LINGUIST List 14.2485

Thu Sep 18 2003

Review: Discourse Analysis: Beeching (2002)

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  1. Fay Wouk, Gender, Politeness and Pragmatic Particles in French

Message 1: Gender, Politeness and Pragmatic Particles in French

Date: Thu, 18 Sep 2003 11:40:31 +0000
From: Fay Wouk <>
Subject: Gender, Politeness and Pragmatic Particles in French

Beeching, Kate (2002) Gender, Politeness and Pragmatic Particles in
French. John Benjamins Publishing Company, ix+246pp, hardback ISBN
1-58811-256-X, $87.00, Pragmatics & Beyond New Series 104. 

Announced at

Fay Wouk, University of Auckland


This study looks at the use of four pragmatic particles c'est-�-dire,
enfin, hein, and quoi. The main goal of the study is to compare male
and female usage of these particles, and to test the claim that
women's speech is more polite than men's in the sense of being more
tentative. A secondary goal is to examine the distribution of the use
of pragmatic particles according to age and social stratification, as
represented by level of education. The book consists of 9 chapters,
three containing introductory material, 5 presenting the study and one
providing a conclusion.

Detailed description of contents

Chapter one provides a general introduction to the study, and a
detailed review of the literature on gender differences and
politeness. After a brief discussion of a possible biological basis
for male-female linguistic differences, Beeching turns to politeness,
and reviews some of the major approaches to politeness that have been
put forward. The first approach she describes is what she terms the
social norm view; this section is quite eclectic, as it covers
patterns in the use of profanity, some of the variationist literature
on gender differences in the frequency of standard and non-standard
forms of sociolinguistic variables, and some of the literature on
gender differences in conversational style, including interruptions,
gossip and shared vs. contested conversational floors. Following
sections cover the conversational maxim approach, based on the work of
Lakoff and Leech, Brown and Levinson's theory of positive and negative
face, Kerbrat-Orrecchioni's notion of face-enhancing acts, Fraser's
conversational contract approach, and Eelen's modus operandi view of
politeness, which makes a distinction between politeness 1 (everyday
notions about politeness) and politeness 2 (scientific theories about
universals of politeness). She then reviews many of the claims that
have been made about how differences in male-female linguistic
behavior (both in the use of standard and non-standard variants and in
conversational style) can be explained in terms of politeness. This
includes a detailed look at some of the work on the use of tags and
hedges as expressions of tentativeness. Beeching concludes, on the
basis of this review, that the general consensus is that women are
more polite than men.

Chapter two begins by reviewing attempts to define pragmatic
particles, and then presents the definition employed in this study,
which combines aspects of a number of previous definitions into a list
of nine characteristics. Beeching then discusses methodological issues
of appropriate level of detail in describing the function of a given
pragmatic particle, and briefly reviews some work on the use of
pragmatic particles in reformulations, and on gender and the use of
pragmatic particles.

Chapter 3 describes the way data were collected and transcribed for
this study. Beeching begins by reviewing the available corpora of
conversational French, and explaining her decision to collect her own
data rather than use existing corpora. This decision was based on
Beeching's desire for a corpus that was not limited to a single
geographic region within France, and the need for a representative
sample of age, social stratification and gender, in order to test the
effect of all three variables on the use of pragmatic particles. The
data were collected through sociolinguistic (or conversational)
interviews done by the author.

Chapter 4 is entitled Qualitative Analysis, and I expected it to
contain a qualitative analysis of the discourse functions of the four
pragmatic particles under investigation. However, that was not the
case. Instead, Beeching makes use of Lakoff's (1975) rules of
politeness (1. Formality, 2. Deference and 3. Camaraderie) to classify
her interviews in terms of style, and to identify the types of
speakers and topics that are associated with each style. Four styles
are described, one associated with each rule, and one combining rules
two and three. Puzzlingly, the rule one style is also associated with
loudspeaker announcements, and two interviews are identified as being
loudspeaker announcements, although no mention is made of this in the
methodology described in chapter 3. Based on this analysis, Beeching
concludes that pragmatic particles are avoided when speech is
carefully monitored, and when the speakers are maintaining social
distance or formality.

Chapters 5 through 8 are devoted to the four pragmatic particles that
are the focus of the study: c'est-�-dire (que), enfin, hein, and
quoi. Each chapter follows the same pattern; first the characteristics
of the particle, as it has been described in the literature, are
given, next the uses found in the corpus are outlined, then the
sociolinguistic stratification according to gender, education and age
is shown, with tables and bar graphs, and finally there is a
conclusion. The labelling of categories in the bar graphs was not done
in the most effective manner. In all the graphs, categories were
labelled numerically, and no key was given to translate the numbers
into the age, education and gender categories under
consideration. While it is relatively easy to translate mentally
between numbers and levels of education or age groups, this is not the
case for gender. This minor inconvenience detracts from the utility of
the graphs, and could easily have been avoided.

In all four cases, a wide range of functions are described in the
literature for the particle in question, but only a subset of those
uses are found in the data. I outline below Beeching's major findings
for each particle.

C'est-�-dire is used to introduce reformulations and explanations,
mainly what Beeching calls ''referential updatings of the preceding
text'' (p. 126). Its use shows little correlation with gender, and it
appears to be mainly a marker of higher levels of education, and thus
presumably of social class.

Enfin is used mainly as a corrective, either to restrict the scope of
a proposition, to introduce a hedge, or to downplay the strong
assertion of an opinion. There were no statistically significant
correlations with age, education or gender; however, Beeching argues
that there are tendencies toward gender asymmetrical differences in
function, with women using enfin more in its canonical sense of
summing up, and men using it more often to introduce explanations. She
explains this asymmetry in terms of women's greater ability to
structure discourse, due to biological differences in brain
organization between the sexes.

Hein is a tag, a request for agreement or approval, which seems to
have two major functions in the corpus, emphatic and discoursal
(creating cohesion). For the corpus as a whole, the only statistically
significant correlation was with age. However, when a sub-set of male
and female speakers of the same age was compared, women used
discoursal hein significantly more frequently than men did.

Quoi is used in the corpus mainly to mark inadequate or vague
expressions, sometimes accompanied by a reformulation. It is a
stigmatized form used mainly by male speakers with low levels of

Chapter 9 concludes the book by summarizing the main findings of the
first nine chapters, and then discussing their implications. Beeching
finds that women's speech is no more tentative than men's, and
explains the overall lack of significant gender differences in terms
of Brown's (1998) suggestion that gender differences reflect social
structure, and will be greater in societies where women's social
status is lower. Beeching suggests that her study indicates that in
France there is not much social asymmetry between the genders. She
then argues that the observed gender asymmetries in the use of
pragmatic particles relate less to politeness or social disparity than
to different biological aptitudes. She then affirms the usefulness of
Lakoff's 3 rules of politeness as a model for the analysis of
conversational style, in the way that she analyzed the style of
individual interviews in Chapter 4.

Critical evaluation

There were two things about this book that puzzled me. Firstly,
although Beeching's review of the literature on politeness shows that
she has read quite widely in the area, she bases her investigation on
the earliest work in the area of language and gender, Lakoff (1975),
which equates tentativeness with politeness. Yet much of the later
literature, which Beeching reviews, raise questions about making this
correlation, questions that Beeching ignores. For example, Holmes'
work on tags (1984) and you know (1986) clearly show that male uses
are more tentative, while female uses are more solidarity
oriented. Which group of speakers is then more polite? Further, in her
conclusion, Beeching suggests that her study indicates a lack of
gender inequity in French society, as she does not find the women
speaking more tentatively than the men. Yet the literature on gender
differences, language and power suggests a much more complex interplay
between gender, power and politeness. Indonesian, for example, shows a
distinct lack of gender differences in the use of pragmatic particles
(Wouk 1998). On the other hand, numerous studies have shown gender
differences in English. However, one would not wish to argue that
Indonesian society is more egalitarian than that of most English
speaking countries. A more careful, and critical, reading of the
literature on gender and politeness would have greatly benefited the

Secondly, for a study of the use of pragmatic particles which comprise
a wide range of functions, she chose to use as her database a set of
'conversational interviews' by a non-native speaker (herself). The
artificiality of this situation would necessarily restrict the
functions that might appear, and thus could have major impact on the
results of the study. This method of collecting data does have the
advantage that it compares the usage of the two sexes in the same
social situation, and certainly one principle that has emerged clearly
from the past almost 30 years of investigation into language and
gender is that language use reflects social role and social goals as
much as it does the gender of the speaker (Freed & Greendwood
1996). However, there are other methods of obtaining comparable data
that would produce a more natural, and thus more useful database, such
as asking chosen subjects to tape naturally occurring casual
interactions with close friends, as employed by Pilkington (1994,

In summary, I feel that the book, although it provides some
interesting information about the distribution and use of a number of
French pragmatic particles, does not live up to its promise, due to
limitations in the type of data used, and in the author's
conceptualization of politeness.


Brown, Penelope. 1998. 'How and why women are more polite: some
evidence from a Mayan Community'. In Coates, J. (ed.) Language and
Gender, pp. 81-99. Oxford: Blackwell.

Freed, Alice and Alice Greenwood. 1996. Women, men and type of talk:
What makes the difference? Language in Society 25: 1-26.

Lakoff, Robin. 1975. Language and Woman's Place. New York: Harper &

Pilkington, Jane. 1994. Women, Men and Gossip: What's the Story?
Unpublished MA thesis. Wellington: Victoria University.

Pilkington, Jane. 1998. 'Don't try to make out that I'm nice.' The
different strategies women and men use when gossiping. In Coates, J.
(ed.) Language and Gender, p. 254-69. Oxford: Blackwell.

WOUK, F. 1998 'Gender and the use of pragmatic particles in
Indonesian.' Journal of Sociolinguistics. 3 p. 194-220.


Fay Wouk has a Ph.D. in Linguistics from UCLA, and is a Senior
Lecturer in the Department of Applied Language Studies and Linguistics
at the University of Auckland. Her research interests include
discourse-functional grammar, conversation analysis and interactional
grammar, with a focus on languages of Indonesia.
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