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Review of  Politeness and Face in Caribbean Creoles

Reviewer: Angela Bartens
Book Title: Politeness and Face in Caribbean Creoles
Book Author: Susanne Mühleisen Bettina Migge
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Subject Language(s): Bajan
Creole English, Guyanese
Creole English, Jamaican
Pidgin, Nigerian
Creole English, Trinidadian
Creole French, Saint Lucian
Creole French, Guadeloupean
Issue Number: 17.2320

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AUTHOR: Mühleisen, Susanne and Bettina Migge (eds.)
TITLE: Politeness and Face in Caribbean Creoles
SERIES: Varieties of English Around the World G34
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins YEAR: 2005

REVIEWER: Angela Bartens, Department of Romance Languages, University of

There is a strong tradition of research on politeness strategies and
specifically face enhancement within both Sociolinguistics and
Anthropological Linguistics based on the foundations of the subfield laid
by Austin, Searle, Grice and especially Brown and Levinson in the 1960s and
1970s. Caribbean Creole-speaking communities have nevertheless been very
little studied for such socio-pragmatic issues as politeness practices and
the construction and maintenance of personhood. The collection of papers
under review aims at filling this gap.


In the introductory chapter (''Politeness and face in Caribbean Creoles: An
overview,'' pp. 1-19), the editors of the volume introduce the field of
study and the few previous studies and then briefly summarize the
individual papers. Thereafter, the collection is divided into three parts.

Part I, Performing rudeness and face maintenance, starts with Peter Snow’s
paper on ''The use of 'bad' language as a politeness strategy in a
Panamanian Creole village'' (pp. 23-43). In a corpus of 30 hours of
uncensored spontaneous speech produced by a group of men drinking beer and
talking, Snow looked at the use of the expressions 'mi fok' and 'mi ras'
(both glossed as 'fuck me') and 'yu fok' and 'yu ras' ('fuck you') as
displays of face-saving and face-threatening assessments, respectively.
Positive assessments signal astonishment and preserve the face of the
storyteller whereas negative assessments signal disgust with the
storyteller's description and therefore threaten to disrupt social order by
threatening the storyteller's face. Snow argues that these instances of
so-called ''bad language'' are essential in the participatory construction of
the narrative event in the community in question and may indeed be
interpreted positively.

Nicholas Faraclas, Lourdes Gonzalez, Migdalia Medina and Wendell Villanueva
Reyes make a comparison of ritualized insults in three speech communities:
speakers of AAVE, Nigerian Pidgin, and Greek (''Ritualized insults and the
African diaspora: Sounding in African American Vernacular English and
Wording in Nigerian Pidgin,'' pp. 45-72). They rigorously compare the
general characteristics, parameters and interactional properties regulating
the exchange as well as the social function and the rules that govern the
production, evaluation, and interpretation of ritual insults in the three
communities in question and arrive at the conclusion that African American
Sounding neatly parallels Nigerian Pidgin Wording, probably because both
speech communities belong to a wider Afro-American English-lexifier Creole
community while Turkish verbal dueling has arisen within a different
tradition covering the Mediterranean as well as areas of the Americas with
heavy Southern European influence. Examples of the authors' field data from
Nigerian Pidgin are given in an appendix and nicely illustrate the
complexity of the speech events in which Wording occurs.

Esther Figueroa uses the Caribbean and Afro-American interactional resource
Kiss Teeth (also Suck-Teeth, Chups, Cho, etc.) to probe into social and
communication models based on the notions of shared norms and cooperation
and thence social and linguistic theory in general (''Rude sounds: Kiss
Teeth and negotiation of the public sphere,'' pp. 73-99). She also argues
against a rationalist model of interaction and communication as presented
e.g. by Brown and Levinson (1978) as universal by demonstrating that
irrational behavior is actually valued in Caribbean discourse, especially
when dealing with the expression of belief systems. She finds that contrary
to previous analyses, Kiss Teeth is used not only to resist but also in
order to reproduce normative discourse and prevailing social order.

In the last paper of this section (''Faiya-bon: The socio-pragmatics of
homophobia in Jamaican (Dancehall) culture,'' pp. 101-118), Joseph
Farquharson examines faiya-bon or homophobic speech acts by which Jamaican
Dancehall deejays construct a positive (heterosexual and masculine) face
for themselves while threatening and in fact violating both the positive
and the negative face of homosexual listeners. He shows that these speech
acts have both illocutionary and perlocutionary force and are couched in a
generally homophobic culture, a fact which finds another expression in the
inventory of derogatory terms for designating a homosexual male.

Part II of the volume deals with Face attention and the public and private
self. In the first paper (''Greeting and social change,'' pp. 121-144),
Bettina Migge first gives a detailed description of greeting practices in
traditional Eastern Maroon communities in Suriname and French Guyana and
then moves on to consider the changes brought about by recent social
transformations. Although traditional Eastern Maroon greetings which
reflect the valorization of social hierarchies and negative face are
increasingly being replaced by more direct greetings generally attributed
to the coastal, non-maroon Afro-Surinamese, especially in urban settings
and among younger speakers, some of the respect-inducing properties can be
transferred to the latter type of greetings while completely new greeting
practices emerge among those who find the less traditional greeting
practices too traditional, most importantly young male speakers. Although
the paper is invaluable for its descriptive detail, there are unfortunately
some cases of repetition, e.g. on pp. 138 and 139, and a map of the region
would have been useful for those not familiar with geographic locations

Jack Sidnell's paper (''Advice in an Indo-Guyanese village and the
interactional organization of uncertainty,'' pp. 145-168) draws on
techniques of Conversation Analysis to show how the expertise and
uncertainty of individuals are jointly constructed by the participants of a
conversation. Consequently, the paper presents a critique of Goffman's
principal theoretical and analytical foundations, including face, which
treat the individual as the unit of analysis.

Janina Fenigsen discusses the relationship between register choice and
face-work within greeting practices in a Barbadian Creole community
(Meaningful routines: Meaning-making and the face value of Barbadian
greetings, pp. 169- 194). In this community, greeting acts constitute an
interactional zone for negotiating social relations and identities where
the choice of Creole or Standard English (or, more accurately, what is
metalinguistically attributed to either variety!) is essential for creating
and reaffirming social distance and particular identities.

In ''Forms of address in English-lexicon Creoles: The presentation of selves
and others in the Caribbean context'' (pp. 195-223), Susanne Mühleisen
focuses on two issues: Afro-Caribbean nominal address patterns and their
origin and the singular/plural distinction of second person pronouns in
Caribbean English-lexifier Creoles. The first part is based on a
comprehensive survey of historical sources. The second part is even more
important for the relative novelty of its findings: Mühleisen shows that
neither is the plural form used for obligatory plural marking nor is it
used as a honorific as in many European languages. Instead, the plural form
is used to emphasize the existence of plural addressees or to create a
distance between the speaker and the addressees. To either single or
multiple addressees, the plural form is used as a negative politeness
strategy to express vagueness or indirectness when a speech act could be
otherwise interpreted as face-threatening.

The third part of the collection, Socialization and face development,
consists of two papers. '''May I have the bilna?' The development of
face-saving in young Trinidadian children'' (pp. 227-254) by Valerie Youssef
discusses the emergence of face concerns from the pre-linguistic stage. The
author argues that attention to face needs is a primary driver in the
socialization process and the language acquisition process which is part of
it. As code-mixing currently constitutes the unmarked norm of the
Trinidadian speech community, the attention to face manifests itself
through code-mixing in the children studied by Youssef.

Finally, Alex Louise Tessonneau deals with the acquisition and changing
structure of greeting exchanges in the Guadeloupean speech community both
on the island and in the community which has migrated to France in her
contribution ''Learning respect in Guadeloupe: Greeting and politeness
rituals'' (pp. 255-282). She notes that while Guadeloupean society has
changed rapidly, the parameters of respectful greeting practices in which
language choice plays a prominent role have essentially remained in place.
Note that this is the only paper dealing with a speech community where the
Creole is not English-lexified.

The carefully edited volume also contains a Table of contents (pp. v-vi),
Acknowledgments (p. vii), Notes on contributors (pp. 283-285), a Name index
(pp. 287-289), and a Subject index (pp. 291-293).


All papers are of a very high quality and all, except for one, are based on
fieldwork done in the respective community. This seems a precondition in
the case of most topics dealing with politeness phenomena and face-work in
the Caribbean communities, as these issues have been so little studied in
them. It is the pioneering nature of the collection and the wide variety of
topics and theoretical frameworks which makes the collection so
outstanding. I hope and believe it will inspire more creolists to work in
this vein in the future.


Brown, Penelope & Stephen Levinson (1978): Universals of language usage:
Politeness phenomena. In: E. Goody (ed.): Questions and Politeness
Strategies in Social Interaction (pp. 56-311). Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.

Angela Bartens is Docent of Iberoromance Philology in the Department of
Romance Languages at the University of Helsinki. She's also the lead on a
three-year research project dealing with language policy, educational
issues and creole language description in Nicaragua and Guatemala, funded
by the Finnish Academy. Her research interests include language contact
(including pidgins and creoles), sociolinguistics, and applied
sociolinguistics (including language policy and language planning). She has
done fieldwork on the English-lexifier Creole of San Andrés and Old
Providence, Colombia.