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Politeness: Theoretical approaches and language practice - Brown and Levinson reviewed

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar) 1999 21 Seiten

Anglistik - Linguistik



1 Introduction

2 Grice and the principles of conversation
2.1 Counterexamples
2.2 Conversational and Conventional Implicatures
2.2.1 Conversational implicatures
2.2.2 Conventional implicatures
2.3 About the importance of implicatures

3 Politeness
3.1 Face
3.1.1 Face threatening Acts
3.1.2 The five strategies connected to FTAs and their payoffs
3.1.3 Example: Application of the strategies
3.1.4 Criteria for the assessment of the seriousness of an FTA

4 Summary and reanalysis of Brown and Levinson’s model
4.1 Summary
4.2 Limits of Brown & Levinson’s model
4.2.1 The notion of face in the context of different societies
4.2.2 Politeness and grammatical structure
4.2.3 Speaker and Hearer
4.2.4 Conclusion

5 Selected Bibliography

1 Introduction

Effective communication is a key process in everyday life. Not only do we need to communicate about business and public affairs but also about ourselves and the things which concern us personally. In each case, it is highly interesting to analyse how we try to convey the information we want to get across: Naturally enough, we make use of conventional language but we are also creative and constantly invent new words, phrases and formulations. This, according to Blank, is due to the fact that: “Linguistic (and even non-linguistic) communication can be seen as a process whereby people try to maximize their communicative success by minimalizing their linguistic effort” (1993, p. 6). Sometimes, however, we diverge from the maximally effective way of communication and, naturally-enough, the question arises, why we do so. The divergence, however, which seems to be highly irrational as far as efficiency is concerned will turn out to be highly rationally motivated – with politeness being the main reason for this process. In the following, I will (1) sketch out the maxims according to which effective communication takes place and (2) analyse the reasons why it is sometimes advisable to intentionally counteract to the requisite maxims. For this purpose, I will refer to different works of well known linguists, especially to the model of politeness suggested by Brown and Levinson ( 1987). It is the final aim of this paper to reanalyse the model put forward by these two linguists and, thereby, evaluate to what extent their model covers politeness phenomena.

2 Grice and the principles of conversation

According to the language philosopher H. P. Grice, human communication is based on the following cooperative principle (CP): “Make your conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged” (Grice, 1975, p. 45). Grice’s maxim excludes certain conversational moves on the basis of four maxims, which Grice (1975, pp. 45) defines as follows:

1. Maxim of quantity:
- This maxim relates to the requirement that one should give all the necessary information one has for the present needs of the partner - not too much but not too little, either.
- be as informative as required
- don’t be more informative than required

2. Maxim of quality: Try to make your contribution one that is true
- The maxim of quality requires that we only give true information for which we have evidence. Cooperative speakers are expected to speak the truth
- Do not say what you believe is false
- Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence

3. Maxim of relation: what B says in response to A´s question actually relates to it
- be relevant (contribution fits the moment)

4. Maxim of manner:
- be perspicuous
- avoid obscurity of expression
- avoid ambiguity
- be brief
- be orderly

“In short, these maxims specify what participants have to do in order to converse in a maximally efficient, rational, co-operative way: they should speak sincerely, relevantly, clearly, while providing sufficient information” (Levinson, 1983, p. 102).

2.1 Counterexamples

With regard to everyday conversation, Grice’s maxims are challenged by various communicative efforts and, therefore, need to be reanalysed. If, for example, we interpreted Grice’s maxim of manner in a too narrow sense, the maxim would no longer be tenable. This becomes clear when we turn to phenomena such as metonymy or metaphor. These must often be labelled expressions that are obscure on the surface. However, they help us to express ideas which cannot be expressed in another way than by means of figural language. In that sense they are no longer ambiguous in actual fact. We can therefore conclude that the maxim of manner must be extended in a way that it does not exclude figurative language. This is due to the fact that “wherever I avoid some simple expression in favour of some more complex paraphrase, it may be assumed that I do not do so wantonly, but because the details are somehow relevant to the present enterprise” (Levinson, 1983, p. 107).

Moreover, expressions like “as you know” (violates maxim of quantity) or “this may not be true but...” (violates maxim of quality) also diverge from the above maxims. Again, the reason is a special communicative effect as they are used as opting out devices (Grice, 1975, p. 49) to avoid certain maxims. They also signal the hearer that the speaker is violating at least one of the maxims quoted above[1].

Further difficulties arise from the fact that we often say things implicitly. If, for example. I enter a room and say “Uh, it’s cold in here” I most likely would like you to close the window or turn the heating on. The speech act, however, simply expresses that I think it is cold – but does not request any action from you. Here, I violate the maxim of manner[2]. Consequently, in real talk exchange the hearer often has to read between the lines.

2.2 Conversational and Conventional Implicatures

On the basis of what has just been said it becomes clear that the hearer (apart from implementing the above maxims) is required to interpret a number of utterances on the basis of their implications: He must find out to what extent the information and the communicative intentions are given implicitly. Classical examples for situations where implicit communicative intentions are ’formulated’ are complaints such as “You left the door open”. Since this extra information is redundant the speaker obviously violated the maxims of quality and relevance. But because this is actually the case the hearer will read more into the utterance than was explicitly said and seek the relevant information: He will interpret the utterance as a request to do something about the situation rather than a description of it[3]. Implications like that which follow from conversational maxims are called implicatures (according to Grice, 1975, pp. 43). Grice distinguishes between conversational and conventional implicatures:

2.2.1 Conversational implicatures

This is the information which is inferred but not literally expressed in the utterance. It is tied to the conversation, which makes the implicature context-dependent. The implicature need not be true - it can be cancelled. It depends on the situation in which the speech act is made. On the assumption that the speaker is cooperative, the hearer will try to find out what the speaker intended to convey. A typical example for a conversational implicature would be the following:

“If A says ‘What is the time?’ and B replies ‘(Well) the milkman’s been here already’, then A assumes that what B said was rationally oriented to what A said, and hence, A derives from B’s utterance the inference that it is, say, past 11 a.m.” (Brown & Levinson, 1987, p. 58).

What A and B actually meant by what they said can be paraphrased as follows:

“A: Do you have the ability to tell me the time of the present moment, as standardly indicated on a watch, and if so, please do tell me?”
B: No, I don’t know the exact time of the present moment, but I can provide some information from which you may be able to deduce the approximate time, namely the milkman has come” (Levinson, 1983, p. 98)

Apparently, in the above example the gap between what is literally said and what is actually expressed is “so substantial that we cannot expect a semantic theory to provide more than a small part of an account of how we communicate using language” (Levinson, 1983, p. 98). By coining the concept implicature, however, we are able to close this gap. Here, even though the language maxims are not fulfilled we make use of them when we try to find out what a speaker actually implicated, i.e. we assume that (1) he related to our question (2) the necessary information is contained (3) the information given is true and (4) even though the expression may be unclear on the surface (as in the case of metonymy and metaphor) conveys a clear cut concept. “So Grice’s point is not that we always adhere to these maxims on a superficial level but rather that, wherever possible, people will interpret what we say as conforming to the maxims on at least some level” (Levinson, 1983, p. 103).

Conversational implicatures are derived on the basis of a violation of conversational maxims. Grice calls this process flouting Grice, 1975, pp. 48) the maxims. In contrast to deception, flouting is an obvious violation of the maxims. According to Grice’s CP, the speaker who flouts the maxims is still cooperative but expresses his intention very indirectly[4].

2.2.2 Conventional implicatures

This is an implicature which is tied to linguistic expressions. Conventional implicatures can be expected “to contrast with conversational ones in all the distinctive properties” (Levinson, 1983, p. 128) outlined for the latter, e.g. a conventional implicature cannot be cancelled (cf. but as a marker for contrastive meaning). Such implications are often of more general nature and depend on grammatical form.

In all cases of metaphorical language, conversational implicatures or flouting there is always social interaction as long as the speaker’s utterance remains relevant. Consequently, the maxim of relevance (> be relevant) may be regarded as the most important maxim of conversation. The question why we use implicatures rather than express our wants directly, however, remains and will be dealt with in the following.


[1] Grice concedes that there may be all sorts of other maxims that play a role in certain talk exchanges such as social, moral or aesthetical (never start a sentence with "and") ones. However, Grice sees the maxims and principles stated in his work as maxims which are primarily employed to support the particular purposes of talk. In his eyes this is the maximally effective exchange of information.

[2] R. Lakoff states that it “is considered more important in a conversation to avoid offence than to achieve clarity”.

[3] Here metonymy comes into play because the description of a given situation stands for the complex situation which is normally characterized by the fact that doors are there to be shut and, since that is not the case, some action should be taken to change it.

[4] Cf.: “The presence of a conversational implicature must be capable of being worked out; for even if it can in fact be intuitively grasped, unless the intuition is replaceable by an argument, the implicature will not count as a conversational implicature” (Grice, p. 50).


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Universität Hamburg – FB Anglistics
1,3 (A)
politeness Brown Levinson Grice



Titel: Politeness: Theoretical approaches and language practice - Brown and Levinson reviewed