LINGUIST List 8.587

Fri Apr 25 1997

Disc: Hedging expressions

Editor for this issue: Anthony Rodrigues Aristar <aristarlinguistlist.org>


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  1. benji wald, Re: 8.553, Sum: hedging expressions

Message 1: Re: 8.553, Sum: hedging expressions

Date: Thu, 24 Apr 1997 23:01:01 -0700 (PDT)
From: benji wald <bwaldHUMnet.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: Re: 8.553, Sum: hedging expressions

I thought that F. K. L. Chit Hlaing's comments to Ann Jorid Klungervik's
sum on "hedging expressions" were well-taken, starting with:

>I think something is missing in your summary of people's account of
these expressions....

particularly, the generalisation

>The principle seems to be
that violation of a norm of politness or etiquette is at least
mitigated this way; more recisely still, that the worst violation is
the violation that remains unacknowledged -- acknowledgement
mitigating the violation on the grounds that it constitutes something
of an apology, at least showing that you are sufficiently decent to
know the difference and may, then, have some over riding excuse for
the violation.

However, I think that it is necessary to go still further, rather than
leave it in terms of everyday notions like "politeness/etiquette" and
"decency". The more general issue is one of social rights, and utterances
as social acts. Any of the "hedges" collected by Ann Jorid indicate some
(formal, not necessarily sincere) acknowledgment by speakers that they do
NOT have the (inalienable) RIGHT to perform the ACT which is introduced by
the "hedge". These are now commonplace notions in pragmatics/discourse
analysis. One of the early discussions of discourse in these terms is
Labov & Fanshell's (1977) "Therapeutic Discourse", where the general
discourse theory and examples of the title topic are analysed in terms of
utterances as social acts constrained by unevenly distributed rights and
obligations of speakers according the nature of the society in which they
operate. As I remember, one of the most interesting examples, used to
indicate that this level of analysis was necessary to show the COHERENCE of
discourse, was where a daughter asked her mother "when are you coming
home?" to which the mother replied "oh, why?" The crux of the analysis was
that the mother challenged the daughter's RIGHT to ask such a question,
i.e., request information on the mother's plans (and note that in a
stereotypical US family a mother *does* have the right to ask her teenage
daughter who is going out in the evening on a date, or whatever, "when are
you coming home?", so that the daughter's answer "oh, why?" would be
"insolent". Possibly, "why (do you ask)?" always challenges somebody's
right to perform the act of requesting or "demanding" an account. It would
certainly be bizarre -- and "rude" -- to respond to a question like "excuse
me, do you have the time?" with "why do you wanna know?" or "what are you
getting at?".)

A very minor point is that I was not used to the kinds of mitigation Ann
Jorid collected as being called "hedges", though I can understand why that
term might be used. I'm more used to the term "hedge" being used when
somebody says (= does) something to protect their OWN face (cover? their --
face?), rather than somebody else's (or maybe I should say ONLY their own
face, since when they protect somebody else's face in terms of Ann Jorid's
collection they are also protecting their own -- from retaliation, or just
from looking "indecent" in front of third parties etc), e.g., by saying "I
think that...", "as far as I know...", "generally speaking,..." etc, etc.
Similarly, to "accuse" someone of "hedging" is to accuse them of trying to
protect their own face, not someone else's -- or maybe I'm just being
unduly influenced by how the term usually surfaces in academic contexts(?).
(Anyway, technical terms, as in discourse analysis and pragmatics, do
evolve, and I haven't kept up with the lit lately.)

A point I would like to raise for further discussion comes from Ann Jorid's
original sum, where she states:

> English possesses an incredible amount of different ways of doing face-work.

At first I thought that this comment might be naively impressionistic, if
Ann has a special interest in English, and finds it thrillingly "exotic".
That is, given the universality of social rights and utterances as social
acts, I thought that she might be disregarding that her own language no
less abounds in strategies for mitigation. But then on second thought, I
reflected that cultures do differ in the degree of elaboration of some of
their norms, and since Ann seems to be Norwegian, the difference between
the VERBAL norms of her society and those of English-speaking society
(whichever ones she is referring to) may account for her impression. Given
my impression, as discussed a little in my message on "public behavior",
that Northern (European) societies are generally less verbal than more
Southern ones, I conjectured that it might be the case that Norwegian (and
other Scandinavian) societies have fewer stereotyped expressions of
mitigation because they LESS OFTEN than in English-speaking society
VERBALLY go beyond their rights (cf. invade other people's "right" to be
LEFT ALONE -- in public?), and thus have not accumulated so many
synonymous(?) forms of mitigation. This idea is in contrast to another
idea, which I consider much less likely, that they verbally go beyond their
rights more often than in English-speaking societies, but do not mitigate
as often when they do.

Here then I raise the issue for discussion about all societies. To what
extent do they differ with respect to situations in which they expect
mitigation to accompany their verbal acts, and what is the relation, if
there is any, between a general level of verbality in a society with the
total (?) repertory of stereotypes expressions of mitigation?
- Benji
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