Rhotacization and the ‘Beijing Smooth Operator’: The social meaning of a linguistic variable


Address correspondence to:
Qing Zhang
University of Texas at Austin
Department of Linguistics, Calhoun Hall 501
1 University Station B5100
Austin, Texas 78712-0198


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.