Linguistics Politeness in Language
by
Daniel van Olmen
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 April 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0161

Introduction

Linguistic politeness can be defined as the ways in which language is employed in conversation to show consideration for the feelings and desires of one’s interlocutors, to create and uphold interpersonal relationships (so-called politic behavior), and to comply with the rules for what society or one’s culture considers appropriate behavior. Although politeness in language had featured in earlier work to different degrees of explicitness, the research into the phenomenon only really took off in 1970s and 1980s. The first accounts were based on contemporary theoretical pragmatics and sociology and on the cooperative principle, speech act theory, and the notion of face in particular. They regarded politeness as a set of maxims (e.g., “give options”) motivating linguistic choices, or as paying linguistic attention to an individual’s wish to be liked and to do as one pleases. These models inspired numerous linguists, resulting in a substantial increase in the number of politeness studies in the 1990s. However, the research started to find more and more problems with the theories. It challenged, among other things, the claim that they described a universal feature of languages and cultures, as well as the idea that their fixed set of invariable sociolinguistic factors (e.g., social distance) captured the role of context in politeness. The accumulation of criticism eventually led to, at least for some scholars, a clear rejection of the traditional models at the turn of the century. One of the main objections was that, in those approaches, politeness is a theoretical construct by observers, and that this so-called etic or second-order concept is often at odds with the emic or first-order views of politeness held by members of the observed groups. Several alternatives have been proposed since the early 2000s. The discursive approach, arguably the most influential alternative, sees politeness as constructed through discourse, and it concentrates on the ways in which the concept is used in interaction by the members of the observed group. Other approaches take an explicitly interpersonal or “frame-based” perspective on politeness. A noteworthy development is that numerous scholars nowadays are couching the issue of politeness in terms of a more general framework. In one specific model, politeness is subsumed by the more wide-ranging concept of rapport management, or, in other words, the control of (dis)harmony between people in discourse. Conversation analysis, too, is paying a lot of attention to linguistic phenomena typically discussed within the politeness literature. Despite the drastic changes that the field in its entirety has undergone and the ongoing debate, some of the topics with which current research into politeness is concerned go back decades. They include the acquisition of linguistic politeness behavior by children, cross-cultural pragmatics, the conceptualization of the notion of face, honorifics, and the interaction of gender with politeness. Topics that have only recently or occasionally been explored are impoliteness, the role of politeness in language change, and diachronic changes to politeness cultures and forms themselves.

General Overviews

Numerous reviews of the literature on politeness in language have been published over the years. The following list includes the more recent ones by some of the most important scholars in the field: Locher and Graham 2010, Locher 2012, and Mills 2015 focus on the discursive approach, Brown 2015 focuses on the classic face-based approach, and Culpeper 2011 and Terkourafi 2016 provide fairly balanced overviews. Another major resource is Culpeper, et al. 2017, a handbook on linguistic (im)politeness.

  • Brown, P. 2015. Politeness and impoliteness. In The Oxford handbook of pragmatics. Edited by Y. Huang, 383–399. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    A recent overview of the literature on linguistic politeness that pays particular attention to defending the traditional face-based model of politeness against some of the criticism that it has received.

  • Culpeper, J. 2011. Politeness and impoliteness. In Pragmatics of society. Edited by G. Andersen and K. Aijmer, 393–438. Berlin: De Gruyter.

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    A balanced review of (im)politeness research that is critical of both the classic models of politeness and the more recent models.

  • Culpeper, J., M. Haugh, and D. Z. Kádár, eds. 2017. The Palgrave handbook of linguistic (im)politeness. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

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    A handbook with contributions by more than forty experts from different disciplines, providing a very up-to-date overview of the field of linguistic politeness and impoliteness.

  • Locher, M. A. 2012. Politeness research from past to future, with a special focus on the discursive approach. In New perspectives on (im)politeness and interpersonal communication. Edited by L. Fernández-Amaya, M. de la O Hernández López, R. Gómez Morón, M. Padilla Cruz, M. Mejias Borrero, and M. Relinque Barranca, 36–60. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars.

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    A survey of the whole research tradition that pays special attention to the discursive and interpersonal approaches to politeness and recommends the combination of politeness and identity construction for future research.

  • Locher, M. A., and S. L. Graham, eds. 2010. Interpersonal pragmatics. Berlin: De Gruyter.

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    A volume of which chapters 2 to 5, by Sifianou, Watts, Okamoto, and Bousfield, respectively, provide a good overview of the classic and the more recent models of politeness, as well as of politeness in East Asia and the issue of impoliteness.

  • Mills, S. 2015. Language, culture and politeness. In The Routledge handbook of language and culture. Edited by F. Sharifian, 129–140. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

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    An introduction to politeness that focuses on the use of the notions of language and culture and argues that the discursive approach can handle them better than the classic models.

  • Terkourafi, M. 2016. The linguistics of politeness and social relations. In The Routledge handbook of linguistics. Edited by K. Allan, 221–235. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

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    An overview of the literature that concentrates on what the various approaches to linguistic politeness, despite their differences, agree upon.

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