"Plastic Mandarin"

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That's a literal translation of “sùliào pǔtōnghuà 塑料普通话” ("Plastic Mandarin") or “sùpǔ 塑普” for short.  "Plastic" here means "artificial, inauthentic, fake"; in Changsha Xiang topolect (also known as Hunanese), the first syllable is a homophone for "bad", so the short form also means "bad Mandarin".

Chenzi Xu, a doctoral candidate at Oxford University, is from Xiangtan (population nearly 3 million), a prefecture-level city in east-central Hunan province, south-central China. an hour's drive from Changsha  She went to a middle school in Changsha (population over 8 million), capital of Hunan province, so she knows the local language well.

The hometowns of several founding leaders of the Chinese Communist Party, including Chairman Mao Zedong, President Liu Shaoqi, and Marshal Peng Dehuai, are in Xiangtan's administration, as well as the hometowns of Qing dynasty and republic era painter Qi Baishi, scholar-general Zeng Guofan, and tennis player Peng Shuai.


Other notables who hail from Xiangtan include the Taiwan politicians Ma Ying-jeou and James Soong, so this is a place whose language habits bear considerable weight nationwide.

Chenzi Xu has written a DPhil dissertation on Plastic Mandarin, in which chapter 4 and chapter 6 look into the phonetics of citation tone and neutral tone in this unique brand of Hunanese in comparative perspective. She hasn't yet had her viva examination, so I cannot share the final draft of the dissertation, but here is an abstract that will give an idea of what it's about:

The origin of Plastic Mandarin tones

The city of Changsha, Hunan Province, China has seen an increase in the use of Mandarin in the past decade, overshadowing the local non-Mandarin variety, Changsha. A new variety, “Plastic Mandarin”, mostly spoken by millennials and younger generations, has emerged. It has attracted some media exposure, but received little scholarly attention.

Plastic Mandarin is defined here as a non-standard Mandarin accent that features the speech pattern of young urban residents in Changsha and that has crystallised over the past few decades. This non-standard Mandarin accent is different from that of the older generations, who were monolingual Xiang vernacular speakers and learnt Mandarin much later in life compared to the young. This study first establishes the defining characteristic of citation tone system for Plastic Mandarin by examining the f0 contour of monosyllables produced by 21 speakers: a mid-level tone, a low to mid rising tone, a low falling tone, and a high rising tone. The data show that Plastic Mandarin has the same tone categories as Standard Mandarin, but each tone category has a distinct pitch pattern in each variety. Through a comparative analysis of citation tones in three varieties that coexist in the city of Changsha — Standard Mandarin, Plastic Mandarin, and Changsha — this study provides acoustic evidence that Plastic Mandarin mainly arose by adapting the pitch patterns of Changsha tones into the corresponding Mandarin tone categories.

This novel research is invaluable in that it makes available primary acoustic evidence for the origin and evolution of tones is a specific variety of Sinitic speech.


Selected readings


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