Rhotacization and the 'Beijing Smooth Operator': The social meaning of a linguistic variable 1

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71 Scopus citations


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.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)201-222
Number of pages22
JournalJournal of Sociolinguistics
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 2008


  • Character type
  • Ideology
  • Linguistic variable
  • Mandarin Chinese
  • Meaning potential
  • Rhotacization
  • Social meaning
  • Stereotype

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Philosophy
  • Linguistics and Language
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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