how the “cute” social persona is indexed in such prosodic variables. A sharp contrast in the full tone usage among the female speakers emerged, such that the speakers who adopted a “cute” persona use distinctively high percentages of full tones, as opposed to the speakers who were labelled “independent” and “strong-minded”. However, there was no split among males, in that their full tone percentages were generally low regardless of their social personae. Full tone usages also vary across topics, shown by a “cute” speaker that used full tones more frequently on cosmetic topics compared to formal topics. These results suggest that full tone realization is more likely a characteristic-specific feature, indexing the “cute” social persona of the speaker, instead of a purely “cosmopolitan-related” linguistic feature.

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