The Background of Politeness Universals

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Abstract


Early accounts of politeness have been widely criticised for adopting a universalist stance while attempting to account for a phenomenon that is clearly culture-dependent. In reaction to this criticism, Leech (2007/2014) has argued for the necessity of politeness universals, on condition that they allow for the investigation of the relevant cultural variation. This paper sets out to provide additional support for Leech’s claim, by pursuing the argument that even though different societies have in principle different politeness values, all members of the same cultural and/or linguistic group typically accept very similar sets of such values. This argument is theoretically supported by resort to Searle’s notion of the Background, as a body of preintentional mental capacities that safeguards the alignment of our intentional states with that of our peers. Given then the systematicity with which we develop a culturally uniform understanding of politeness, the postulation of politeness universals, in Leech’s sense, cannot but be a useful analytical tool when theorising about politeness.

Stavros Assimakopoulos

Institute of Linguistics, University of Malta

Email: stavros.assimakopoulos@um.edu.mt

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