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Review of  Historical (Im)politeness

Reviewer: Laura M Callahan
Book Title: Historical (Im)politeness
Book Author: Jonathan Culpeper Dániel Zoltan Kádár
Publisher: Peter Lang AG
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Historical Linguistics
Issue Number: 21.2964

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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
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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