Politeness Pressure on Grammar: The Case of First and Second Person Pronouns and Address Terms in Korean

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Grammar is constantly emergent as an aggregate whole of discourse tendencies that are present in language use between interlocutors, hence the notion ‘emergent grammar’ (Hopper 1987). These tendencies are formed by diverse discursive needs, including the need to signal politeness, which is assumed to be universal (Brown and Levinson 1987). This need is particularly important in Korean, in which politeness is highly grammaticalized, i.e., the politeness marking is not only a pragmatic but grammatical issue. The two areas where the speaker’s decision is most clearly visible are the choice of sentence-enders, modulated up to six levels, and the choice of personal reference, e.g., pronouns and address terms. This study is a diachronic investigation of the personal reference system in Korean, exploring the effect of pressure of politeness. Despite the high level of grammaticalization of politeness marking, the personal reference system is a highly unstable paradigm, i.e., it has not undergone a high level of ‘paradigmaticization’ (Lehmann 1995 [1982]). Since personal reference terms are highly variable, the speakers often avoid using them for fear of the addressee perceiving that the choice is of insufficient honorification or that the very act of using reference terms is impolite when they could be omitted. Furthermore, personal reference terms with the [+Honorific] feature constantly deteriorate through frequent use. Therefore, a look into Korean reference terms shows that [+Honorific] terms are constantly innovated to upgrade the diminishing honorification effect and the first-person reference terms are constantly innovated to strengthen the [+Humiliative] meaning.

About the authors

Seongha Rhee

Hankuk University of Foreign Studies

Email: srhee@hufs.ac.kr
Professor of Linguistics at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, Korea 107 Imun-ro, Dongdaemun-gu, Seoul, Republic of Korea


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