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Politeness. A Theoretical Review of Brown and Levinson's Politeness Theory

Seminararbeit 2009 19 Seiten

Anglistik - Linguistik



1. Introduction

2. The Cooperative and Politeness Principle
2.1. Grice's Cooperative Principle
2.2. Leech's Politeness Principle

3. Face
3.1. Goffmann's Concept of Face
3.2. Further Development through Levinson and Brown
3.2.1. Positive and Negative Face
3.3. Face Threatening Acts

4. Politeness Strategies
4.1. Doing FTAs
4.2. Choice of a Strategy

5. Politeness Theory in Practice

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

As efficient communication plays a crucial, far-ranging role in our everyday life, it is highly interesting to examine how we transport the information we want to communicate. Yet, in contrast to what efficient might implicate, the actual language use is rather characterized by "indirectness and the flouting of Gricean maxims" (Blum-Kulka 1998: 50), than by clear and direct expressions. One of the main reasons for this process lies within the concept of politeness: Since, roughly speaking, the more indirect a request is being articulated, the more polite it will be considered.

Thus, this paper aims to contemplate the aspect of politeness in interactions, as it greatly influences the choice of speech. Therefore, I will make use of Brown and Levinson's notion of politeness and present their concept in theory before I will continue by questioning the practicability and universality of this model.

As mentioned before, I will mainly refer to Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson's politeness theory in order to illustrate the main aspects of politeness. However, in the following chapter, I will introduce some basic assumptions of Paul Grice and Geoffrey Leech, namely the Cooperative and Politeness Principle as both resemble the corner stone for the development of a politeness theory. Chapter 3 will then concentrate on Levinson and Brown's theory in particular, beginning with a short historical retrospect of Goffmann's concept of face. Furthermore, I will not only explain the concept of face but I will also highlight the role it exhibits in the act of communication. Moreover, Chapter 4 then demonstrates strategies that serve to achieve and obtain politeness in interactions. Having presented the theory of Brown and Levinson's concept of politeness in the preceding chapters, I will advance by critically discussing the limits of Brown and Levinson's concept concerning aspects of universality and practical appliance in chapter 5. In my conclusion I will eventually provide an evaluation according to the relevance and importance of Brown and Levinson's concept in particular.

As I have already pointed out, my research mainly concentrates on Brown and Levinson's politeness theory. Thus, I have taken large parts of my knowledge from their work: "Politeness: Some Universals in Language Use." (1990). However, I also want to mention the works of Sara Mills and Miriam Locher as they were rather useful.

2. The Cooperative and Politeness Principle

In order to understand Brown and Levinson's concept of politeness, I find it rather important to discuss the basic approach of their research. Paul Grice, as well as Geoffrey Leech have tried to "unravel the logic or basis for rational behavior behind human linguistic interactions in conversations" (Foley 1997: 276) by means of the Cooperative and Politeness Principle respectively.

2.1. Grice's Cooperative Principle

Grice himself, describes his Cooperative Principle the following way:

Make your conversational contribution such as is required, at the state at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged. (Grice (1975) in Bublitz 2001: 167)

His principle is a general code that needs to be followed by every speaker in order to communicate effectively. Otherwise the communication would not be successful, as usually the discrepancy between what is said and what is meant is too big. While communicating with others, it is of greatest importance to regard their needs and wants, as the statement or request could potentially threaten his self-fulfillment (cf. Bublitz 2001: 168). Thus, participants "should speak sincerely, relevantly and clearly, while providing sufficient information" (Levinson 1983: 102). This is exactly, what Grice's Conversational Maxims are concerned with, as shown by his following definition:

(i) Maxim of quantity:

This maxim refers to the amount of information given in the course of a statement. You should give as much information as is required, but you should avoid making it too informative.

(ii) Maxim of quality:

You should be truthful. Moreover, the speaker is expected to only give

information for which he has evidence.

(iii) Maxim of relation:

The contribution made needs to be relevant to what is said by the other

participant. Furthermore, any attempt of irrelevance needs to be indicated.

(iv) Maxim of manner:

You should be clear, brief and orderly at any rate. Additionally, obscurity of

expression and ambiguity should be avoided.

(cf. Grice (1975) in Locher 2004: 36 -37)

As the name already implies cooperation is of great importance in the context of successful communication. Yet, these maxims are often intentionally violated, that is flouted. This is regularly done by saying something else than is actually meant but with the intention that the hearer understands the underlying implication anyhow. Thereby speakers can conceal their real intentions or manipulate the way the message is received by others. Thus, according to Brown and Levinson flouting Grice's maxims resembles a form of being polite, as this helps to avoid an affront, e.g. in form of a request, to the hearer.

Although these maxims are greatly accepted, Grice also found his Cooperative Principle exposed to criticism: At this point, I would like to refer to Leech, since he amongst others criticizes that Grice's maxims only apply to the content of the contribution and consequently disregard the aspect of social connections (cf. Bublitz 2001: 221).

2.2. Leech's Politeness Principle

With reference to his main point of criticism, Geoffrey Leech proposes a Politeness Principle, which is to coexist with Grice's Cooperative Principle and is of equal if not greater importance. He adds his principle in order "to explain why people violate the Cooperative Principle in conversations" (Locher 2004: 62) and as Locher further states:

Leech argues that the Cooperative Principle and the Politeness Principle are often in conflict with each other. A speaker might, for example, be in conflict between wanting to ask for a favor straightforwardly and not wanting to impose. One element has to be sacrificed and the Politeness Principle gives reasons for the Cooperative Principle to be violated. (2004: 63)

In the style of Grice, Leech formulates six maxims:

(i) Tact maxim:

Minimize cost to other; Maximize benefit to other

(ii) Generosity maxim:

Minimize benefit to self; Maximize cost to self

(iii) Approbation maxim:

Minimize dispraise of other; Maximize praise of other

(iv) Modesty maxim:

Minimize praise of self; Maximize dispraise of self

(v) Agreement maxim:

Minimize disagreement between self and other; Maximize agreement between

self and other

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(vi) Sympathy maxim:

Minimize antipathy between self and other; Maximize sympathy between self

and other

(Leech (1983) in Locher 2004: 64)

Yet, Leech has also been criticized. Mainly because of the great number of maxims which leads to overlaps. Amongst others Brown and Levinson have picked up this aspect by stating: "Every discernable pattern of language use does not, eo ipso, require a maxim or principle to produce it" (Brown and Levinson 1990: 5). This statement provides an insight into Brown and Levinson's point of view, since they "do not see politeness in terms of principles and maxims" (Locher 2004: 65). However, some maxims will be reflected in Brown and Levinson's concept as well, such as the tact maxim, the agreement or sympathy maxim.

3. Face

The concept of face is crucial for the understanding of Brown and Levinson's politeness theory, as they consider politeness in terms of face-saving and face-threatening acts. Roughly speaking, face can then be regarded as "the public self-image of a person [and] it refers to that emotional and social sense of self that everyone has and expects everyone else to recognize" (Yule 1996: 60). Brown and Levinson's theory of face in particular is based on Erving Goffman's studies, who set up his concept in 1967 within his work Interaction Ritual.

3.1. Goffmann's Concept of Face

This concept rests on the fact that every individual in an interaction aims to communicate and implement his needs and wants. Thereby, they not only create and project a certain image of themselves, which is to be recognized by other participants but moreover are also "concerned with presenting and maintaining [that] public image of themselves, that is 'face'" (Blum-Kulka 1998: 50), when communicating. Yet, this public image is rather a modifiable than a fixed, distinct feature, as it develops out of our social relationships and environment - "it is only on loan to him from society" (Goffmann (1967) in Locher 2004: 52). In his studies, Goffmann also indicates that participants in a communicative interaction, seek to "protect the fragile self-esteem they have of themselves; at the very least, to minimize damage to this esteem, at best, to incerase it.



ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
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Institution / Hochschule
Ernst-Moritz-Arndt-Universität Greifswald – Institut für fremdsprachliche Philologien
Politeness Theoretical Review Brown Levinson Politeness Theory



Titel: Politeness. A Theoretical Review of Brown and Levinson's Politeness Theory