"Facial expressions" in text-dominant online conversation

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Christina Xu has written "A Field Guide to China's Most Indispensible Meme" (Motherboard, 8/1/16).  Her essay includes more than a dozen illustrations, the first of which is this one:

We've seen this kind of "image macro" before; in the examples discussed in "Intentional mistranslation" (11/8/15), captions paired Chinese phrases with overly literal English translations for comedic effect. In this case, the caption, which is built right into the visual, reads:

dàjiā dōu shì dúshūrén 大家都是读书人
shuōhuà zhuāngbī diǎn 说话装逼点

Xu translates that as "Everyone here is educated, pose harder when you talk."

Such images are called biǎoqíng 表情 ("[facial] expressions") and, as here, they are often accompanied by reference to zhuāngbī 装逼, a term that is difficult to translate, but means something like "pose; posture; pretend (to be something)".

Xu begins her essay thus:

Biologists have found that human language, like bird song, may evolve to accommodate its environment through acoustic adaptation. Humid, hot climates swallow consonants while letting long vowels glide by, smoothing angular English into the drawl of the Southern United States. I believe that on the internet, a similar phenomenon happens to our visual languages: our memes hold something of the digital landscapes they proliferate in.

She goes on to say that, in China, the digitally-active keep folders of biǎoqíng 表情 ("[facial] expressions", henceforth "biǎoqíng"), and that "In the digital world, biaoqing refers to any image that adds a visual and emotive layer to text-dominant online conversations: at its most expansive, it refers to everything from emoticons to reaction GIFs."

On the visual-textual dichotomy of the biǎoqíng, Xu tellingly observes:  "The text does most of the semantic heavy lifting; the visual component mostly indicates the overall tone, often in a slapstick way".

Xu explains how biǎoqíng arose:

Though they’ve borrowed elements of memes from Reddit and 4chan, biaoqing have evolved into a specific form unique to the Chinese internet, complete with its own traditions and conventions. Like other mature internet meme systems, biaoqing are a grassroots, fast-evolving visual vernacular that surfaces and catalogues the shared experiences and emotions of the Chinese interneting public, a Rosetta Stone of sorts for identifying and interpreting shared cultural references. They’ve even been weaponized, in a sense—marshalled recently in a meme-soaked episode of a long running rivalry between China and Taiwan.

Even as the Chinese internet's reputation abroad is dominated by the shadow of censorship cast by the Great Firewall, biaoqing complicate the narrative of a Chinese internet scared into stillness; the legal scaffolding may be the thing visible from space, but up close you’ll always find people being irrepressibly playful and emotional and assertive. Reflected in these tiny images is not only a wealth of pop culture references, but also a practice that reveals as much about Chinese culture as it does about our own in its familiarities and differences.

Under the categories of "Anatomy", "Natural Habitat", and "Creation and Reproduction" (with a subheading "Flame War" [that erupted between Chinese and Taiwanese internauts in January of 2016]), Xu brilliantly dissects the ever-transforming visual-cum-textual body of Chinese internet discourse, revealing both its severe limitations and it creative potential.

En passant, Xu adroitly points out:  "As a word, biaoqing’s closest English relative might be 'emoticon'.”  Where biǎoqíng and emoticons differ is that the former massively exploit the power of photoshopping real human features onto the generic facial template that serves as their foundation.

I find Xu's biological metaphors and references especially stimulating.  She cites Marissa Fessenden's "How Language Evolved from Climate and Terrain:  Try shouting words into the wind, what sounds make it through?" (Smithsonian, 11/9/15).  As someone who has suffered from tinnitus since January 15, 1968 or thereabouts, I know what she's talking about.  Mostly what I hear are vowels.  The consonants have a hard time making it through the shrill tea kettle noise.

Fessenden quotes the evolutionary biologist and cognitive scientist, Tecumseh Fitch (William Tecumseh Sherman Fitch III) of the University of Vienna in Austria, about the impact of environment on the acoustic nature of the language that develops in a given area.  It's interesting that Tecumseh Fitch figured prominently in the blockbuster New Yorker article about the work of Daniel Everett:  "The Interpreter:  Has a remote Amazonian tribe upended our understanding of language?" by John Colapinto (3/16/07).  Fitch also appeared in Tom Wolfe's bombshell in Harper's (August, 2016):  "The Origins of Speech:  In the beginning was Chomsky", which I featured in this post:  "Tom Wolfe takes on linguistics" (7/24/16).  If there were ever a locale that would have an impact on the language of the people who live there, it would be that of the Pirahã, who are to be found along the banks of the Maici River, a tributary of the Amazon.  They actually don't call themselves Pirahã, but rather Hi'aiti'ihi, which means something like "the straight ones".  This fits with their designation for other languages, viz., “crooked head".

Continuing its biological-ecological theme, Xu concludes her finely crafted essay with this paragraph:

In biological terms: The long-term isolation caused by the Great Firewall has resulted in separate platforms, disconnected online ecosystems and, eventually, a new meme-species. Even if the technical and legislative blocks between the Chinese internet and ours vanished tomorrow, linguistic and cultural barriers might still stand in the way of meaningful dialogue and exchange. Last year, President Obama announced an initiative to get 1 million American school children to learn Mandarin Chinese to ease future collaborations between the US and China—maybe part of their homework should be to make a million biaoqing, too.

If we want a million American school children to learn Mandarin, we need to develop much better pedagogical methods for teaching them, methods such as those we have often talked about on Language Log.  Before that happens, it would not be a bad idea for someone to make a bilingual handbook for biǎoqíng (complete with image, Hanzi text, Pinyin transcription, and translation for each entry, plus appropriate notes, glosses, and indices.  That would go a long way toward helping American youth (and adults as well) to better understand the language and mind of young people in China today.

[h.t. Arif Dirlik]


  1. Rubrick said,

    August 3, 2016 @ 12:11 am

    Humid, hot climates swallow consonants while letting long vowels glide by, smoothing angular English into the drawl of the Southern United States.

    Is that actually a supported/accepted explanation? It certainly sounds like a pop-psy just-so story. How far along are Kenyans toward developing a drawl?

  2. Bob Ladd said,

    August 3, 2016 @ 3:14 am

    @Rubrick: The short answer is "No, it's not an accepted explanation", but there have been a number of proposals that there are effects of climate (or, more broadly, physical environment) on sound systems, and in my opinion the general idea is not completely implausible. Most recently, Caleb Everett has put forth a couple of such proposals; for one of these, together with a set of commentaries, see the first issue of the new Journal of Language Evolution. (Full disclosure: I wrote one of the commentaries.)

  3. WSM said,

    August 3, 2016 @ 6:24 am

    You should check out Ms Xu's Multi Entry series for some interesting additional exploration of online Chinese social discourse. Emoji in particular are being used a LOT in online Chineae discourse, and it would be fascinating if she a) provides an in-depth archaeology of what emoji symbols like "I'm picking my nose" mean in a Chinese social media context and b) explore how the semantics of symbols derived from western memes, eg the "doge" symbol, have mutated within the Chinese online space.

    It'd be both interesting and useful for those of us who are struggling to understand just what the hell people are saying online when they use these symbols in conversations with us. And she's clearly the one to do it.

  4. WSM said,

    August 3, 2016 @ 6:56 am

    Another interesting theme to pursuee would be whether the idea – which exists among natives and non-natives alike, incorrect as it may be – that Chinese characters are intrinsically pictographic might lead to more ready and widespread adoption of these emoji (which are pictographic as well) in Chinese spaces than in other comparable Japanese or American spaces. Even something as simple as some base statistics concerning frequency of use of emoji v characters on Sina Weibo, vis a vis emoji frequence/word use on Twitter and whatever Japanese social media platforms, Twitter or otherwise, would be a good start towards examining this question.

  5. wanda said,

    August 4, 2016 @ 1:20 am

    @Rubrick: Yeah, I don't have much confidence anything an author says when one of the first lines is an unhedged statement of that sort.
    (message from a penguin you know)

  6. Chas Belov said,

    August 5, 2016 @ 1:51 am

    Hmm, I don't know about that business of hot, humid climates leading to swallowed consonants and drawn-out vowels. My perception of English speakers from Africa is that of hyper-correct pronunciation.

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