Rhotic Lenition as a Marker of a Dominant Character Type in Northern Mandarin Chinese

Matthew Pankhurst


This paper looks at social identity with respect to two types of rhotacization: vowel rhotacization, in which a vowel is r-coloured, and consonant rhotacization (i.e. rhotic lenition). Recent studies (Zhang 2005, Zhang 2008) have investigated character type as a sociolinguistic variable affecting rhotacization in Mandarin Chinese speech. Rhotacization, in turn, has sociocultural associations that differ by both geographic region and regional character types (Lee 2007). I argue that in Northern China, there is a correlation between rhotic lenition and dominant, particularly masculine, social identities.

In this study, I interview thirteen Mandarin speakers from Henan Province, a distinctly northern—but not northeastern—prefecture. Participants are interviewed and possible lenited tokens are counted. I hypothesize that a positive correlation between identity and lenition will be seen in speakers who perceive themselves as having dominant personalities; that people who identify with a dominant character type will exhibit more tokens of consonant rhotacization in casual speech.

To explain this phenomenon, I take the view that there is a prevalent linguistic ideology linking vowel rhotacization with rurality, low social class, and Northeastern identity. I will show that among speakers of Henan Mandarin, vowel rhotacization is an overt marker of this identity, whereas consonant rhotacization (i.e. rhotic lenition) is less overt. Rhotic lenition is a unique and critical variable which functions as a marker of a dominant character type without establishing a Northeast identity.


Lenition, Rhotacization, Rhotic, Chinese, Sociolinguistics

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Working Papers of the Linguistics Circle

EISSN: 1920-440X
ISSN: 1200-3344

University of Victoria