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Review of  Actos de habla y cortesía en español

Reviewer: Laura M Callahan
Book Title: Actos de habla y cortesía en español
Book Author: María Elena Placencia Diana Bravo
Publisher: Lincom GmbH
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Subject Language(s): Spanish
Issue Number: 21.415

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EDITORS: Placencia, María E. and Bravo, Diana
TITLE: Actos de habla y cortesía en español (Speech Acts and Politeness in
SERIES: Studies in Pragmatics
YEAR: 2009

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


This is the second printing of a book first published in 2002. It contains a
and ten chapters. Notes are placed at the end of the chapter in which they appear,
with references at the end of the volume. All chapters are written in Spanish; my
translations of titles appear in parentheses in this review. Data for the
investigations come from Argentina, Bolivia, Mexico, Spain, Uruguay, and

Chapter 1: Panorámica sobre el estudio de actos de habla y la cortesía verbal.
(State of the art on the study of speech acts and linguistic politeness. María E.
Placencia and Diana Bravo. The editors provide a comprehensive overview and
trajectory of the discipline, reviewing seminal research as well as criticisms
and expansions. Whereas earlier work often attempted to describe speech acts
and politeness in abstract terms governed by universal rules, with a strong link
between linguistic form and pragmatic function, more recent studies have focused
increasingly on the role of social context and interaction. Placencia and Bravo
call attention to the relative lack of investigations focusing on pragmatics in
Spanish, a gap the present volume aims to fill.

Chapter 2: Las ofertas y la cortesía en español peninsular. (Offers and politeness
in Peninsular Spanish.) Mariana Chodorowska-Pilch. This investigation analyzes
the speech act of offering and mechanisms for its mitigation. Chodorowska-Pilch
defines offers as occurring when ''the speaker proposes that the addressee accept
something from the speaker'' (p. 22; my translation). Using data from travel
agencies in Spain, the author examines the codification of politeness in direct and
indirect offers. She finds evidence of the codification of mitigation in the form of
grammatical structures such as the imperfect, conditional, future, and subjunctive.
Questions, both explicit and implicit, also serve to attenuate the offer's
of the speaker's will onto his or her interlocutor.

Chapter 3: Los reclamos como actos de habla en el español de Venezuela.
(Complaints as speech acts in the Spanish of Venezuela.) Adriana Bolívar. Bolívar
administered a questionnaire containing two discourse completion tasks to 50
female university students in Caracas. The principal independent variables were
social distance and private vs. public situation. The first situation to which
participants were asked to react involved a male who returns the car loaned to
him by a female friend without having refilled the gas tank. For the second
situation participants assumed the role of someone who has witnessed a female
stranger allowing her dog to defecate in front of the participant's residence.
The results of this investigation show exhortations to have an important role in
the speech act of making a complaint, manifested as warnings and orders to the
addressee to make ''amends for the misdeed, which corresponds to other authors'
findings (Clyne 1994; Placencia 2000)'' (p. 52, my translation).

Chapter 4: La expresión de camaradería y solidaridad: Cómo los venezolanos
solicitan un servicio y responden a la solicitud de un servicio. (The expression of
camaraderie and solidarity: How Venezuelans request a favor and respond to
requests for a favor.) Carmen García. García uses models by Blum-Kulka et al.
(1989) and Brown and Levinson (1987) to examine solidarity versus deference in
strategies used by petitioners and their interlocutors, also in Caracas.
Independent variables were gender and whether the speaker was seeking a favor
or responding to a request for same. Twenty participants were videotaped acting
the role of a parent asking an English teacher neighbor to tutor the parent's 11
year old son. Twenty more participants were taped enacting the role of the
English teacher neighbor. In all 40 cases the participants' interlocutor in the
role-play was the same person. The quantification and analysis of head acts -
i.e. the request itself - and supportive moves yielded some interesting
differences between men and women.

Chapter 5: Estrategias de cortesía en el español hablado en Montevideo.
(Politeness strategies in the Spanish spoken in Montevideo.) Rosina
Márquez-Reiter. Márquez-Reiter had 64 Montevidean university students engage in
role-plays based on situations involving making requests. Independent variables
included hypothetical social distance between interlocutors, relative power,
degree of imposition, and the research participants' gender. Requests,
traditionally considered to threaten negative face, are found here to also
function ''to safeguard and emphasize the positive face of speaker and addressee''
(p. 103, my translation). Márquez-Reiter found that the less social distance
there was the more direct the requests would be, although indirect formulas were
still used more than direct ones. Thus, conditional verbs appeared more than
imperatives. There was nevertheless a low incidence of non-conventional indirect
formulas, such as that illustrated in the statement: ''This room is very warm.''
Peripheral elements, such as giving reasons for the request, the use of
diminutives, and promises of compensation, were likewise infrequent.

Chapter 6: Modo imperativo, negación y diminutivos en la expresión de la cortesía
en español: el contraste entre México y España. (The imperative, negation and
diminutives in the expression of politeness in Spanish: The contrast between
Mexico and Spain.) Carmen Curcó and Anna de Fina. Curcó and de Fina tested
the reception of three factors in politeness as manifested in the use of the three
linguistic structures named in the title. Participants were 115 university
students in Mexico and 134 in Spain. Results were mixed, with some interesting
surprises. But in general and as expected, the authors found greater sensitivity
to social distance, relative power, and degree of imposition on the part of the
Mexican respondents. The latter also disfavored imperative forms, and reacted
positively to the use of mitigators such as diminutives and negative questions.
The reverse was seen with the Spanish respondents, to the extent that in some
cases ''the diminutive can be associated with ironic or negative interpretations''
(p. 130, my translation).

Chapter 7: Actos asertivos y cortesía: Imagen del rol en el discurso de
académicos argentinos. (Assertive speech acts and politeness: Face-role in
Argentinean academic discourse.) Diana Bravo. Instead of establishing categories
a priori, Bravo treats politeness as emergent in a given interaction. Marshalling
evidence from her earlier work in Sweden and Spain, she rejects the ascription of
universal and inherent values to a given linguistic behavior, since such values can
change from one culture or society to another. She argues that the goal should be
to discover the cultural premises and shared social conventions of a given group.
For the present study four Argentinean academics were videotaped having a
conversation on a potentially conflictive topic: unflattering stereotypes of
Argentineans. Factors considered included the degree of conflict the topic
generated in participants, the relationship between this degree of conflict and the
intensity of the mitigation observed, the degree of efforts at politeness
engaged in
by the participants, and the relationship between the intensity of the social
and the first three factors. At stake in the assertions that speakers make is the
positive face of not only the individual but also the group as a whole.

Chapter 8: Piropos: Cambios en la valoración del grado de cortesía de una práctica
discursiva. (Piropos: Changes in the assessment of the degree of politeness of a
discourse practice.) Mariana Achugar. Achugar used a functional systemic model
to perform a textual analysis of the flirtatious remarks known as 'piropos'. In
addition, twenty-three Uruguayan women ranging in age from 21 to 56 completed a
questionnaire on which they rated 15 examples of a piropo on a scale of 1
(perceived as sexual harassment) to 5 (perceived as flattering). The examples
featuring ''references to food or food preparation were considered less polite''
(p. 186, my translation), while those with references to religion or to the
speaker's courage were evaluated as more polite. Achugar notes that nowadays
piropos receive positive evaluations less often than before, ''not only because
their linguistic structure has changed, but also because what the community
considers appropriate as a form of courtesy has also changed'' (p. 189, my
translation). In addition, as the author points out, women's roles in Montevideo
have changed.

Chapter 9: Desigualdad en el trato en directivas en la atención al público en La
Paz. Maria E. Placencia. (Address inequality in the use of directives in customer
service in La Paz.) Placencia examined the use of directives, such as instructions
and requests for information, by workers in public institutions in La Paz. Data was
collected in the reception areas of a hospital, state office, and municipal office.
The author found that public functionaries used more deferential forms of address,
opening and closing formulas, and mitigators when speaking to white/mestizo
urbanites, and more familiar address forms coupled with an almost complete
absence of mitigators and politeness formulas when addressing indigenous clients.
The latter were often addressed as 'vos', a second person pronoun that can have
pejorative connotations when used with an adult stranger, while the former
received the deferential pronoun 'usted' and/or its correspondent verb forms as
as titles equivalent to 'sir' and 'madam'. Adolescents were the only white/mestizo
consumers who received the pronoun 'vos' or its associated verb forms, whereas
it was directed at indigenous clients of all ages.

Chapter 10: 'Deja tu mensaje después de la señal': Despedidas y otros elementos
de la sección de cierre en mensajes dejados en contestadores automáticos en
Madrid y Londres. ('Leave your message after the tone': Farewells and other
elements of the closing sequences of messages left on answering machines in
Madrid and London.) Jesús M. Valeiras Viso. Valeiras Viso compares closing
routines in British English and Peninsular Spanish. As he points out, these are
monologues yet share features of dyadic interactions as well as of written
language, such as personal letters. The Spanish messages often contained more
than one preclosing particle, whereas this was rare in the English ones. The same
situation was found for closing formulas. In contrast, there were more expressions
of best wishes in the English section of the corpus, as well as expressions of
future contact, such as ''see you later.'' According to Hickey (1991) and Sifianou
(1989), the British prefer negative politeness, which highlights the
preservation of
privacy, while Spaniards (and Greeks) accord a higher value to positive politeness.
Valeiras Viso finds support for these earlier investigators' conclusions in the
questionnaire portion of his study. A higher percentage of British respondents
answered 'yes' to the question of whether having an answering machine made
them feel as though they were available 24 hours a day, and more British than
Spanish participants stated that they used the machine to screen calls. The author
concludes that this reflects a general cultural difference, aspects of which
must be taken into account in linguistic research.


''Actos de habla y cortesía en español'' (Speech Acts and Politeness in Spanish)
serve as a good resource for instructors who teach advanced undergraduate and
graduate courses in sociolinguistics with Spanish as the vehicle of instruction. It
will also benefit, as the editors point out, those who travel to or live in a
Spanish-speaking country, as well as students of Spanish language, ''who need to
become aware of linguistic and sociocultural variation in the performance of
various speech acts'' (p. iii, my translation).

Since the book would be accessible only to advanced students of Spanish,
language instructors would do well to read it in order to build a knowledge base
upon which they can call for reference in the classroom. One of the volume's
greatest strengths is its comprehensiveness. Meticulous documentation of
secondary sources allows the reader to become familiar with or review seminal
work in pragmatics and politeness. This is especially true in the first chapter, in
which Placencia and Bravo provide an overview of work in the discipline, but each
successive chapter also contains a thorough literature review appropriate to its
topic. This is complemented by detailed and clear presentations of primary data.
A few points that stand out in particular include the negative emotional
consequences for native speakers of different varieties of the same language,
when divergent sociopragmatic norms lead to misunderstanding (Chapter 4,
Carmen García).

Intercultural variation even within the same language can have social
ramifications. For example, in Curcó and de Fina (Chapter 6), the fact that the
very form that one group considers to be highly polite is perceived by another
group to be ironic or condescending highlights the potential for
misunderstandings between and stereotyping of groups. A point that various
authors in this collection emphasize, as did Brown and Levinson (1987)
themselves, is that a correspondence between a given linguistic form and type of
politeness cannot be assumed. Rather, contextual factors must be taken into
account. Finally, when linguistic forms suggest a type of impoliteness or
discrimination symptomatic of deeper prejudice (Chapter 9, Placencia),
legislation in favor of the discriminated group will likely not suffice to
change the dominant group's attitudes and behaviors.


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

Blum-Kulka, S., House, J., and Kasper, G. (1989). Cross-cultural Pragmatics:
Requests and Apologies. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Clyne, M. (1994). Intercultural Communication at Work: Cultural Values in
Discourse. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hickey, L. (1991). Comparatively polite people in Spain and Britain. ACIS, 4(2), 2-

Placencia, M. E. (2000). 'Qué cara tienes!' The language of complaints in
Ecuadorian and Peninsular Spanish. Paper presented at the BAAL conference,
Anglia Polytechnic University, Cambridge, UK, September 2000.

Sifianou, M. (1989). On the telephone again! Differences in telephone behaviour:
England versus Greece. Language in Society, 18, 527-544.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER 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), at the Graduate Center, CUNY. Her research interests include intercultural communication, language and identity, and heritage language maintenance. Her most recent publication is the book 'Spanish and English in U.S. Service Encounters' (Palgrave Macmillan 2009).