Politeness. A comparison of two pragmatic approaches towards polite acting in speech

Term Paper, 2015

18 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Thesis

3. Grice’s Maxims and his cooperation principle

4. Brown and Levinson’s face-threatening acts

5. Merging both in theory
5.1. Cooperative principle
5.2. Maxims
5.3. Conclusion

6. Explanatory statement regarding the corpus

7. Method

8. Exemplary practical proof
8.1. Arthur: “[] Ron, get out of the kitchen. We’re all hungry.” (28f)
8.2. Dumbledore: “I’d like to make an announcement . []“ (46f)
8.3. Seamus: “Can I have a go, Harry? After you, of course.” (138)

9. Conclusion

10. References

11. Attachment: Corpus

1. Introduction

This term paper is concerned with the question of whether or not two pragmatic approaches to language can be adapted to the phenomenon of politeness and be combined under certain aspects. The specific question is: Can Penelope Brown and Stephen C. Levinson’s model of politeness completely be described through the terminology and perspective of Grice’s? I will therefore, in a first step, compare both models under these aspects and then try to combine them. Depending on to what degree this can be done, I shall afterwards explain the differences that hinder a complete merging, if they exist. In a second step, I will adapt the new knowledge exemplarily to a corpus and repeat the comparison deductively on a practical level.

2. Thesis

Both Herbert Paul Grice and the team of Penelope Brown and Stephen C. Levinson give possibilities to imply nonliteral meaning into utterances in their works “Studies in the Way of Words” and “Politeness. Some universals in language usage”.

Grice’s Cooperative Principle (Grice, 1989, 26) basically makes implicit messages possible. For example: If two people who do not know each other meet in the streets of a city and one person says: “Do you mind telling me what time it is?”, speaker and hearer know the message that lies behind: “Tell me what time it is.”. This works because both speakers are presuming that the other one behaves rational. And the ability of whether or not someone is able to utter some numbers is normally not something that people ask you for on the street.

Brown and Levinson discussed politeness in their book “Politeness. Some universals in language use.” (Brown and Levinson, 1989) Here, human language interaction, requests in particular, bring with them the risk of performing a so called „face-threatening act“ (Brown and Levinson, 1989, 59f). To avoid such an act, people change their utterance and thereby the literal meaning, like in the exemplary sentence used above.

It is now in my interest, if both theories can be merged as they, at first sight, do not necessarily contradict. A face threatening act for example can be avoided by the use of conversational implicature.

3. Grice’s Maxims and his cooperation principle

Grice’s four conversational maxims of Quantity, Quality, Relation and Manner (Grice, 1989, 26f) are general rules that speakers adhere to, in a sense that it is conspicuous if a speaker infringes upon such a maxim. In that case, if the literal meaning of an utterance is inappropriate or does not make any sense at all to the hearer, the hearer will guess that there is a nonliteral meaning “behind” the utterance, which again fits all the conversational maxims. The reason why this mechanism works is Grice’s cooperative principle, the main conversational principle superior to all others. (Bublitz, 2001, 178f) It is the general assumption, under which two individuals engage in a conversation: that the other one will act cooperatively, that there is a “mutually accepted direction” (Grice, 1989, 26) of the dialogue. It might be appropriate to give the hint at this point, that “cooperative” acting in this context must not be confused with considerate, altruistic, consent-oriented acting. It just means: Behaving rationally. (Bublitz, 2001, 176) The term „rational“ is used as following by Grice: Two speakers act rational, if they know and care “about the goals that are central to the conversation/communication” (Grice, 1989, 30) and therefore are interested in talk exchanges that will help them reach them. (Grice, 1989, 30)

illustration not visible in this excerpt

The four conversational maxims (Grice, 1989, 26f)

The case that is interesting for us – if someone makes an utterance which’s implicit meaning differs from its literal meaning when being polite – is what Grice calls the conversational implicature. This term also applies for the process of a hearer to identify it. (Bublitz, 2001, 179) The decryption of such a conversational implicature is possible because the addressee notices that the speaker breaches a maxime but still seems to stick to the general principle of cooperation. (Grice, 1989, 30)

Politeness itself has not been a main point of Grice’s work. His perspective concentrates on the rules of efficient communication. He names “Be polite” as an example for one of “all sorts of other maxims” (Grice, 1989, 28) whose violation can induce nonconventional implicatures. He also does not give information about in which situations to use politeness because his work focusses on analysing the process of transmitting and decrypting information. Another problem is that Grice does not define the meaning of “polite” in “be polite” and does not examine the implicatures generated through the violation of the “be polite” maxim. (Kallia, 2007, 52)

4. Brown and Levinson’s face-threatening acts

The main point in the politeness theory developed by Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson is the concept of the face and face-threatening acts. (Brown and Levinson, 1989, 59f) Faces are self-images that individuals want to keep with negative face roughly being described as the need for the right of self-determination and positive face as social acceptance. (Brown and Levinson, 1989, 60) Politeness is necessary because most requests cannot be made without compromising the hearer’s negative face and most speech acts that conform to a speaker’s positive face tend to threaten the hearer’s positive face. (Bublitz, 2001, 224) They are, in short, likely to be a face-threatening act (FTA). When a speaker sees himself required to make a request towards another person to change their behaviour in the way the speaker wants it, he is likely to look for a strategy to avoid the FTA. (Brown and Levinson, 1989, 68) This strategy of avoidance, often an indirect speech act, is what Brown and Levinson call politeness. Speakers now tend to use certain strategies to avoid face-threatening acts for example through the use of indirect speech acts.

Brown and Levinson’s perspective focusses on strategies to conform to social rules when making speech acts that would otherwise infringe upon these rules. The choice of these strategies depends upon the relationship between hearer and speaker and the speakers intentions. Brown and Levinson’s perspective can therefore be considered as a sociolinguistic one. The situations in which politeness is used are situations in which a speaker makes a request towards an addressee. These situations make the starting point for Brown and Levinson’s studies. (Brown and Levinson, 1989, 57) The authors have known and included Herbert P. Grice’s model of conversational maxims and implicature into their work. (Brown and Levinson, 1989, 213f)

5. Merging both in theory

I shall now commence to test if the theory that Grice posed gives terminology that is sufficient to describe the phenomena Brown and Levinson described. Do they use the same concept of rationality or does it differ? Can all FTA avoidance strategies be described through conversational maxims and the breach of them? Is the term “conversational implicature” adequate to describe FTA avoidance strategies?

5.1. Cooperative principle

Bublitz already found out that Brown and Levinson’s model basically is built upon two pillars: face and rationality. (Bublitz, 2001, 223) The latter one being described as acting in a way that will help reaching what one wants to achieve. (Brown and Levinson, 1989, 64) With this definition the two researchers are using the same concept of rationality as Grice does. He claims: “Anyone who cares about the goals […] must […] have an interest […] in talk exchanges that will be profitable.” (Grice, 1989, 30) Brown and Levinson’s concept of rationality can thus be described in the words of Grice.

5.2. Maxims

Brown and Levinson designed a clearly laid out graphic to display all situations that are relevant for their studies of politeness. (Brown and Levinson, 1989, 60) In the following process, I will test, if each speech act that is listed in the graph could be described in terms of Grice solely.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

(Brown and Levinson, 1989, 60)

1. If an FTA is made baldly, without redressive action, the speaker concentrates on conveying his message with maximum efficiency. Again, Brown and Levinson themselves used the conversational maxims to describe this efficiency (Brown and Levinson, 1989, 94f), so the Gricean terminology is sufficient here.
2. and 3. If positive or negative politeness is used, a speaker acts rational because he does use politeness to achieve his goal. The additional utterances a speaker makes in this case can be described with the terminology of the conversational maxims.
4. If an FTA is performed off record, the speaker violates a conversational maxim to trigger a conversational implicature (Brown and Levinson, 1989, 213) the hearer has to interpret, leaving the choice whether or not to hear the FTA up to the hearer. (Brown and Levinson, 1989, 211) Brown and Levinson have obviously already described this phenomenon with Gricean terminology. It is therefore sufficient.
5. In the case that no FTA is performed, Brown and Levinson do not focus on it in their work. It is therefore not relevant for my study if speech acts in this case could be described with the Gricean terminology.

5.3. Conclusion

Brown and Levinson build upon Grice’s work and use his terminology. But in contrast to Grice, their work goes far beyond a mere description of polite speech acts. They consider sociocultural circumstances and reasons for acting, whereas Grice’s model concentrates on analysing and describing the rules (maxims) of speech acts and the decryption of hidden messages (implicature). Grice himself writes: “It is the rationality and irrationality of conversational conduct which I have been concerned to track down rather than any more general characterization of conversational adequacy.” (Grice, 1989, 369) The Gricean model is therefore inadequate to comprehend all the knowledge about politeness in language that Brown and Levinson gathered. A possibility to broaden the Gricean perspective would be developing another main conversational maxim: the maxim of politeness. (Kallia, 2007, 194)

6. Explanatory statement regarding the corpus

The sentences I used for analysis are excerpted from dia- and monologues taking place in the English synchronisation of the movies “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” (Alfonso Cuarón, 2004) and “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” (Mike Newell, 2005). To provide reliability I used the corresponding text from the movie’s subtitles. It is possible to use dialogues from a fantasy movie for analysis because expressions of politeness are largely independent from the cultural context in which they are made. (Brown and Levinson, 1989, 59) This statement has been criticised in the past but at least the use of politeness can certainly account to a Western European society (Bublitz, 2001, 230f) from which the Harry Potter movies stem. Polite expressions are furthermore bound to appear in a movie in a way that is considered as „normal“ by its audience. The “normal” polite expression for viewers in a Western European society is the Western European politeness. In other words: We can anticipate that expressions of politeness (and indirect speech acts in general) in these movies almost perfectly reflect the reality of politeness use. Otherwise these films’ dialogues would seem strange and “unnatural” to their Western European audience and would not be as popular and widely understood as they are.


Excerpt out of 18 pages


Politeness. A comparison of two pragmatic approaches towards polite acting in speech
Catholic University Eichstätt-Ingolstadt
Seminar: Language Structure and Language Use: Pragmatics
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Politeness, Brown, Levinson, Grice, Harry Potter, Comparison, Analysis
Quote paper
Erik Lutz (Author), 2015, Politeness. A comparison of two pragmatic approaches towards polite acting in speech, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/335445


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