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Review of  Broadening the Horizon of Linguistic Politeness

Reviewer: Susan Meredith Burt
Book Title: Broadening the Horizon of Linguistic Politeness
Book Author: Robin Tolmach Lakoff Sachiko Ide
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Subject Language(s): Chinese, Mandarin
Greek, Modern
Issue Number: 17.1235

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EDITORS: Lakoff, Robin Tolmach; Ide, Sachiko
TITLE: Broadening the Horizon of Linguistic Politeness
SERIES: Pragmatics & Beyond New Series 139
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2005

Susan Meredith Burt, Department of English, Illinois State University


This volume has several goals, the most obvious being to make
available some of the papers presented at an International Symposium
on Linguistic Politeness held at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok
in 1999. The purpose of the symposium itself was to expand the
scope of politeness studies, which the editors feel had focused far too
much on Western languages, particularly English; a second goal is to
assess 30 years of work in the field of politeness. The book includes
an introductory chapter by Lakoff and Ide, three plenary papers by
Lakoff, Ide and Bruce Fraser, and fifteen further papers, grouped into
four sections, ''the theoretical perspective,'' ''the descriptive
perspective,'' ''the comparative perspective,'' and ''the historical


The introductory chapter, by the editors, cites forebears in the field of
linguistic politeness, including Jane Austen, Freud, and Margaret
Mead. The central notion of face is attributed to Erving Goffman;
appropriately, politeness is seen as ''necessarily interdisciplinary''
(p.2), and the phrase ''linguistic politeness'' is neither tautologous nor
contradictory. Still, the notion is complex, in that issues of both ''rules''
and ''standards'' are involved. One function of politeness is offered: if
two agents adhere to politeness rules, they succeed in both signifying
their shared group membership and in signaling that they are both
good members of the group; doing this successfully is
labeled 'wakimae'. The discussion of terms of the art continues with
distinctions made between civility, politeness and courtesy, calling to
mind Watts's (1992) distinction between politic verbal behavior and
politeness, although the authors do not discuss the Watts
terminology. The writers then broach the universality-contrastivist
dispute, suggesting a sensible compromise that ''languages share
many universal components, but also differ in surprising and
unpredictable ways'' (p. 6). The same is true, they suggest, with
politeness phenomena. Lakoff and Ide argue for an integral position
of politeness in grammar, given that polite behavior is
usually ''unmarked.'' Furthermore, ''the fact that speakers can tell
intuitively whether an utterance is polite, rude or something in
between suggests that the system is rule-governed'' (p.9), an
interesting and strong claim, which Mills (2003) has since disputed.
Still, the position of politeness as an integral part of pragmatics cannot
be doubted. However, the viability of a universal system is again
questioned, and the authors concede that they have not been able to
find an approach that bridges the East-West divide for the two of them.

The goals of the three plenary papers reflect the individual authors'
theoretical backgrounds and positions. Lakoff focuses her keenly
intuitive observations on American English political-politeness
practices; Ide stresses East-West differences and Fraser assesses
the state of the art with a set of meta-theoretical questions.

Lakoff frames her plenary paper, ''Civility and its discontents: Or,
getting in your face,'' with three research questions: 1) Why is
politeness more salient at some times than others? 2) How do normal
people understand politeness? And 3) What happens when politeness
systems change or shift? American society, she argues, is
undergoing a shift in its politeness system now, which makes this a
good time to focus on these questions. Lakoff offers definitions of
politeness as ''an offering of good intentions'' and civility as ''a
withholding of bad ones'' (p.25) and suggests that complaints that
society is becoming less civil arise from a worry that it is actually
fragmenting. She cites a shift during the Renaissance from a
camaraderie-based to deference-based politeness system, and
suggests that that earlier shift is now in the process of being
reversed. As evidence for this, she discusses nine ''cases'' or
symptoms of politeness worries: ''sexual coarseness in public
contexts,'' ''violence in the media,'' ''agonism, the unwillingness to
acknowledge middle ground in debate'' (p. 28), ''uncontrolled displays
of hostility'' (p. 29), ''negative political advertising,'' ''cursing and other
bad language'' (p. 30), ''flaming on the internet,'' ''the loss of polite
conventions'' (p. 32), and ''invasions of privacy and the rise of
conventional anti-formality'' (p. 34). These symptoms are consistent
with a shift from deference to camaraderie politeness, with
camaraderie still in a stage of inadequate conventionalization, which
prevents its being recognized as a type of politeness. Lakoff ties
these changes in with an erosion of the distinction between public and
private realms (which she discusses at greater length in Lakoff 2005),
the increasing diversity of the population or an increase in
empowerment of previously subordinated groups, the rise of the
internet, and media pressures.

Sachiko Ide's chapter is entitled ''How and why honorifics can signify
dignity and elegance: The indexicality and reflexivity of linguistic
rituals.'' Beginning with the observation that Thai as well as Japanese
seems to have honorifics, Ide asserts that it ''make[s] sense to talk of
East Asian languages'' (p. 45), seemingly on a level of some
generality. Claiming that honorifics are indispensable to East Asians,
Ide attributes the lack of understanding on the part of some
Westerners to ''the Western way of looking at
something linear, which can be processed one piece after another in
an alphabetic item-and-process approach'' (p.46). Furthermore,
Westerners' reliance on an alphabet seems to predispose them to
''simple conceptualization'' (p. 47). Further claims follow about
Eastern and Western differences in thinking (I must say that I found
the number of stereotypes about both East and West somewhat
surprising). Ide does mention linguistic differences, such as the
Japanese pronoun system, which contains pronouns differentiated
by styles (formal, normal and deprecatory--this last style
apparently unavailable to female speakers) as well as by person.
This kind of system, she claims, is, like honorifics, a challenge
''to the Western perspective.'' (Her paper pre-dates interesting
work on pronoun variation internal to Japanese, discussed in
Lunsing and Maree 2004 and Miyazaki 2004).

Pragmatic particles also play a role in expressing speaker identity in
Japanese; Ide cites the nominalizing particle no, which also ''indexes
the speaker's identity as a sweet female'' (p. 52). Ide claims further
that in Japanese, agreement is pragmatic in that it shows ''one's sense
of self and relation to others'' ('wakimae', p. 53), while agreement in
English is grammatical. Neither claim seems to allow for individual or
group dissent from a ''standard,'' whether in pronoun choice by a
Japanese lesbian (Lunsing and Maree 2004), or in agreement leveling
in some non-standard varieties of English. Ide further discusses items
such as the sequencing of turns at talk, back-channeling and levels of
formality as playing a role in Japanese, in claimed contrast to a
Western focus on propositional content. Again, Ide seems to overlook
Western linguistic scholarship that has discussed precisely such
things, such as Sacks, Schegloff and Jefferson (1974), Gumperz
(1982), Tannen (1984) and Myers-Scotton (1993), to name just a few.

Ide criticizes face-maintenance approaches to honorifics as
inadequate to deal with ironic uses of honorifics, although she later
finds the notion of ''negative wants and positive wants'' (p. 59) useful
in explaining other uses. The elegance and dignity she attributes to
honorific use comes from the high level of honorific use she says
characterizes the speech of high-ranking women in Japanese
corporations (although no actual examples are given). She ends with
a reiteration of the claim that choice of forms appropriate to situation is
universal, but its exploration has been neglected in Western

Bruce Fraser focuses his plenary paper on a set of explicit theoretical
questions, with the overall goal of summarizing the types of critiques
that have been made of Brown and Levinson (1987). Fraser cites
challenges to the claims of universality, points to the question whether
politeness is communicated, implicated or simply anticipated, and to
the role of impoliteness in this issue, and the status of politeness in
pragmatics: summarizing the argument of Fukada (1998), Fraser
concludes that ''a strong case can be made for maxim status'' (p. 68).
Other issues include the distinguishing between deference and
politeness, and the need to explain rudeness, a task which Brown and
Levinson (1987) do not tackle. Questions about the status of Brown
and Levinson's politeness strategies also are discussed--does ''bald-
on-record'' properly count as a strategy? Can we distinguish between
an FTA and the strategy employed to perform it? Turner (1996) has
shown that one speech act can simultaneously impact both positive
and negative face, making that distinction somewhat questionable.
Furthermore, the ''strategies'' of Brown and Levinson have other social
uses besides face-threat mitigation.

The very notion of face, of course, has come in for a great deal of
critique, which Fraser briefly summarizes; the same is true of the Wx
formula which is at the heart of Brown and Levinson's theory. Despite
these criticisms, Fraser believes that a politeness theory is possible
and worth working for. This article, in summarizing critiques of the
Brown and Levinson theory up through the 1990s, is useful.

The second section of the book, on ''The theoretical perspective,''
begins with Makiko Takekuro's article, ''Yoroshiku onegaishimasu:
Routine practice of the routine formula in Japanese.'' Takekuro cites
two views of politeness, 1) as strategic action, or 2) as conformity to
norms. Neither is adequate, she claims, to the analysis of the routine
formula in Japanese, Yoroshiku onegaishimasu, which is used in a
great variety of social situations, including on New Year's greeting
cards. The formula conveys both ''deference and an imposition on the
addressee's freedom of action'' (p. 88) two items that are mutually
exclusive in the Brown and Levinson framework. In Japanese,
however, the formula, which is practiced reciprocally, serves to ''affirm
social bonds'' (p. 90). Ultimately, it is seen as ''routinized practice,''
rather than either a strategy or social norm.

Marina Terkourafi's article provides ''An argument for the frame-based
approach to politeness: Evidence from the use of the imperative in
Cypriot Greek.'' Here, the basic claim is that the social variables that
are relevant to the choice of imperative form in Greek (use of the tu or
vous equivalent) should not be subsumed under Brown and
Levinson's mega-variables P (power) and D (distance). Terkourafi
argues that politeness is expected in most interactions, and thus,
should be seen as unmarked. Thus, rather than a strategic approach
to politeness, she proposes that ''interlocutors' stable attributes enter
politeness assessments in a more direct way'' (p. 106). Politeness
emerges as a reflex of shared and social rationality, and is seen as a
suitable response to a frame, which is defined as ''a data-structure for
representing a stereotyped situation'' (p. 110). Politeness is
unmarked because speakers share frames and derive similar
inferences from them.

The last article in the Theoretical section is Margaret Ukosakul's
description of ''The significance of 'face' and politeness in social
interaction as revealed through Thai 'face' idioms.'' Ukosakul
collected 180 'face' idioms in Thai and analyzed the metaphors
therein. Thai idioms that include the word for 'face' are numerous,
and reflect the Thai estimation of the head as the ''sacred'' part of the
body (while the feet are ''debased,'' p. 118). The word for face seems
to include notions such as personality, emotions and honor, as well
as ''dignity, self-esteem, prestige, reputation and pride'' (p. 119). Thai
values include appropriateness and harmony, which lead to a concern
to preserve other people's face as well as one's own. Linguistic
strategies that develop from this include a strong preference for
indirectness, including hinting, beating around the bush, and teasing;
there is an avoidance of confrontation, although anger which cannot
be suppressed can result in 'face'-related insults (''dog face,'' ''sole of
feet face,'' '' furry face,'' p. 122). But this and other norm
transgressions can lead to ''broken face,'' ''red face,'' or ''numb face,''
(p. 124), in other words, shame, after which one must ''buy the face
back'' (p. 124) and regain one's honor.

The first of four articles in the section on ''The descriptive perspective''
is Christopher Conlan's article, ''Face threatening acts, primary face
threatening acts, and the management of discourse: Australian
English and speakers of Asian Englishes.'' Conlan's thesis is that the
contextual placement of a face-threatening act is itself a matter of
communicative competence. In a request scenario between two
native speakers of Australian English whose relationship (in terms of
power and distance) is well-established, there must be an optimal
number of speech acts leading up to the request for the exchange to
remain functional; either too few or too many of these preliminary acts
will annoy the requestee. Conlan then shows two sequences in which
a native speaker converses with a non-native speaker in which the
paucity of preliminary acts seems to render the sequence impolite to
native speakers of Australian English.

Krisadawan Hongladarom and Soraj Hongaldarom
describe ''Politeness in Thai computer-mediated communication. They
show that in a Thai virtual community, both the explicit ''netiquette''
rules and the actual practices of participants reflect Thai cultural
values: posts critical of the King are prohibited, but even if posters
venture onto questionable territory, other posters will be more likely to
respond with sympathy, joking, and general camaraderie rather than
with flaming. Politeness, it is concluded, has both universal and local

Martha Mendoza's chapter, ''Polite diminutives in Spanish: A matter of
size?'' argues that diminutive use is indeed not just a matter of size.
Spanish diminutive suffixes have undergone grammaticalization,
defined as the loss of some semantic content coupled with the gain of
new contexts of use. Diminutives function as means of intensification,
approximation and pejoration in appropriate contexts, but Mendoza
shows that more ''social'' functions have also been added, such as
hedging and a softening of the illocutionary force. This seems in
accord with Lakoff's politeness maxim, ''Don't impose.'' Thus Spanish
diminutives seem to function as polite minimizers, as they do in some
other languages. In accord with theories of grammaticalization,
morphemes can acquire these functions while still retaining earlier

Deeyu Srinarawat describes the functions of indirectness in the
chapter, ''Indirectness as a polite strategy of Thai speakers.'' Two
kinds of data were used in this study: 1) dialogue passages taken
from five contemporary Thai novels, and 2) responses to a multiple
choice discourse completion questionnaire administered to 475
respondents. The passages from the novels classified as indirect
seem to be used first and foremost for purposes of irony. In the
questionnaire responses, a preference for indirectness was shown by
women more than by men, and increased with increasing education.
But when the prompt emphasized politeness, the choice for
indirectness increased to 76% of responses. The author concludes
that passages from novels are less revealing of speaker preferences
than other sources, such as drama scripts, might be.

The ''comparative perspective'' section opens with Megumi Yoshida
and Chikako Sakurai's chapter ''Japanese honorifics as a marker of
sociocultural identity: A view from non-Western perspective.'' This
article discusses switches from the ''plain form'' to the ''polite form'' in
Japanese, also known as addressee honorifics. By gathering tape
recordings of 10 families, 32 such switches were collected. Earlier
interpretations of these forms, as showing deference, formality or out-
group membership of the addressee, do not seem to apply to these
cases. The authors instead claim that the switch to polite form marks
a role identity for the speakers, although to this reader, interpeting
these switches as ironic seems more plausible.

Alexandra Kallia, in ''Directness as a source of misunderstanding: The
case of requests and suggestions,'' attempts to determine whether the
forms used to realize requests and suggestions overlap, and therefore
lead to misunderstanding, in English, German and Greek. Data were
collected from native speakers of all three languages, who were all
students of one of the other two languages. One questionnaire
involved a discourse completion task, and the other asked
respondents to evaluate possible utterances in a situation from the
point of view of one of the participants. The results are complex, but
some of the more salient results are the following: English native
speakers avoid direct forms in German and come across as overly
polite, while German native speakers use conventional indirectness in
English. Misunderstandings can arise with some direct forms and
their differential interpretations: ''Negative questions ...were almost
always perceived as impolite by German and English speakers but not
by Greek speakers'' (p. 228). Imperatives also are evaluated
differently: English speakers find them impolite, German speakers give
them mixed reviews, and they seem neutral to Greek speakers.

Anders Ahlqvist focuses on ''Forms of address in Irish and Swedish.''
These two languages are of interest because both are exceptions to
the pattern in many European languages in which a second person
plural pronoun serves as the ''polite'' form of address to a singular
addressee, such as 'vous' in French. In Ireland, this pattern was
never adopted, whereas in Sweden, it was. Still, in Sweden, the vous-
equivalent was marginalized by the widespread use of titles for
addressee-reference used with third person predicates; this pattern
was then done away with in the language reform of the 1960's, and
the universal use of Du to a singular addressee prevailed in most of

Ekaterini Kouletaki analyzes the results of a discourse completion
questionnaire in ''Women, Men and polite requests: English and
Greek.'' Following Blum-Kulka, House and Kasper (1989), Kouletaki
shows that the strategies used by men and women, Greek and
English, are as much influenced by the situation as other factors,
which mitigates the characterization of whole cultures as inclining
towards one type of politeness or other.

Mark Le's discussion of ''Privacy: an intercultural perspective'' claims
that ''privacy is culturally determined'' (p. 277); Le presents a cline of
discourse types, from very private ''pillow talk,'' to very public
''conference presentation, as well as instances of (presumably
recalled) discourse between Australians and Vietnamese which
demonstrate that participants were operating with two very different
notions of what kinds of topics were off-limits.

The final chapter in the comparative section is ''Selection of linguistic
forms for requests and offers: Comparison between English and
Chinese'' by Masako Tsuzuki, Kazuhiro Takahashi, Cynthia Patschke
and Qin Zhang. The researchers constructed a Discourse Completion
Task which contrasted two kinds of requests, those that burden the
addressee, and those that benefit the addressee. These were
constructed with socially close versus distant, and status equal versus
higher status addressees (request type x social distance x status). In
all cases, the question was whether the imperative or interrogative
form was judged more acceptable; respondents rated each form on a
Likert scale. Respondents were American teachers of English and
Chinese teachers in Japan. The results are clearly and carefully
presented: for the burden-requests, the interrogative is judged more
appropriate than the imperative for both languages, although Chinese
speakers rated all cases of the imperative as less impolite than the
English speakers did. For the benefit-request, the imperative is more
appropriate only if the addressee is both socially close and a status-
equal. Otherwise, the interrogative remains more appropriate.
However, in Chinese, the imperative is more appropriate than it is in
English in a ''close and equal relationship'' (p. 295), and is
conventionalized as such; for this reason, the authors conclude that
Chinese society can be said to be more positive politeness oriented
than American society.

Two chapters comprise the final section, ''The Historical Perspective.''
The first of these, Andrew Barke and Satoshi Uehara's ''Japanese
pronouns of address: Their behavior and maintenance over time,''
provides a fascinating coverage of the historical changes in Japanese
second-person pronouns since the Nara period (710-794 C.E.). The
resulting picture contrasts with that provided by Brown and Gilman
(1968) for second-person pronouns in Western European languages.
Current-day Japanese has more second-person pronouns than
German, Italian, etc., and an extensive search of a Japanese historical
dictionary revealed 140 second-person forms since 710; collapsing of
phonological variants reduced this number to 72. The question that
arises is what accounts for this large number of forms and for the
frequency of innovation and replacement? The authors argue that
Japanese, first of all, has more ''levels of politeness'' than European
languages, as well as second person pronouns that are distinctly
derogatory. Furthermore, ''personal pronouns in Japanese are
susceptible to shifts in their politeness levels, and when such a shift
occurs, it is always downwards'' (p. 306). Thus, the life cycle of
second person pronouns in Japanese consists of a euphemistic
innovation (as reference to the addressee is more or less taboo),
followed by semantic pejoration, and an eventual retiring of the form.
Thus, new address terms are needed frequently. Interestingly, while
both men and women have created innovative second-person forms
over the history of Japanese, those created by women come to be
used by men, although the reverse is not the case.

The final chapter of the volume is ''An aspect of the origins and
development of linguistic politeness in Thai'' by Wilaiwan Khanittanan.
Khanittanan consults compendia of inscriptions from the Sukhothai
period (1238-1420) and identifies this period as the source of the use
of kinship terms as polite address terms, as well as of the stratification
of various personal pronouns, and special (honorific) lexical items for
use by or with reference to kings or monks. During the succeeding
Ayutthaya period (1351-1767), kings were further elevated by the use
of the ''raja-sap'' or royal vocabulary. During this period the elite were
literate in both Thai and Khmer, and in consequence a ''diglossic
register differentiation'' (p. 324) developed, as did honorification
prefixes and usages that elevated the king and effaced the speaker.
While politeness was due from those lower on the hierarchy, it was not
reciprocated by those above. In the modern era, raja-sap is taught in
the schools, and the categories of people to whom it should be used
has expanded. Sentence-final particles have developed that mark
politeness in ordinary speech, and words of Indic and Khmer origin
are still considered more refined than words developed of native Thai


As a collection of papers, this volume achieves its stated goal of
broadening the focus of politeness studies; not only are some
European languages included which have not been frequently studied
in terms of politeness (such as Irish), but also, the volume boasts
several articles on politeness phenomena in Thai, a language which
has not been as central to the politeness conversation as have
Japanese and Chinese, for example. Further broadening still remains
to be done, both within and beyond East Asia, obviously, but this
attempt is a good start. The secondary goal of assessing three
decades of work in politeness studies is a more difficult one, and only
a few of the papers can be seen as contributing towards this goal;
however, there is a certain amount of theoretical diversity here (which
can be an advantage or a disadvantage in a volume like this); while
notions from Brown and Levinson (1987) are both used and critiqued,
this use and critique does not unduly constrain either the topics or the
approaches of the papers. The papers in the historical section, for
example, serve as refreshing reminders that a number of approaches
to linguistic politeness phenomena can be fruitful. The quality of
papers in the volume is not quite uniform, in that a few papers are
somewhat data-thin. Others, however, are well-constructed, original
in approach, well-argued and well-supported, making the overall value
of this volume high.


Blum-Kulka, Shoshana, Juliane House, and Gabriele Kasper (eds.)
(1989). Cross-Cultural Pragmatics: Requests and Apologies.
Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Brown, Penelope and Stephen Levinson. (1987). Politeness: Some
universals in language usage. Cambridge: CUP.

Brown, Roger and Albert Gilman (1968). The pronouns of power and
solidarity. In Joshua Fishman (ed.), Readings in the Sociology of
Language. The Hague: Mouton.

Fukada, Atsushi. (1998). A Gricean theory of politeness. Presented
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Gumperz, John. (1982). Discourse Strategies. Cambridge: CUP.
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Lunsing, Wim and Claire Maree. (2004). Shifting Speakers:
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Mills, Sara. (2003). Gender and Politeness. Cambridge: Cambridge
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Miyazaki, Ayumi. (2004). Japanese Junior High School Girls' and
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Myers-Scotton, Carol. (1993). Social Motivations for Codeswitching:
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Sacks, Harvey, E. Schegloff and G. Jefferson. (1974). A simplest
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Tannen, Deborah. (1984). Conversational Style: Analyzing Talk
Among Friends. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Turner, K. (1996). The principle principals of pragmatic inference:
Politeness. Language Teaching, 29:1-13.

Watts, Richard J. (1992). Linguistic politeness and politic verbal
behavior: Reconsidering claims for universality. In Watts, Richard
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Mouton de Gruyter.

Susan Meredith Burt is Associate Professor in the Department of
English at Illinois State University, Normal, Illinois. She has published
on politeness in the choice of deictic verbs in Japanese, and in code
choice in German-English intercultural conversations. She is currently
researching changes in politeness practices in the language of the
immigrant Hmong community in Wisconsin. Her most recent
publication is "How to Get Rid of Unwanted Suitors" in volume 1,
number 2 of the Journal of Politeness Research.