Approaching the Chinese Network Catchphrase “Wǒ Kĕnéng V Le Jiă N” as a Construction
Han Gelingα & Tang Luminσ
In early 2017 the Chinese construction “Wǒ Kĕnéng V Le Jiă N” emerges as a network catchphrase, and soon it occurs quite often in everyday conversations. Its frequent occurrences in a wide range of communication arouse the authors’ interest. This network catchphrase is viewed as a form-meaning pair, i.e. a construction. This paper focuses on the structure and composition of this transitive construction, and analyzes its subjectivity, productivity as well as the pragmatic meanings intended by the speakers. It is discovered that personal and subjective cognition experienced by various netizens is reflected in similar transitive constructions in dynamically changing contexts. The first-person subjects and the epistemic modality “Kĕnéng (might)” indicate subjective judgements and attitudes about the action or event happened. In addition, the modifier Jiă intensifies deviation of the event from the speaker’s expectation. Therefore, the contrast signifies different pragmatic functions intended by the speakers in specific contexts.
Keywords: network catchphrase; construction; subjectivity; productivity; function.
Author α σ: University of Shanghai for Science and Technology, 20093, Shanghai.
Since network technologies grow rapidly, network media becomes the most popular source of information and plays an indispensable part in our daily life. Undoubtedly, network media prompt the coinage and spread of new words and expressions on internet. In early 2017, a Chinese construction “Wǒ Kĕnéng V Le Jiă N” emerged as a network catchphrase, and then it frequently appears in daily communication, including both net chatting and face-to-face interaction.
This new catchphrase is different from other catchphrases in that it originated from a network activity in which the netizen coined a novel construction rather than a single word or phrase to express their attitude, opinion or emotions about the social event at the moment. Therefore, this network catchphrase construction combines the features of network catchphrases and that of Chinese construction.
In general，the catchphrase is known as a phrase which gains popularity in use during a certain period of time. Guo Xi regards the catchphrase as “a form of language widely used among certain people at a certain period of time.” (2004:151-155) This definition displays three parameters of catchphrases: 1) occurring much often 2) at a certain period of time 3) among a certain speech community. Ding Jiayong believes that “catchphrase is a term with a new meaning commonly used by communicators, especially adolescents for a certain period. As a social phenomenon, catchphrases are typically novel, imitative, stylish and changeable.” (2004:79-82). These features of catchphrase attract young people who are fascinated by brand-new buzzwords which are distinctively stylish with the new meaning added.
Accordingly, the authors define the network catchphrase as a newly-born linguistic form that reflects the common attitude towards certain hot issues during a certain period of time within the network speech community. The linguistic form is reproducible, infectious and variable. Noticeably, network catchphrases are first used on internet, and are replicated quickly, and then appear in all kinds of media, soon frequently occur in daily conversations. The quickness and wide spreading of the Chinese construction “Wǒ Kĕnéng V Le Jiă N” impressed the authors, who attempt to analyze its form and functions within the framework of construction grammar.
CONSTRUCTION AND THE CHINESE CATCHPHRASE “WǑ KĔNÉNG V LE JIĂN”
Goldberg defines the construction as “a form-meaning pair <F, S> such that some aspect of F, or some aspect of S, is not strictly predictable from C’s component parts or from other previously established constructions”(Goldberg, 1995:4). She does not view “being predictable” as the necessary condition of construction. Later, she claims that “any linguistic pattern is recognized as a construction as long as some aspect of its form or function is not strictly predictable from its component parts or from other constructions recognized to exist” (Goldberg, 2006:4). Morphemes, words and fully filled idioms are called substantive constructions which are lexically fixed, and their constituent components are irreplaceable. Partially lexically filled idioms and other special constructions are known as schematic construction (Fillmore, Kay & O’Connor, 1988:501-538).
In January 2017, the Chinese pattern “Wǒ Kĕnéng V Le Jiă N” emerged as a network catchphrase construction which is reproducible, infectious and variable, and it soon spreads on internet chatting, blog, we-chat, and so on. This construction falls into the category of schematic construction, specifically, it is a Transitive Construction involving a proto-agent and proto-patient, as shown in the following chart:
Sem proto-agent proto-patient
(Goldberg, 1995: 117)
In the typical case, the sense of a transitive construction is quite specific, “ being that of a volitional actor affecting an inanimate patient—a causative event”（Goldberg, 1995: 118）, the semantic function <Agt V Pat> suggests that the subject changes the state of another participant—the object.
The authors collected examples on internet by the keywords: “Wǒ (I) Kĕnéng (might) V(verb) Le (tense marker) Jiă (false) N (noun)” in the baidu and sougou browser, Netease news, Tecent news, People’s Daily, Wechat Subscription and tweets in sina blog. Also, the author retrieved the source and backgrounds of each example.
In the total 30 examples of “Wǒ Kĕnéng V Le Jiă N”, this construction consists mainly of the agent, action, and the patient, so it can be rewritten as “Subj VP Obj” in which the subject is most often the first person singular pronoun “Wǒ (I)”, the VP consists of the modal verb “Kĕnéng (might)”, a verb “V” and the Chinese present perfect tense marker “Le”, and the object NP which is composed of the adjective “Jiă (false/fake/unreal)” and a noun with or without a quantifier as NP premodifier. The following table presents the VP + NP collocations in the examples.
Table 1: Collected data of the construction “Wǒ Kĕnéng V Le Jiă N”
Subject VP Patient
Pron Modal Verb+Verb+Tense Marker Quanti+Adj+Noun
我 可能上了 一个假大学
我 可能读了 个假小学
我 可能看了 个假春晚
我 可能过了 一个假寒假
我 可能逛了 一个假昆明
我 可能去了 （一个）假安徽
我 可能进了 一个假公司
我 可能交了 （一个）假男朋友
我 可能嫁了 个假诗人
我 可能谈了 一场假恋爱
我 可能养了 条假狗
我 可能用了 （个）假Excel
我 可能吃了 假东北菜/汤圆
我 可能有 个假爸爸/妈妈
我 可能是 个假宝宝
我们 可能读了 假历史
你的孩子 可能上了 个假学校
5.1 Subjectivity of the construction “Wǒ Kĕnéng V Le Jiă N”
In the examples, it is evident that the Chinese catchphrase construction “Subj + VP + Obj” have the same model verb, tense marker and adjective, its subject can be the first person singular “我(I)”, first person plural “我们(we)” or third person singular “你的孩子（your child）”. Among the 30 examples collected, an overwhelming number of action agents are the first person singular while the first person plural and the third person singular agent are rather rare.
The first-person singular and plural indicate that the subject in this construction is the agent of a behavior which the verb signifies. The first-person subject reveals that the action is the agent’s cognitive experience, and that “the speaker is expressing his own position, attitude, and feelings toward utterances while speaking” (Shen Jiaxuan, 2001:268-275). And the third-person subject reflects that the speaker has a close relationship with the audience, which is emotionally salient, in contrast to casual acquaintances (Traugott, 2010:17). On the one hand, both the first-person and third-person subjects demonstrate the speaker’s attitudes and feelings toward the event; on the other hand, the construction entails intersubjectivity between the speaker and audience. Traugott believes referred to intersubjectivity of speech as “invited inferences” in semanticization of pragmatics. And the “invited inferences” are chosen to “elide the complexities of communication in which the speaker/writer evokes implicatures and invites the addressee/ reader to infer them” (Traugott & Dasher, 2002:5). So the first-person and third-person subjects predicate that the construction “Wǒ Kĕnéng V Le Jiă N” does not convey the literal meaning but implicatures to be inferred from the specific context. Compare the following three examples,
- 我可能看了一个假春晚。(I might have watched a counterfeit Spring Festival Gala.)
（搜狐, Jan. 26th, 2017）
- 仅从“西方中心论”出发，我们可能读了假历史。(From the perspective of “western centralism”, we might have read the unreal history)
（凤凰网, Mar. 2nd , 2017）
- 你的孩子可能上了个“假学校”？(Your child might have been in a “fake school”?)
（《东方今报》Mar. 31st, 2017）
The subjects of these three examples are the first person singular “我(I)”, first person plural “我们(we)” or third person singular “你的孩子（your child）” respectively, they display the speakers/writers subjectivity which includes the speaker’s perspective, speaker’s affect and the epistemic modality. Example (1) expresses the speaker’s cognition and personal attitude towards the Spring Festival Gala, the adjective “假(fake)” intensifies his feeling per comparison of cognitive experiences, however, the epistemic modality “可能 (might)” mitigates the effect of his negative judgement on the Spring Festival Gala, and invites an inference of utterance implicature—the speaker is dismayed by the Spring Festival Gala. Similarly, Example (2) also expresses the speaker’s disappointment to his history course learning. As for example (3), the speaker airs his personal opinion on the school and proposes an indirect suggestion to his friend that he need to choose another school for his kid, the speaker begins his utterance with the third-person subject to show his personal concern for the kid rather than mere his own judgment on the school education. Furthermore, in all the three examples, the VPs “看了(have watched)”,读了(have read)” ,“上了(have been)” consist of a verb and the Chinese present perfect tense marker “Le”, and reinforce the speakers’ perspective on the current state of the actions completed. Thus, intersubjectivity between the speaker and addressee are entailed and ensured.
5.2 Productivity of the Construction “Wǒ Kĕnéng V Le Jiă N”
Since Construction Grammar share foundational ideas with generative approaches, it is believed that structures can be combined to create novel utterances which are likely to be new constructions if and only if their “form, meaning, or use is not strictly predictable from other aspects of the grammar” (Goldberg, 1995:13). Observations about the Chinese Construction “Wǒ Kĕnéng V Le Jiă N” help shape our understanding of the productivity of this network catchphrase, as well as the nature of VPs and NPs in the Chinese transitive construction.
The argument structure construction of proto transitive is V (X,Y), which indicate the direct link between the verbal form and a general interpretation of something acting on something else, as shown in the following example,
- 我可能用了个假Excel. (I might have used a fake software of Excel.)
Here, the transitive verb “use” entails an action of the agent on the patient, describing the actual experience and personal feeling of the subject.
Noticeably, the Chinese distinct model of transitive construction has the same argument structure construction in English, it can express non-prototypical semantically transitive scenes. A careful study of the 17 verbs in the collected data displays different types of predicates. To be specific, there are predicates of action, such as “学了假课文（have learned a wrong text）”, “过了一个假寒假（have spent an unreal winter holiday）”, “谈了一场假恋爱 (have fallen in a wrong love)”, “养了条假狗 (have raised a untrue dog pet)”; predicates of motion, such as “去了个假安徽（have travelled in unreal Anhui）”, “进了一个假公司（have entered a fake company）”; predicates of changing the states of fact, such as “嫁了个假诗人(have married a fake poet)”, “吃了假汤圆(have eaten fake food)”, “睡了个假觉 (have experienced an unreal sleep)”; predicate of possession, such as “有个假妈妈 (have a fake mother)”; predicates of facts, such as “是个假宝宝(have been an unreal baby)”. Among these five types of predicates, the first five types are canonical transitive predicates whereas the last two types are non-protopypical transitive predicates. It may be argued whether the Chinese link verb “是（am/is）” expresses transitivity or not, we believe that the link verb implies a hidden action by the implict subject (agent) who has given birth to the object (patient), thus expresses semantical transitivity indirectly. The peculiarity of Chinese transitive predicates manifested in the network construction is in accordance with the features of Chinese verbs: dynamic and static nature of action denoted by various types of verbs.
To conclude, the predicate verbs in the Chinese construction not only signify the agent of actions, but also justify the concreteness of the nouns (both animate and inanimate) followed the verbs in collocation. In addition, all these action verbs are based on the speakers’ cognition and denote their personal experiences which result from their “interactive experience” and “cognitive processing” of reality. As long as their experiences continue, the construction “Wǒ Kĕnéng V Le Jiă N” is predictable and productive with high frequency in Chinese.
5.3 Functions of the Construction “Wǒ Kĕnéng V Le Jiă N”
The Chinese scholar Lu Jianming (2013) classified Chinese constructions into “conventional construction” and “special construction”; the former is predictable, and the latter is unpredictable. In this sense, the construction “Wǒ Kĕnéng V Le Jiă N” is conventional. However, the discourse and pragmatic functions are slightly different from its formal semantic meaning.
In general, the transitive construction provides a general interpretation of the syntactic form, ie. something (the agent) acting on something else (the patient). For instance, in the English transitive construction “He sliced the bread”, the animate agent “He” cut the inanimate patient “the bread” with a sharp knife or something (the instrument), consequently evoking a causative event. It is the same case for the canonical Chinese transitive construction “我吃了东北菜 (I tasted the local snack food.)” which means the subject “我（I）” ate something special.
The Chinese modifier adjective “假(fake)” in the network catchphrase construction “Wǒ Kĕnéng V Le Jiă N” entails a special discourse function of comparison and contrast, conveying the different cognitive experiences of the agent, namely the true and false cognitive experiences of the action. In fact, Shen Jiaxuan (1995) stated that the whole construction “V + le + specifier + N” reinforced an event happened in the past but yet influences the present situation.
Take for example, the following construction, which mirrors a contrast between the present experience and that of the past.
- 我可能看了假画展. (I might have visited a fake art exhibition.)
（芭莎艺术，Jan. 16th, 2017）
The transitive form in example (5) means that the agent “我(I)” has seen different art exhibitions (at least two exhibitions), and the latest is such a disappointing experience and far from his expectation of an art exhibition. The implication of contrast is not an independent fact about the construction itself, but the intended meaning of the speaker/writer in the specific context. Example (5) implicates an indirect complaint and/or criticism of the art exhibition.
As far as the examples in the data collected are concerned, the contrastive cognitive experiences express the speaker’s discontent with the latest event of action, fulfilling such pragmatic functions as complaining in example (1) and (4), making indirect proposal in example (3), and humorous self-mocking in example (2). As long as certain action or event deviates from the communicator’s expectations, the number of the Chinese construction “Wǒ Kĕnéng V Le Jiă N” will grow, and the list of verbs will increase. For example, during the period of final exam in winter of 2017, college students who were dissatisfied with their performance on the test just attributed it to the course book, pen, exam paper, and even the university on network media with the following constructions.
- 我可能复习了假书。(I might have reviewed the false course book.)
- 我可能用了假笔。（I might have used a wrong pen.）
- 我可能上了假大学。（I might have gone to a fake university.
In these three examples, the college students reviewed the right course book and used the proper pen, but the score were so below their expectations that they began to spare themselves from blame. Therefore, they chose the network catchphrase construction to vent their dissatisfaction euphemistically and admitted reluctantly that they do not prepare enough for the examination.
In this study, the authors approached the Chinese network catchphrase “Wǒ Kĕnéng V Le Jiă N” from the perspective of Construction Grammar. The research reveals the peculiarity of its formal structure “Subj + VP +Obj”, which combines a first-person and third-person agent, a “VP” construction, a quantifier, and a NP. In the data collected, the first-person person singular subject is absolutely the majority, which indicates the speakers subjectivity and his interactive subjectivity with the actions involved. And action verbs account for the majority in this transitive construction, signifying the productivity of this construction. Furthermore, the construction convey a strong message of contrast between various cognitive experiences of the agent, expressing his dissatisfaction and complaint, putting forth a proposal or criticism about the event euphemistically. As long as the fact of event deviate from the speaker’s expectation, they will replicate the construction continuously and spread it widely.
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