Placing social types through prosodic variation: An investigation of spatial meanings in Mainland China

Robert Xu


This study examines how prosodic features evoke the spacial aspects of interactional meanings of well-known social types in Mainland China. Prosodic features (duration, pitch, voice quality) of the scripted performances of 18 prominent social types in China were measured acoustically and grouped by cluster analysis. Commonalities among types within each group were identified through a detailed analysis of meta-linguistic commentary collected from the internet. This paper focuses on three meaningful clusters: powerful bureaucratic types, disembodied voices, and “in-your-face” types. Members of each cluster share prosodic combinations and social profiles. More importantly, character types within each cluster index a specific interactional locale. Appropriation of their associated features could reproduce the social dynamics that is typical in that locale. The results highlight the situated use of sociolinguistic variables, and show that the prosodic features pattern structurally in the performances while indexing the historical-spatial settings of social interactions. This paper also considers place as an interactional and relational product of meaning making by these prosodic features.


character type; place; prosody; social meaning; stylistic performance; Mandarin Chinese

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