LINGUIST List 21.2964

Sat Jul 17 2010

Review: Discourse Analysis; Historical Ling.: Culpeper & Kádár (2010)

Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons <>

        1.    Laura Callahan, Historical (Im)politeness

Message 1: Historical (Im)politeness
Date: 17-Jul-2010
From: Laura Callahan <>
Subject: Historical (Im)politeness
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EDITORS: Culpeper, Jonathan and Kádár, Dániel Z. TITLE: Historical (Im)politeness SERIES TITLE: Linguistic Insights. Studies in Language and Communication, Vol. 65 PUBLISHER: Peter Lang YEAR: 2010

Laura Callahan, The City College of the City University of New York


This volume contains nine chapters, including an introduction, seven papers, and epilogue, as well as an index of subjects, index of names, and notes on the contributors. References follow each chapter. The papers were originally presented at the 4th International Symposium on Linguistic Politeness, held in Budapest in July, 2008.


1. Historical (im)politeness: An introduction. Dániel Z. Kádár and Jonathan Culpeper. In addition to the usual summary of the volume's papers, Kádár and Culpeper provide a brief overview of the field, from the seminal work of Goffman (1955; 1967), Brown and Levinson (1978, 1987), and Leech (1983) to more recent, postmodern or discursive approaches such as Eelen (2001), Locher and Watts (2005), Mills (2003), and Watts (2003). The editors emphasize the newness of politeness research conducted from a diachronic rather than synchronic perspective, and highlight the value historical data has for testing contemporary theories and understanding changes to politeness practices.

2. Epistolary presentation rituals. Face-work, politeness and ritual display in Early Modern Dutch letter-writing. Marcel Bax. Bax first discusses criticisms of Brown and Levinson's (1987) model, turning to Watts (2003) to highlight the difference between facework and politeness: ''Ordinary face-work, denominated by Watts as politic behaviour, designates (non-)verbal behaviour 'which the participants construct as being appropriate to the ongoing social interaction' (2003: 276). Politeness and impoliteness, on the other hand, involve deviations from politic behaviour, in that they exhibit (linguistic) features which turn what would normally go unnoticed as politic behaviour into potential (im)politeness (cf. Watts 2003: 241)'' (p. 41). Hence an understanding of what is (im)polite requires knowledge of synchronic norms, to which the historical politeness researcher lacks direct access. Bax tackles this problem by turning to the correspondence manuals that were published in abundance in the 17th century. He concludes that premodern models of politic behavior were based on ritualized self-display, or ''ingroup-oriented discernment politeness'' (p. 77), and concludes that the current Western-style rationalized interaction is atypical in world cultures.

3. Changes in the meanings of politeness in eighteenth-century England: Discourse analysis and historical evidence. Susan Fitzmaurice. Fitzmaurice examines politeness in 18th century England via sources such as the Spectator daily newspaper and Lord Chesterfield's letters to his son, contrasting the Spectator's sincerity with Chesterfield's advice to use politeness as a means to camouflage less than altruistic intentions. Evidence that politeness customs of the times were seen as extreme and insincere comes from the parodies that were written, most famous of which is Jonathan Swift's 'A treatise on polite conversation'. In the conclusion, Fitzmaurice, like Bax, elucidates the difference between what is polite and what is merely politic. Both politeness and impoliteness stand out from politic conduct for their unexpectedness. But innovative practices can become conventional, ''so that what starts out as being polite may become politic behaviour. As discourse forms cease to be unexpected, idiosyncratic or remarkable through repeated and conventional use in predictable settings, so they become merely politic'' (p. 111).

4. Exploring the historical Chinese polite denigration/elevation phenomenon. Dániel Z. Kádár. Kádár highlights the distinction that has been made between discernment and volition, and provides convincing arguments that formulae thought to constitute deference are in reality ''closer to the politeness extreme on the deference-politeness scale'' (p. 141). Discernment is associated with ''honorifics and deferential formulae'' (p. 124) whose use is socially predetermined. Volition is associated with strategies selected for personal gain. Note that these oppositions -- which, as mentioned, Kádár characterizes as gradient rather than dichotomous -- correspond to the ritualized vs. rationalized behavior discussed by Bax, in Chapter 2. Unconventional forms instantiate politeness rather than deference. An E/D -- a rhetorical device in which the speaker humiliates himself and elevates the addressee, often in contrast to actual social status -- would seem to be the epitome of formulaic. But an E/D that requires a situated discourse context is not an honorific, because the latter would perform its function regardless of context.

5. Keeping up appearances. Facework in self- and addressee-oriented person reference. Minna Nevala. Nevala examines the role person reference plays in face and politeness in 17th and 18th century English correspondence, in relation to concepts of power and distance. Nominal and pronominal references oriented toward the addressee and toward the writer can save or threaten face, increase or decrease distance. For example, the use of an inclusive pronoun can in some cases produce positive connotations, showing that the speaker at least symbolically includes him or herself with the person or group referred to. Distance can be decreased or increased with the use of given names and nicknames vs. titles. Impersonal or third person forms can be used to mitigate directives. An illustrative example from Nevala's corpus is ''I am forced to give Mr. Robotham this trouble'' (p. 160). In this letter the writer addresses said Mr. Robotham with a third person reference, and later switches to the second person pronoun 'you'.

6. ''In curteisie was set ful muchel hir lest.'' Politeness in Middle English. Andreas H. Jucker. Like Kádár (Chapter 4), Jucker highlights the distinction between ''strategic or face-based politeness and discernment politeness'' (p. 176), but does not consider these to be mutually exclusive. In Anglo-Saxon society negative politeness lacked the central role it has today: in that ''hierarchical society ... the face wants of the individual played only a marginal role'' (p. 179). Requests were likely to be structured as directive performatives or obligation statements. Jucker maintains that Middle English provided a transition between what went before -- the Old English system based on kinship and feudal loyalty and incipient Christian values -- and what followed -- the Early Modern English politeness system, in which face strategies became more important. The Canterbury Tales and some 15th century private correspondence furnish the data, and Jucker shows how Chaucer's characters alternate between formal and familiar pronominal address ''on the basis of their interactional status'' (p. 193).

7. Politeness and style in The Betrothed (I Promessi Sposi, 1840), an Italian novel by Alessandro Manzoni. Annick Paternoster. Using dialogue in the novel of her paper's title, Paternoster finds clear signs of the rebellion against rigid, hierarchical styles that had come to be considered outmoded and inappropriate by the early 19th century. Examining represented conversations among upper class speakers, between upper and lower class, and among lower class speakers, she finds that the novel's higher class characters are subject to the narrator's ''evaluative comments of 'politeness' as hollow formality'' (p. 208). Such comments never occur in collocation with the lower class characters' dialogue. Paternoster concludes that ''[w]hen Manzoni gives his readers an interaction model of Christian politeness, it is always understood that this is a viable, realistic option, [much more desirable than] the alternative, a return to hollow behavioural rules based on honour and precedence'' (p. 228).

8. The role of power and solidarity in politeness theory: The case of Golden Age Spanish. Jeremy King. King examines the relevance that the model of power and solidarity has for address patterns in the Spanish Golden Age. He uses two literary genres -- comedias and entremeses -- respectively representative of speakers from the upper and lower classes. King notes cases in which context causes a shift in pronoun use, for example, when two characters use reciprocal 'tú' in private and change to reciprocal 'vos' in public. He criticizes Brown and Gilman's (1960) model for not taking context more into account, as well as for making broad generalizations about address patterns between spouses, parents and children, and masters and servants. King shows pronoun usage to be dependent on social class in all three of these relationships. Finally, he contends that discernment rather than volition was more important in this time period, thus offering another argument against the ''traditional division of Eastern vs. Western languages'' (p. 260; see also chapters 2, 4, and 6).

9. Epilogue. Jim O'Driscoll. O'Driscoll notes what factors studies of historical and cross-cultural politeness have in common and where they diverge. He then surveys the similarities and differences between this volume's seven papers with respect to the type of data used, politeness theory perspective, formal analytical focus, and time and place of focus. Finally, he considers key topics that have emerged in this collection. One of these is the issue of what is politic vs. polite, and O'Driscoll maintains that this distinction is contingent, and that neither term ''refer[s] to the objective nature of an act but only to its interpretation by participants'' (p. 272). He hypothesizes that the diachronic change from self- to other-oriented facework may be due in part to the modern emergence of privacy, a concept little known in past centuries, a time during which a letter might be written by someone other than its actual author and read by several people besides its intended recipient. With their audience thus reduced, modern letter-writers have become ''less like performers, with all the consequences for their faces which that role implies, and more like confidants'' (p. 285).


Historical (Im)politeness will be a valuable resource for students and researchers in pragmatics, accessible to scholars already working on historical politeness and to those who wish to learn more about this lesser known discipline. Each author painstakingly sets the scene for the analysis of his or her corpus with a careful review of other sources, both modern ones as well as some that were concurrent with the works examined.

In addition, editors Culpeper and Kádár call for researchers to create new approaches to politeness or to develop existing theories, and the papers in this volume attest to the authors' success in meeting that challenge. Each one begins with a critical examination of theoretical considerations, and although the majority examine a different place and time, there are some common lines of argument. The most prominent of these is the triple dichotomy of discernment vs. volition, ritual vs. rationalized, and politic vs. (im)polite. Many of the authors agree that these distinctions are not mutually exclusive but rather on a continuum. O'Driscoll's epilogue is very useful for its review and expansion of the ideas presented in the papers.

Finally, although one now and then gets the initial impression that older politeness models are being censored simply because they are not the most recent, or are being taken out of context, upon closer examination it becomes clear that the authors have engaged in very careful and constructive critiques, from which readers will be able to conceive of ideas for their own work.


Brown, P. and Levinson, S. (1978). Universals in language usage: Politeness phenomena. In E. N. Goody, ed. Questions and Politeness: Strategies in Social Interaction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 56-311.

Brown, P. and Levinson, S. (1987). Politeness. Some Universals in Language Usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Brown, R. and Gilman, A. (1960). The pronouns of power and solidarity. In T. A. Sebok, ed. Style in Language. Cambridge: MIT Press. 253-277.

Eelen, G. (2001). A Critique of Politeness Theories. Manchester/ Northampton: St. Jerome Publishing.

Goffman, E. (1955). On face-work: An analysis of ritual elements in social interaction. Psychiatry: Journal of Interpersonal Relations. 18(3): 213-231.

Goffman, E. (1967). Interactional Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Behaviour. New York: Anchor Books.

Leech, G. (1983). Principles of Pragmatics. London/ New York: Longman.

Locher, M. A. and Watts, R. J. (2005). Politeness theory and relational work. Journal of Politeness Research. 1(1): 9-33.

Mills, S. (2003). Gender and Politeness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Watts, R. J. (2003). Politeness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Laura Callahan is Associate Professor of Hispanic Linguistics at the City College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY), and Research Fellow at the Research Institute for the Study of Language in Urban Society (RISLUS), Graduate Center, CUNY. Her most recent publication is 'Speaking with (dis)respect: A study of reactions to Mock Spanish' (forthcoming, Language and Intercultural Communication).

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