Lecture 11
A central concept in linguistic pragmatics is
politeness. It has been suggested ( for example,
R. Lakoff 1972, 1973; Brown and Levinson 1978;
Leech 1980, 1983) that politeness is another
level to conversational interaction besides the
rules of the cooperative principle. Robin Lakoff
(1977b) sees Grice’s rules as essentially rules
of clarity, and proposes that there are two prior
rules of ‘pragmatic competence’. These are:
‘Make yourself clear’ and ‘Be polite’.
She takes Grice’s maxims as an approximation,
at least, of how you conform to the rule ‘Make
yourself clear’, and proposes her own three
rules of politeness (Lakoff, 1977:88):
1. Formality: don’t impose/remain aloof;
2. Hesitancy: give the addressee his options;
3. Equality or camaraderie: act as though
you and the addressee were equal/make him
feel good.
Lakoff (1977b:89) elaborates the second rule as
‘Permit addressee to decide his own options.’ It
is not difficult to see how the operation of this
rule could lead directly to the troublesome
inference in ‘Henry likes apples or bananas’. If
we imagine, for example, that Henry’s wife
knows her host is about to serve fruit, she might
well make this utterance, conveying and
intending to convey that Henry is fond of both
fruits; the host may select either option without
fear of making a mistake.
In such a case, Henry’s wife can
felicitously give the host the option only if
either option will be successful, and that
can only be true if Henry likes both fruits.
Leech’s view of politeness involves a set of
politeness maxims analogous to Grice’s maxims.
Among these are (Leech, 1983:132):
TACT MAXIM: Minimize cost to other. Maximize benefit
to other.
GENEROSITY MAXIM: Minimize benefit to self.
Maximize cost to self.
APPROBATION MAXIM: Minimize dispraise of other.
Maximize praise of other.
MODESTY MAXIM: Minimize praise of self. Maximize
dispraise of self.
These add up to ‘an essential asymmetry
in polite behavior, in that whatever is a
polite belief for the speaker tends to be an
impolite belief for the hearer, and vice
versa’ (Leech, 1983:169)
Frequently cited examples first
discussed by R. Lakoff (1972) are
amenable to this general kind of analysis.
Lakoff pointed out that a hostess would be seen
as polite if she said, ‘You must have some of
this cake’, but very impolite if she said, ‘You
may have some of this cake.’ On the face of it
this is strange, since ordinarily you would think
telling someone what they must do removes all
other options, imposes on them, and is therefore
impolite. On the other hand, granting permission,
if one is in a position to do it, makes it possible
for the hearer to do what he or she wants to do,
and would seem polite, or at least considerate.
The answer hinges on the fact that the hostess is
responsible for the quality of the cake. Offering the cake
by placing an obligation on the hearer conforms nicely to
the modesty maxim. By implying that she cannot
assume that the guest will want the cake is a way in
minimizing praise to herself. If the hostess had offered
the cake by saying ‘You may have some of this cake’,
she would have violated modesty by appearing to
assume that the cake is so good that the guest naturally
wants a piece of it, and is only waiting to get permission.
Leech’s politeness principle also seems to be
applicable to the disjunction example in a
natural way. One way that Henry’s wife can
conform to the maxim of tact, minimizing the
cost to the host, is by making sure no one has to
go to any special trouble to supply just the fruit
Henry likes. Whichever of the two fruits can be
supplied with minimum difficulty will be
satisfactory. This can only be really true if Henry
likes both apples and bananas.
Brown and Levinson
Perhaps the most thorough treatment of the
concept of politeness is that of Brown and
Levinson (1978). They have set out to develop
an explicit model of politeness which will have
validity across cultures. The general idea is to
understand various strategies for interactional
behavior based on the idea that people engage
in rational behavior to achieve satisfaction of
certain wants.
Brown and Levinson
The wants related to politeness are the wants of
face, ‘something that is emotionally invested,
and that can be lost, maintained, or enhanced,
and must be constantly attended to in interaction.
The concept is directly related to the folkexpression ‘lose face’, which is about being
embarrassed or humiliated. There are two kinds
of face. One is ‘negative face’, or the rights to
territories, freedom of action and freedom from
imposition; essentially the want that your actions
be not impeded by others.
Brown and Levinson
The other is ‘positive face’, the positive
consistent self-image that people have
and want to be appreciated and approved
of by at least some other people. The
rational actions people take to preserve
both kinds of face for themselves and the
people they interact with essentially add
up to politeness.
Brown and Levinson
A strength of the Brown and Levinson approach
over the rule-oriented presentations of
politeness by Robin Lakoff and by Leech is that
Brown and Levinson are attempting to explain
politeness by deriving it from more fundamental
notions of what it is to be a human being (being
rational and having face wants). There are two
advantages of this over normative or rule-based
Brown and Levinson
First, norms are discoverable and valid
within a particular culture and therefore
not too useful in understanding a concept
like politeness cross-culturally. Second,
even to posit universal (not cultureparticular) rules as arbitrary primitives is
‘to invent a problem to be explained,
rather than to explain it’ (Brown and
Levinson, 1978:91).
Brown and Levinson
In other words, if you start with a set of rules
like Leech’s maxim of politeness, you can
understand politeness phenomena in terms of
these rules, but you do not learn very much
about why there should be such rules in the first
place. Granted, Brown and Levinson ask us to
accept at the start that people are rational and
have two kinds of face wants, but this is a much
deeper starting point for explanation than
starting with rules designed specifically for
politeness itself.
Brown and Levinson
Face wants become a problem if we assume
that certain kinds of actions are intrinsically facethreatening. Such acts may threaten the
hearer’s negative face, like a request which, as
an attempt to get someone else to do something
that you want done, means that the recipient of
the request is being impeded in pursuing what
he or she wants to do. Others threaten hearers’
positive face: for instance, a contradiction or
expression of disagreement, which means the
speaker thinks there is something wrong with an
opinion held by the hearer.
Brown and Levinson
Even saying something irreverent or taboo
threatens the hearer’s positive face, since it
reveals that the speaker does not care about the
hearer’s face as well as the hearer’s. The
speaker’s negative face is jeopardized when he
or she makes an offer in somewhat the same
way as requests threaten the hearer’s negative
face since, in carrying out the offer, he or she
will be pursuing the hearer’s aims, not the
speaker’s own.
Brown and Levinson
Confessions, admissions of guilt, and apologies
threaten the speaker’s positive face since they
mean the speaker has done something the
proper sort of person would not have done.
Such nonspeaking acts as tripping or stumbling
also threaten a person’s positive face; they
reveal a certain incompetence in carrying out a
basic action like walking. None the less there
are times when actions like this are going to
occur and at times they may be desirable or
Brown and Levinson
In these cases, the rational person will look for
ways of doing the act while minimizing the threat
to face in one way or another.
Brown and Levinson (1978:65) show us five
ways a person can deal with a ‘face-threatening
act’ (FTA). The greater the risk, the more
appropriate the higher-numbered ways of
dealing with it are.
Brown and Levinson
without redressive action, baldly
on record
2 positive politeness
with redressive action
Do the FTA
4. Off record
3 negative politeness
5. Do not do the FTA
Brown and Levinson
But it will not do to minimize the risk too much,
because that will imply that the act is more face
threatening than it actually is. For example, if
there is something that only someone else can
do for you, and you really need it done, and you
select 5, ‘Do not do the FTA’by refraining from
asking your best friend to do it for you, you will
hurt your friend’s feelings. Your friend could
easily say, with a pained expression, ‘Don’t you
think I would have done that for you?’
Brown and Levinson
The meaning of the last of the five ways
of dealing with a potential FTA is selfevident; you simply do not take the action
that would threaten face. Doing an FTA
‘off the record’s is essentially dropping a
hint, or otherwise trying to make the FTA
salient while still keeping the possibility of
denying that you ever intended an FTA
more-or-less open.
Brown and Levinson
For example, if you say ‘Gosh, I’m out of
money. I forgot to go the bank’, your
companion might take it that you want a
loan. But if your companion responds by
saying, ‘Sorry, I’d like to help you out, but
I’m a little short of cash myself’, you could
still say, ‘Oh, I didn’t mean I wanted you to
lend me money!’
Brown and Levinson
‘On the record’ FTAs with negative politeness
redress are instances in which the FTA is
undeniably made, but something else is said or
done to show concern for the other person’s
freedom of action and right not to be imposed
upon. One of the most straightforward ways of
doing this is simply to express reluctance to
impose: ‘I hate to impose, but would you do
something for me?’
Brown and Levinson
Brown and Levinson suggest that the use
in many languages of the plural form of
‘you’ as a deferential form , as we saw in
chapter 1, has its origins in negative
politeness redress. One possible
explanation, originally Robin Lakoff’s and
recapitulated by Brown and Levinson
(1978:203-4) is that the plural form does
not literally single out the addressee.
Brown and Levinson
If we assume that what the speaker has
to say, or even the sheer fact that the
hearer is obliged to listen, is a potential
imposition on the hearer’s freedom, than
the use of the plural pronoun gives the
hearer the option of thanking it as being
directed to someone else associated with
him or her, not specifically to that person
as an individual.
To be continued