The son (érzi) is not really a son: Generalization of address terms in Chinese online discourse

Kun Yang and Jing Chen


This paper aims to explore the generalization of address terms in online discourse, a largely unheeded pragmatic phenomenon. Taking the generalized Chinese kinship term “son” (érzi) as an example, it analyzes its referents and functions. The analysis was based on a sizable data set collected from WeChat, and interviews with some WeChat users. It demonstrates that the address term “son” (érzi) conveys its faithful meaning when referring to the male child of (a) parent(s) but virtual meaning when referring to the addresser’s friends, classmates or pets. It is also argued that the generalized use of the address term “son” (érzi) can function to enhance relationships, make jocular abuse, and express emotions. These functions suggest the users’ identity avoidance and relating needs in a virtual community. This study attempts to contribute to a better understanding of the virtualization of address terms and rapport management in online discourse.

Publication history
Table of contents

Address terms are words and expressions for addressing individuals or groups in communication (Alenizi 2019). They can be divided into two categories, namely, kin terms and social terms (Dickey 1997). Among them, kin terms refer to relatives, such as “mum”, “dad”, “son”, and “cousin”, whereas social terms refer to non-relatives, such as “friends”, “colleagues” or even “strangers” (Liu 2009; Sandel 2002). Interestingly, kin terms are frequently employed to address non-relatives in daily communication, which leads to the phenomenon of generalization (Chen and Ren 2020; Nakassis 2014; Ren and Chen 2019). Besides, most of the generalized kin terms in face-to-face interaction are age-based, and they may be borrowed from (1) antecedent kin terms, such as “aunt” or “uncle”, and (2) descendent kin terms, such as “younger brother” (Ren and Chen 2019). Notably, although there truly exist generalized kin terms which are borrowed from descendent kin terms, they are less frequently used, especially in face-to-face interaction (e.g., “son”). The reason might be that this would violate the politeness principle (Fleming and Slotta 2018) or Address Maxim (Gu 1990). However, the borrowing of these descendent kin terms is a common occurrence in online discourse. In addition, while the generalization of kinship terms in face-to-face communication is considered to assist in maintaining and enriching social interaction (Mavunga et al. 2014), whether it performs the same functions online remains unclear.

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