The Vague Use of Chinese Emotive Netspeak in Internet-mediated Communication
: A Cognitive Pragmatic Perspective

  • Chengying Gao

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


This thesis responds to a range of issues identified with current work in Chinese academia on the pragmatics of ‘Netspeak’, one facet of Internet-mediated communication. The principal two consist of a tendency to lean towards description rather than explanation (by focusing on form rather than use) and a tendency to overlook the emotive, non-propositional nature of much of what is communicated through Netspeak.

With regard to the first issue, this thesis adopts a modern, psychologically-plausible theory – relevance theory – and asks three questions within the context of the theory: (i) Why is the emotive Netspeak that Chinese Netizens use typically so vague? (ii) How do addressee/users successfully derive these intended interpretations, particularly when it comes to feelings, emotions or attitudes? And why are they sometimes unsuccessful? (iii) How are these communicative effects and relevance achieved? With regard to the second issue, the thesis goes on to argue that emotive Netspeak is best characterised by four, specific types of (largely) non-propositional variation, each of which are represented here by a typical case. These are: onomatopoeic Netspeak he1he1, Netspeak interjections O and N, Netspeak vocative qin1 and facial expression emoji.

The research materials consist of both synchronous and asynchronous data. Synchronous data, which makes up the majority of the research resources, were mainly collected from the author’s own WeChat timeline records. Asynchronous data were obtained from a variety of sources such as mainstream Chinese social media platforms, online established and publicly available Chinese corpora and a wide range of websites.

The study shows that the addresser/user’s vague use of emotive Netspeak reflects their intention to achieve optimal relevance. It also suggests that the feelings, emotions and attitudes conveyed via this vague use are typically non-propositional but are causally involved with the establishment of propositional implications including the establishing relational identity, communicating irony, achieving phatic effects and mitigating face threatening acts and so save Chinese face. These notions are also explicated in the thesis. The eventual quality of the interpretation and achievement of relevance are affected by the contextual constraints provided by the specific Internet-mediated scenario in which they occur. In addition, the thesis argues that procedural encoding guides the inferential process of the addressee/user’s understanding of the meaning conveyed by the emotive Netspeak.
Date of AwardDec 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Brighton
SupervisorTim Wharton (Supervisor)

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