Mandarin is a tonal language which uses pitch contours to distinguish lexical meanings. The tonal realizations in Mandarin, however, can be affected by the prosodic prominence of syllables. When occurring in a weakly stressed position, for instance, the second syllable of a disyllabic or trisyllabic sequences (e.g., ming-bai to understand, qi-bu-lai can’t get up), the tonal features carried by those weak syllables are often not fully realized – characterized by shortened duration and neutralized pitch contours. Tonal neutralization is one of the most common linguistic phenomena in Standard Mandarin, especially productive in connected speech. However, tone neutralization is not fully complete in some Mandarin dialects, such as the southern and oversea Mandarin varieties (e.g., Hong Kong and Taiwan Mandarin).
Interestingly, it is observed that in the recent years, this supraregional full tone feature has been adopted by young speakers of Standard Mandarin as a trendy speech style. Young speakers in the urbanized regions in mainland China performatively realize destressed syllables, e.g., ming2-bai0 to ming-bai2, to index a “cute” and youthful characteristic. The full tone variable has been anecdotally referred as “Taiwan Mandarin accent”. In my research I aim to investigate the indexical association between the Mandarin full tone realization and the “cute” social persona.
A production study was done a year ago, in which I analyzed the tokens of 16 YouTube vloggers (Standard Mandarin speakers) by coding their usage of full tone vs. neutralized tones. Interesting differences were found between the female talkers with distinct personae – the talkers with “cute” characteristics tended to use the full tone feature much more often than the talkers who self-represented as “professional” and “independent”. Motivated by the promising results found in the production study, I aim to expand the current research question by constructing a perception study, hoping to address whether listeners also perceive a social connection between full tone realization and the “cute” social personae. In the perception study, I collaborate with Professor Jon Forrest (University of Georgia) using social evaluation rating task to analyze whether listeners’ judgement on the speaker’s social personae could be affected by the full tone and neutralized tone usage in the speech. The indexical link between linguistic feature and social personae is a higher-level association, resulting in rather complicated perception results. Mismatch between the production and the perception results are arising, as observed in the pilot test, that the speech feature (full tone realization) which was intended to sound “cute” according to the vloggers turn out to be “unpleasant” or even “gross” in terms of perception.