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Review of  Aspects of Linguistic Impoliteness

Reviewer: Leila Khabbazi-Oskouei
Book Title: Aspects of Linguistic Impoliteness
Book Author: Manuel Jobert Denis L. Jamet
Publisher: Cambridge Scholars Publishing
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Philosophy of Language
Ling & Literature
Issue Number: 25.431

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The publication under review consists of five thematic chapters, each providing scholarly reflections on linguistic impoliteness. The book brings together 15 papers discussing impoliteness from different perspectives.

The volume opens with the editors’ introduction, where they outline the scope of the book and sketch the contents of the contributions. They point out the main purpose of the book as bringing together linguists, discourse analysts and literary critics to contribute to the clarification of ‘impoliteness’ as a common research paradigm.

The first chapter, ‘General Approaches to Impoliteness and Rudeness’, consists of three parts. The first article, by Jonathan Culpeper, is entitled ‘Impoliteness: Questions and answers’. It provides an introduction to the term ‘impoliteness’ and the reasons for the necessity of further serious studies on this topic. Culpeper maintains that impoliteness happens when there is a conflict between behaviours and how one expects, wants or thinks them to be. He discusses creativity in impoliteness, and the most frequent linguistic ways in which someone causes it. He concludes that this phenomenon needs to be studied because of its implications for interpersonal communication and society as a whole.

The second contribution in Chapter 1 is by Catherine Kerbrat-Orecchioni and is entitled ‘Politeness, non-politeness, “polirudeness”: The case of political TV debates’. She argues that in order to identify an utterance as polite or impolite, its content, formulation and context of production must be taken into account. She expands Brown and Levinson’s (1978, 1987) notion of politeness and introduces the notions of overpoliteness, non-politeness, impoliteness and polirudeness. She then analyses these notions in the light of their content, context and formulation in Nicolas Sarkozy’s debate during the 2007 French presidential elections in two different contexts. Kerbrat-Orecchioni concludes that “avoiding behaviours that are too obviously impolite is a “condition of felicity” for the debate (particularly in an electoral context): if a speaker goes out of the frame of the accepted standards his speech will be “infelicitous” -- and the participants in the exchange will be too” (p. 42).

The last paper in Chapter 1 is by Sandrine Sorlin: ‘The power of impoliteness: A historical perspective’. The paper describes the various meanings of ‘politeness’ throughout the ages and how (im)politeness encompasses social and political classifications linked to power. Sorlin introduces a different meaning of (im)politeness in which politeness can be seen as a deliberate linguistic veiling of one’s real intentions, and impoliteness as a means of unveiling this excessive, false politeness. She concludes that “in establishing a cooperative code of conduct in which impolite moves are merely perceived as violations, one can but fail to consider the virtues of impoliteness as a powerful pragmatic force, allowing interlocutors to renegotiate meaning” (p. 57).

Chapter 2, ‘Impoliteness in Television Series and in Drama’, has three parts. In Part 1, ‘Dr. House and the language of offence’, Linda Pilliere examines the TV series ‘House’ with the aim of studying how impolite language and behaviour in a specific context creates humour. In her examples, she describes the role of the addresser and addressee, and how their conceptual model of context work together to create offensive language. For example, in the following extract, House appears to conform to the context model shared by the television audience and the addressee, but deviates at the last minute. The offensive language becomes humorous through “the initial match of the context and their mismatch” (p. 71).
Cuddy: You mind if I come in?
House: Not at all. Do you mind if I leave?
(‘Dying Changes Everything’, Season 5)

Part 2 of the second chapter is by Manuel Jobert and is entitled ‘Domestic and professional impoliteness in Fawlty Towers: Impoliteness as a dramatic device’. In his article, Jobert argues that impoliteness is one of the major sources of comedy; however, if pushed too far, it results in a communication breakdown. Jobert specifically studies “terms of address”, domestic impoliteness between Basil (the main character) and his wife, and the “addressee-shift” effect in aforementioned comedy show. He concludes that in order to preserve the comic effect of a show, it is necessary to keep the right balance between the impoliteness conveyed in the microcosm and the macrocosm.

The final part of Chapter 2 is by Natalie Mandon-Hunter: ‘“Polite company”: Offensive discourse in William Congreve’s comedies’. The article looks at Congreve’s comedies and how the dramatist achieves comic effect by using offensive language. Mandon-Hunter shows that multiple factors are involved in creating offensive discourse. Sometimes, insults relying on clever comparisons bring about laughter at the expense of the target. In other cases, insults relying on inappropriate comparisons cause laughter at the expense of the speaker. She argues that “the more incongruous the insult, the more likely it is to be perceived by the target as ridiculous rather than offensive” (p. 100). In any case, the target’s actual response to the offensive language, be it silence or retaliation, indicates its affectivity.

Chapter 3, ‘Impoliteness in Literature’, looks into impoliteness used in literary works. The chapter has four parts, opening with Brindusa Grigoriu’s paper entitled ‘Medieval rudeness: The English version of a French romance custom’. In this article, the writer offers a contrastive analysis of the French and English versions of ‘Tristan and Ysolt’ using Brown and Levinson’s “Politeness Theory”. Grigoriu points out that rudeness in medieval romances is more than a matter of speech or attitude, and can go as far as beheading. She maintains that the beheading custom in the Weeping Castle “is face-relevant: it challenges “the public self-image” of Tristan and Ysolt, who embody the ideals of generations of French and English readers” (p. 111). The writer concludes: “when beheading custom haunts French and English romances, nobody laughs. Readers are expected to sympathize with the French lovers and act with the English ones” (p. 121).

Jacqueline Fromonot’s article in Part 2 is entitled ‘‘Paradoxes of impoliteness in Vanity Fair’, by W.M. Thackeray’. In this contribution, Fromonot shows that impoliteness can be analyzed through three related sub-categories: polite impoliteness, impolite politeness and impolite impoliteness. Polite impoliteness refers to polishing and policing impolite signifiers into a polite final product. This strategy is used when the writer intends to avoid hurting the recipients. Impolite politeness in Thackeray’s work is used when the effort to turn impoliteness into politeness fails, and it produces impoliteness. Impolite impoliteness happens when the indictment in Thackeray’s work first targets the characters and then the readers.

Part 3 of Chapter 3 is by Vanina Jobert-Martini: ‘Impoliteness and rebellion in “Christmas” by McGahern’. The main aim in this article is to study how the verbal strategies of character, narrator and author are combined in the short story of ‘Christmas’ and how they produce a specific effect in the reader. She shows how the verbal interactions of direct speech, reported speech and narrative report of speech acts help build a very specific text world ruled by rigid social codes while simultaneously featuring a dynamic process of rebellion, which receives an unmitigated positive evaluation from the narrator. The author concludes that there is a kind of continuum between direct speech, reported speech, narrative report of speech acts and “action statements” (i.e. actions which function as speech) in ‘Christmas’.

The last part of this chapter is: ‘“Who are they to talk to us like that?” Narrative impoliteness and the reader’. In this article, Claire Majola-Leblond discusses the write-reader relationship in a literary context and argues that the reader’s reaction to impoliteness is not primarily aimed at the author, but rather self-centred and self-oriented. Authors of literary texts have various impoliteness strategies (authorial policies) at their disposal, the aim of which are not causing ‘offence’, but rather “to force us out of our pre-established modes of understanding, to confront us to radical otherness, to broaden our outlook on the word, whet our understanding, to make us capable of holding conflicting viewpoints, of adopting antagonistic perspectives, and hopefully potentially capable of solving problems and appeasing conflicts” (p. 151). She focuses on the story of “Everything in this country must” and suggests that literary interaction is face-flattering, or rather, face-enhancing.

The fourth chapter, ‘Impoliteness in Philosophy of Language’, consists of two parts. In the first part, ‘Systematized impoliteness in the nonsense world of ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ and ‘Through the Looking Glass’, Celia Schneebeli analyses the systematized impoliteness of the characters in Alice in Wonderland using the six maxims of Lecercle’s (1994) Impoliteness Principle, which are the mirror image of Leech’s Politeness Principle (1983).

In the second paper of this chapter, ‘Impoliteness, agôn, dissensus in “The two philosophers”: Irvine Welsh and a political philosophy of language’, Simone Rinzler discusses the short story of ‘The two philosophers’ based on Lecercle’s (1994) proposed set of Principles of Struggle. She maintains that the story deals with several social issues which do not involve linguistic impoliteness, but rather social and political impoliteness according to micro and macro contexts.

The concluding chapter in this volume ‘Impoliteness and Modern Communication’, provides three case studies of impoliteness in oral and virtual communication. The first one is by Isabelle Gaudy-Campbell and is entitled ‘You know: (Im)politeness marker in naturally occurring speech?’. The writer investigates the function of ‘you know’ and argues that its use in interactions is not a politeness marker. Due to its falling intonation, the contextual prominence of ‘I’, the upper hand of the speaker seeking no genuine interaction and its common collocation with tags, Gaudy-Campbell considers it as a tool for the speaker to impose his point of view on the co-speaker.

The second case study in this chapter is by Laura-Gabrielle Goudet and is entitled ‘Alternative spelling and censorship: The treatment of profanities in virtual communities’. In this article, the writer first studies the parameters of censorship online. In the second part of her study, she discusses the typology of uses and abuses on the Internet, focusing on alternative spellings, spelling mistakes and words bearing ambiguous meanings codified through sets of alternative spellings. The topic of the last part of her study is the use of community-centred profanities and insults. She concludes that computer-based censorship cannot be the ideal strategy to avoid profanities and insults on the Internet because of its complex nature and because only human intervention could circumvent such divergences from the Terms of Service.

In the final paper in this publication ‘Fanning the flames? A study of insult forms on the Internet’, Bertrand Richet investigates why and how an insult forum is created, how it evolves and what it implies. He provides some theoretical-contextual background by looking at the three elements of insults in argument, insults as fun and computer-mediated communication (CMC) versus face-to-face (FTF) conversation. Then, he focuses more specifically on the functioning and content of forums, which lead to the creation of specialized insult threads or separate forums. In the last part, he examines the constraints surrounding the creation and operation of insult forums. Richet concludes that the idea of an insult forum is counterproductive since it imposes a lack of freedom.


Unlike linguistic politeness, which has been an established area of research since the publication of “Politeness -- Some universals in language use” (1978), research on impoliteness is a relatively new research paradigm. ‘Aspects of Linguistic Impoliteness’ does an excellent job of filling an existing gap and bringing together a collection of scholarly approaches to this phenomenon.

The book starts with an introduction to impoliteness by Culpeper, a leading expert in this area. It then introduces different aspects where impoliteness can be approached. The second chapter which focuses on impoliteness in television series and drama is particularly interesting where the contributors look at how impoliteness used appropriately creates humour. The contributors provide plenty of examples by means of which they illustrate the role of the context, addresser, addressee and audience in creating humorous language.

All in all, this is a thought-provoking and insightful volume that will hopefully encourage future attempts to research the subject of linguistic impoliteness. The book attempts to present ‘impoliteness’ as a common research paradigm for linguists, discourse analysts and literary critics and provides studies on the subject in the different contexts of spoken and written language. It will be of interest to graduate students and readers who are interested in an introduction to the topic of impoliteness as well as a guide to current work on this phenomenon.

Although research on impoliteness is a relatively new research area, no single book can cover all its relevant aspects. The current book discusses some of its most important aspects and contexts. However, the discussion could have been further extended to intercultural instances of impoliteness. Perhaps more studies on everyday use of language could have been included, in which cultural misunderstandings lead to impolite reactions. Crucially, however, the book under review provides the reader with useful methodological tools to undertake these kinds of future investigations.


Brown, P. & Levinson, S. 1978. Politeness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Brown, P. & Levinson, S. 1987. Politeness: Some universals in language usage, Cambridge: CUP.

Lecercle, Jean-Jacques. 1994. Philosophy of nonsense, London: Routledge.

Leech, Geoffrey. 1983. Principles of pragmatics, London: Longman.
Leila Khabbazi-Oskouei finished her PhD in language and linguistics at the University of East Anglia/UK in Dec. 2011. The title of her thesis is 'Interactional Variation in English and Persian: A Comparative Analysis of Metadsicourse Features in Magazine Editorials'. It focuses on comparing and contrasting the use of interactional devices in English and Persian, and discussing the similarities and differences in the light of the cultural expectations and political settings in some British and Iranian news magazine editorials. Her first thesis-driven paper ‘Propositional or Non-propositional, That is the Question: A New Approach to Analyzing Interpersonal Metadiscourse in Editorials’ was published in the Journal of Pragmatics in 2013. She is interested in the following subject areas: intercultural communication, the expression of interactional metadiscourse in the media, particularly the press, patterns of cross-cultural variation in British and Iranian discourse.

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 1443849057
ISBN-13: 9781443849050
Pages: 255
Prices: U.K. £ 44.99
U.S. $ 67.99