Politeness: West and East

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Abstract


The present paper was planned for this issue of our journal, which Geoffrey Leech and I intended to devote to Politeness phenomena across cultures. It is based on his article titled “Politeness: Is there an East-West Divide?” (2005) which he suggested as a theoretical framework and includes results of our discussions held during our personal meetings and our epistolary exchange. Unfortunately the final version of the paper was never read by Geoffrey Leech for the reasons we all sadly know. Nevertheless I decided to publish it as a tribute to him in the knowledge that the result was not going to have the degree of excellence it would have had if he were still with us today. I therefore apologise for any mistakes or misinterpretations of his thoughts that might be found in the paper. The aim of this article is to sum up the main ideas of Politeness Theory presented earlier in Leech 1983, 2003, 2005, and other publications and discuss how that theory applies (or fails to apply) to other languages, with the main emphasis on the Russian language and culture. The term ‘maxim’ used in Principles of Pragmatics (Leech 1983) is avoided here as much as possible, as it implies some kind of moral imperative, rather than a pragmatic constraint. Instead, a single constraint, which comprehends all the maxims (the Maxims of Tact, Generosity, Approbation, Modesty, Agreement, Sympathy), and is called the Grand Strategy of Politeness (GSP), is used. The GSP says: In order to be polite, S expresses or implies meanings which place a high value on what pertains to O- his/her wants, qualities, obligation, opinion, feelings (O = other person[s], [mainly the addressee, i.e. H = hearer]) or place a low value on what pertains to S (S = self, speaker). The essential point is that these are not separate, independent constraints or maxims: they are instances of the operation of the GSP as ‘super-maxim’ which is an overarching framework for studying linguistic politeness phenomena in communication. The following hypothesis will be put forward, and supported by limited evidence: that the GSP provides a very general explanation for communicative politeness phenomena in Western languages such as English, Eastern languages such as Chinese, Japanese and Korean, and Slavonic languages such as Russian as well with a few examples from other languages. This is not to deny the importance of quantitative and qualitative differences in the settings of social parameters and linguistic parameters of linguistic politeness in such languages. A framework such as the GSP provides the parameters of variation within which such differences can be studied. We do not imply that ethnic cultures are homogeneous and unchanging entities, and do not disregard the fact that generalizations about any culture can be dangerous as things may be different in different sub-cultures or discourse systems within the same ethnic culture. Therefore we are speaking here in very general terms, as we believe that there is a common core which distinguishes one communicative culture from another. Further still there are some general characteristics of behaviour which can be observed in different cultures (1). Hence this article argues that, despite differences, each of the languages and cultures discussed herein constitute a more or less unified system in terms of politeness norms and strategies, and that the GSP can be used as a tertium comparationis to study politeness phenomenon across languages and cultures.

- Geoffrey Leech

Lancaster University

Tatiana Viktorovna Larina

Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia

Professor of Linguistics

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