LINGUIST List 24.3309

Mon Aug 19 2013

Review: Historical Linguistics; Pragmatics; Sociolinguistics: Kádár & Bax (2012)

Editor for this issue: Rajiv Rao <>

Date: 05-Jun-2013
From: Emilia Slavova <>
Subject: Understanding Historical (Im)Politeness
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Book announced at

EDITOR: Marcel Bax
EDITOR: Dániel Zoltan Kádár
TITLE: Understanding Historical (Im)Politeness
SUBTITLE: Relational linguistic practice over time and across cultures
SERIES TITLE: Benjamins Current Topics 41
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2012

REVIEWER: Emilia Kirilova Slavova, University of Sofia


Exploring politeness (and its opposite, impoliteness) in a historical perspective is an ambitious and difficult task. While synchronic analysis of present-day discourse can rely on vast corpora of spoken language, searching for diachronic data on how im/politeness was applied and evaluated is much harder, which explains the scarcity of material on this aspect of politeness.

This volume, which was originally published as a special issue of the Journal of Historical Pragmatics (2011), acknowledges the importance of the topic and sheds light on a wide range of historical periods: six of the articles focus on different periods in the English language, from Old English to nineteenth-century English; three articles treat other cultures, i.e., Turkish versus Chinese, French, and American; and one article goes back to the roots of human civilization and the appearance of homo erectus. In sum, the volume comprises an introductory article and ten articles on politeness in a historical perspective, which will be briefly summarized below.


The Introduction, by Marcel Bax and Dániel Z. Kádár, “The historical understanding of historical (im)politeness”, sets the groundwork for the historical sociopragmatic approach to the topic, dwelling on a “thick” description of past practices and on their understanding of ‘interpretive anthropology’ (p. 4) , while seeking interpretations of practices and their meaning rather than facts and laws.

The first article, “‘Face’ across historical cultures: A comparative study of Turkish and Chinese”, by Şükriye Ruhi and Dániel Z. Kádár, looks at usages of the concept of ‘face’ in Turkish and Chinese novels from the turn of the twentieth century. Both in Turkey and China, this was a period of intensified modernization, running in parallel with westernization; the old social order, hierarchies and values were questioned and contested, which gives a context for various usages of the concept of ‘face’ in the sources surveyed. While the article states that in both sets of novels face is used a lot to convey interpersonal, emotional or other meanings, the statistics given reveal that the total usages in the Chinese sources heavily outnumber those in the Turkish ones. In both cultures, face is related to ‘rights and obligations’, normative values and behavioral expectations, whose (un)fulfillment brings either honor or shame. However, the observation is made that the concept of face in the Turkish sources is more often associated with relational management, while in the Chinese sources it symbolizes the social identity and social worth of the person in question. Another feature observed in the Chinese sources is metapragmatic discourse on face; as the authors observe, the Chinese notion of face has been elaborated since antiquity, and is seen by some other authors as “the quintessence of the Chinese spirit” (p. 42). Being the only paper in the volume which compares historical (im)politeness cross-culturally, the article concludes by posing the very relevant question of how far face is entrenched in politeness phenomena in different historical periods across cultures. Research in this direction could serve to deconstruct certain stereotypes, the authors claim.

In their article “Nineteenth-century English politeness: Negative politeness, conventional indirect requests and the rise of the individual self”, Jonathan Culpeper and Jane Demmen explore the notion of negative face, negative politeness, their universality and their culture-specificity in English culture. The authors acknowledge that Brown and Levinson’s work (1978) has greatly contributed to making the concept of face and negative politeness into almost universal categories used in studies of politeness; however, they argue that Brown and Levinson’s individualistic emphasis on the notion of politeness is not simply influenced by the culture-specific importance of politeness in British culture, but that this culture-specific notion is also time-specific, grounded largely in the Victorian period, and associated with large-scale industrialization, urbanization, migration and a drastic change in ideological beliefs about the self and society. Through a historical overview starting from the medieval period, Culpepper and Demmen demonstrate that the concepts of the individual as separate from the larger community, of privacy, and of non-imposition politeness developed at a particular time in British history; this development ran in parallel with the development of the Protestant ethic and the nineteenth-century concepts of individualism, self-help, and political and economic liberalism. As a result, the ideal of the well-mannered English gentleman, as well as an emphasis on self-control, privacy and distancing behaviour (the basis of negative politeness) were developed. The historical overview is followed by a corpus study researching the appearance of conventional indirect requests in English in the nineteenth century (namely, “can you/could you” constructions). These expressions are seen as typical of British negative politeness, so their appearance in that particular period is related to the socio-historical context discussed in the previous part.

““[T]his most unnecessary, unjust, and disgraceful war”: Attacks on the Madison Administration in Federalist newspapers during the War of 1812”, by Juhani Rudanko, focuses on face-threatening comments in newspaper articles from the early nineteenth century in the USA. After providing a detailed historical context, Rudanko provides a theme-based analysis of the types of insults, face threats and impoliteness encountered in the articles under analysis, and distinction is made between unmarked impoliteness and aggravated impoliteness. Many of the articles analysed exhibit aggravated impoliteness; Madison is accused of not telling the truth, of poor conduct in the war and of “insanity”, and is requested to resign from his position. The analysis seems to confirm previous observations that no president has come under such harsh personal criticisms and abuse before. It appears that President Madison’s conduct in this situation established a precedent of tolerance of free speech, even during times of war (when civil rights are usually compromised), and as such, contributed to the spirit of openness and accountability characterizing American political culture even today. The study invites a cross-cultural comparison of the ways dissent is articulated under different governments in times of conflict and war.

In “A socio-cognitive approach to historical politeness”, Richard J. Watts begins with a discussion of the popular “Politeness theory” in Brown and Levinson’s (1978) model, and questions the assumption that there is only one, universally accepted theoretical model. He also refers to Eelen’s (2001) discussion of “politeness theories” and the observation that none of them offers a fully adequate analysis of the phenomenon of politeness. As an alternative, Watts refers to the useful distinction between first-order and second-order theories of politeness (Watts, Ide and Ehlich, 1992) and focuses on the development of the notion of politeness as a first-order term in eighteenth-century popular discourse. Describing his approach as ‘socio-cognitive’, Watts argues that politeness is “an extremely complex, fluid, changing conceptual blend that cannot be pinned down within the framework of objectivist theory-making” (p. 107). The article then explores the development of the ideology of “politeness” in the eighteenth century and its relationship to non-linguistic values (e.g. “decorum”, “grace”, “beauty”, “symmetry” and “order”), on the one hand, and to language and the movement for language purity, standardization and prescriptivism, on the other. The result is “an elitist social discourse”, related to the process of “gentrification”, in which politeness is seen as a marker of class distinction rather than what recent objectivist theories of politeness claim it is. In conclusion, Watts claims that second-order, linguistic conceptualizations of politeness should better refer to politic behavior, which is a more appropriate term than “politeness”.

A similar concern about the problematic use of the second-order term “politeness” is expressed in Kerbrat-Orecchioni’s article, entitled “From good manners to facework: Politeness variations and constants in France, from the classic age to today”. Asserting that the face-saving view remains, in her opinion, “the most productive model for describing politeness phenomena in general” (p. 132), she proposes a “revised Brown and Levinson model” (p. 133). In it, speech acts are seen as either face-threatening or face-flattering, or even a combination of the two. This leads to a new classification of categories: politeness (marked by the existence of face-threatening act softeners or face-flattering acts); overpoliteness (characterized by markers exceeding expected social norms); non-politeness (no politeness markers, neutral, politic); impoliteness (“abnormal” absence of an expected politeness marker); and polirudeness (an additional, complex category, combining politeness and rudeness). This model is then applied to diachronic variation, as observed in French seventeenth-century literature sources (the period in which France was considered the European cultural centre of manners and etiquette). In these sources, divergent conceptions of politeness can be found, which are summarized in the following oppositions: “politeness of the code” versus “politeness of the heart”; politeness seen as artificial versus naturally occurring behaviour; politeness as idealistic versus pragmatic behaviour; and finally, politeness seen as the alternative to sincerity (p. 140). The paper concludes with the strong universalistic statement that general politeness principles are unchanging because of the universal face-wants of people across different times and cultures.

““Tumbled into the dirt”: Wit and incivility in early modern England”, by Phil Withington, considers the notion of “wit” and its relation to civility, incivility and impoliteness in early modern England. The paper analyses texts such as Thomas Hobbes’s ‘Leviathan’ and its emphasis on the notion of “wit” as an umbrella term for intellectual virtues. A quantitative analysis of printed title pages between 1500 and 1700 shows that in spite of the growing popularity of the notion of “civility”, “wit” was more prominent than “civility” in print culture. Withington opposes the notions of “civility” and “anti-civility”, defined as following libertine codes of conduct, and the transgression of certain forms of civility, respectively. “Wit”, speaking one’s mind, and “tumbling into the dirt” are presented as a reaction to Puritanism and the absence of a courtly model of behaviour; they were ritualized forms of aggression and markers of distinction. Another interesting aspect of “wit” in early modern England was associated with gender stereotypes. While libertine behaviour and “wit” were accepted as part of men’s behaviour, the inferior position of women in society and the expectations of them to preserve their chastity more or less equated “wit” in women with promiscuity and prostitution. Finally, a quantitative analysis of references to “wit” in the entire corpus of Shakespeare’s works is carried out, illustrating that the notion of “wit” and its derivatives were used in all but one of Shakespeare’s plays and in some 332 speeches (compared to 57 uses of “civil”/”civility”). The article concludes with an emphasis on the importance of the notion of wit alongside the notion of civility in the early modern period marked by Renaissance humanism.

In “Positive and negative face as descriptive categories in the history of English”, Andreas H. Jucker explores Brown and Levinson’s notion of face as a universal politeness category and its relevance to the study of politeness in the English language within a historical context. The study spans over a long historical period (from Anglo-Saxon England to the present day) and uses several other researchers’ findings, along with the author’s own research, in order to provide a coherent analysis of the development of the notion of negative face, and the closely related notion of negative politeness, over time. It appears (and Jucker is quite tentative in his conclusions, due to the limited data available) that in Anglo-Saxon times, freedom from imposition and appreciation from others (the essence of negative and positive face needs, respectively) were not a high priority; instead, kinship, loyalty to one’s network and recognition of one’s place in society were central values. With the introduction of Christianity, the new values of humilitas and caritas were added to earlier tribal values. The analysis of address terms used in Old English (OE) demonstrates that they fulfilled the function of deference politeness rather than non-imposition politeness. Furthermore, a look at directives further supports the hypothesis that face-threatening performatives were quite common, while indirect strategies were unavailable, which further suggests that notions of positive and negative face are not particularly helpful for a pragmatic analysis of OE. In Middle English (ME), the term courtesie (‘courteous behaviour’) was increasingly used to describe the behaviour of the aristocracy. Of particular interest in this period is the introduction of the 2nd person polite plural “ye” in the 13th century, which was first used as the marked (polite) term, and later, in the 17th century, as the unmarked term, making the previous singular form “thou” the marked term, signifying impoliteness (insult). An analysis of terms of address in Shakespeare’s plays suggests that Early Modern English (EME) was probably characterized by predominant positive politeness strategies and a concern for positive face. An examination of directives in present-day British English shows that the notion of ‘face’ is quite useful as a descriptive concept, and that negative politeness, off-record strategies and non-conventional indirectness have come to dominate present-day discourse. As a result of this historical overview of politeness and the notion of face in the English language, Jucker concludes that negative and positive politeness, and the respective notions of negative and positive face, may be useful in describing EME and present-day English, but cannot be applied as all-inclusive categories for the description of politeness across time and space.

“Insults, violence, and the meaning of lytegian in the Old English Battle of Maldon”, by Valentine A. Pakis, begins with the close link between speech and “doing things” in OE texts. This leads to an exploration of insults in medieval literature, where they function as stylized linguistic violence, challenging the honor and the face of the interlocutor. Looking at OE sources such as ‘Beowulf’ and the “Battle of Maldon’, Pakis finds multiple examples of “flyting” (ritual insults) as a form of verbal dueling in place of actual violence, or as a build-up to it. Ritual insults are then addressed from an ethological perspective, but the explanation of flyting as a purely symbolic enactment of power struggles is questioned by evidence showing that many ceremonialized insults end in real battles and death; as such, an alternative explanation related to the Freudian death drive is offered. On the basis of the analysis of insults and physical violence, Pakis suggests a new interpretation of the OE verb “lytegian” in the ‘Battle of Maldon’: ‘to slander, jeer, insult’ rather than ‘to lie, to use guile’, as previously understood, with important implications for understanding the rationale for the behaviour of Byrthnoth and his fatal choice. The paper concludes with the apt observation that “honor cannot exist without effrontery and […] heroes are never made in polite company” (p. 217); this is a reminder that many situations in life are not governed by politeness, but rather by its opposite force.

Another paper dealing with OE is Thomas Kohnen’s “Understanding Anglo-Saxon “politeness”: Directive constructions with “ic wille / ic wolde”. Kohnen starts his paper from the premise that strategic, face-oriented behaviour in the sense of present-day pragmatic theories of politeness is hard to find in a world that relies on mutual obligation and kin loyalty combined with the Christian values of caritas (‘compassion’, ‘love’), humilitas (‘humility’, ‘modesty’) and obedientia (‘obedience’, ‘compliance’). Basing his analysis of directive speech acts on evidence found in the ‘Dictionary of Old English Corpus’, Kohnen reveals a distinct distribution of the two terms: the “ic wolde” is largely related to translations from Latin and could be interpreted as strategies of negative politeness; “ic wille”, on the other hand, cannot be traced to Latin originals and is mostly found in directives between people of different power status (e.g. a man and his lord), where obligation and obedience define behaviour, and concepts of politeness or face-saving do not apply. All this confirms Kohnen’s previously formulated hypothesis about Anglo-Saxon society as a world “beyond politeness” (p. 248).

“An evolutionary take on (im)politeness: Three broad developments in the marking out of socio-proxemic space”, by Marcel Bax, takes the reader back to pre-historic times, 1.5 million years ago, and poses the question of whether homo ergaster (the predecessor of homo erectus) might have been a polite or an impolite being. The article argues that while impoliteness is basically a natural thing, politeness is a cultural phenomenon, and that in spite of the etymological link between the two words, they are of very different natures. And while impoliteness seems to be part of natural animal and early hominid behaviour (seen in rival behaviour, ritual superiority display, intimidation and conflict resolution), its opposite, politeness, is seen as a later evolving element of culture. However, while the transmission of cultural forms and politeness is greatly facilitated by the development of language, it appears that language has also served as the medium for transmitting impolite messages; this is seen through a shift from behavioral/ performative to codal/verbal displays of power and superiority and the ritual/mimetic enactment of conflict. Interestingly, following this train of thought, Bax concludes that early modern negative politeness evolved as the counterpart of such ritual superiority display; it was a ritual enactment of deferential and submissive behaviour, serving at the same time as a marker of the refinement and culture of the performer. The other shift is from a predominantly collective to a predominantly individualistic perspective in the early modern period in Western Europe. The third shift is from a focus on self-face to a focus on other-face, as a result of the spread of humanism and urbanization.


The edited volume “Understanding Historical (Im)Politeness” is a substantial contribution to the now rapidly growing body of research in the field, exploring the less travelled road of diachronic pragmatic research on (im)politeness. . It follows the hugely influential edited volume ‘Politeness in Language: Studies in its History, Theory and Practice’ (Watts et al., 1992), reissued with an updated Introduction in 2005, as well as another seminal volume, ‘Historical Impoliteness’ (Culpepper & Kádár, 2010). There have been other publications on impoliteness across cultures recently (e.g. Kádár 2007; Bousfield & Locher 2008; Ige 2011; Haugh 2011; Culpeper 2011; Jucker 2011), however, the current volume seems to be the first one to explore both politeness and impoliteness from a historical perspective.

The volume comprises articles from distinguished researchers and academics working on politeness, impoliteness, and related areas from different theoretical and methodological perspectives. The articles are arranged in reverse chronological order, starting from the 19th century and going back in time to homo ergaster. While there are certain merits in gradually going back in time, I believe that a chronological arrangement would have been more appropriate, notably because the last article, by Bax, poses a number of important theoretical questions (e.g. about the very nature of politeness and impoliteness and their different genesis), which could have enriched the reading of the remaining articles.

A key issue addressed in several of the articles is the notion of “face” and the extent to which it is equivalent to politeness (and respectively, impoliteness). This question is particularly important, as face is a basic notion in Brown and Levinson’s (1978) Politeness Theory, where politeness is interpreted as encompassing a number of strategies for the mitigation of face-threat. This theory is still dominant in research on politeness and impoliteness (as seen in in Kebrat-Orecchoni’s article, for example).

However, this universalistic view of politeness and the relationship between “face” and “politeness” have been questioned by other researchers (e.g. Jucker, Watts). As Watts argues, “…“politeness” is, in effect, an extremely complex, fluid, changing conceptual blend that cannot be pinned down within the framework of objectivist theory-making” (p. 107). Instead, he proposes a socio-cognitive approach in which “politeness” is seen as a complex frame based on social experiences and embedded in long-term memory. This, of course, is a serious departure from the objectivist model proposed by Brown and Levinson and one that is particularly relevant for future research.

By questioning the second-order term “politeness” (as used in theoretical research, in contrast to the lay meaning of the term) and exploring the meaning of politeness as a first-order term in eighteenth-century public discourse, Watts demonstrates how the ideology of “politeness”, alongside the ideology of standardization, was used to transform public attitudes and to prescribe linguistic and behaviour practices.

While, as Watts argues, the lexeme “politeness” has been taken from English and used as a term in the “theory of politeness”, it is interesting to note that another key word, “face”, is a loan word from Chinese which is documented as having entered the English language in the late nineteenth century. A more detailed analysis could give further insights into the origin and the multitude of nuances of the term in Chinese culture, as well as its adoption and appropriation in Western culture and in theoretical writings of the twentieth century (see article on “Face” in Wikipedia for a number of interesting observations and relevant quotes).

From a methodological point of view, the articles examine a range of primary sources that are mostly literary, such as novels, plays, and ballads, but also newspaper articles, normative and prescriptive writings, and so on. From general socio-historical descriptions to close analyses of linguistic forms (usages of “face”, terms of address, directives, requests, etc., studied both qualitatively and quantitatively through analyzing appearances of certain key words in large corpora of written texts), the material discussed in the volume is rich and diverse.

One shortcoming of the volume that could be pointed out is the fact that most of the articles are on the English language within British culture, with only two articles covering other languages (Chinese versus Turkish, and French) and one article on American English. This somewhat limits the cross-cultural exploration of historical (im)politeness. The survey of politeness in several different periods in English history, starting from OE, is certainly impressive; however, further research is needed to put all the pieces of the puzzle into a coherent and consistent picture of English politeness throughout time.

I have one more recommendation regarding the focus of the volume’s research. While some of the articles explore historical periods with the purpose of furthering our knowledge and understanding of politeness, others seem to touch upon categories borrowed from politeness with the main purpose of furthering research on specific historical periods. The latter type of article seems more suitable for a volume on history than a volume on politeness.

To sum up, the broad historical range, the various methodological approaches to politeness and impoliteness, the combination of rich historical data and high-level theoretical discussions make this volume appropriate for researchers and advanced students. The book will be of interest to historical linguists, pragmatists, sociolinguists, anthropologists and other professionals interested in the topic of politeness, both as a first-order and second-order term, as well as to those working on impoliteness, ritual insults, and related topics. All this said, “Understanding Historical (Im)Politeness” is certainly a valuable contribution to the field of politeness research and opens new directions for exploration of a vast and fascinating topic.


Bousfield, D. & M. A. Locher (Eds.) 2008. Impoliteness in language: studies on its interplay with power in theory and practice. Berlin; New York: Mouton de Gruyter

Brown, P. & S. Levinson. [1978] 1987. Politeness: Some universals in language usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Culpeper, J. & D. Z. Kádár. 2010. Historical Impoliteness. Peter Lang.

Culpeper, J. 2011. Impoliteness: Using Language to Cause Offence. CUP

Eelen, G. 2001. Critique of politeness theories. Manchester: St Jerome Press.

Face (Sociological concept). Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:, accessed June 6th, 2013.

Haugh, M. 2011. (Im)politeness Implicatures. De Gruyter

Ige, B. 2011. Impoliteness in Context. Lambert Academic Publishing

Jucker, A. (Ed.) 2011. Understanding Historical (Im)Politeness. Special issue of Journal of Historical Pragmatics 12:1/2 (2011)

Kádár, D. Z. 2007. Terms of (im)politeness: a study of communicational properties of traditional Chinese (im)polite terms. Eötvös Löránd University

Watts, R. J., S. Ide & K. Ehlich (eds.). 1992. Politeness in language: Studies in its history, theory and practice. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

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

Watts, R. J., et al. (Eds.) 2005. Politeness in Language. Studies in its History, Theory and Practice. Berlin, Boston: Mouton De Gruyter.


Dr. Emilia Slavova is a Senior Assistant Professor at the Department of English and American Studies at the University of Sofia, Bulgaria. Her doctoral dissertation is on politeness across cultures, with a specific focus on English and Bulgarian. Research interests and courses taught include English language and culture, sociolinguistics, politeness theories, politeness in a cross-cultural and in a historical perspective, communication skills, intercultural communication, critical discourse analysis, language and cultural diversity.

Page Updated: 19-Aug-2013