Politeness Distinction in Personal Pronouns and the Concept of Face

Term Paper, 2006

10 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1. Introduction

2. Politeness
2.1. The Concept of Face

3. Conclusion: Politeness Distinctions in Personal Pronouns in English and German

4. Literature

1. Introduction

This paper will deal with politeness distinctions in personal pronouns. Thus, le leading question will be: In how far can personal pronouns, being deictic expressions, serve as elements of politeness?

To clarify this a little more, I would like to begin with a short explanation of the term “deictic expression”:

Deictics, also known as “pointing words”, are for example: I, you, here, there, before, after. One can distinguish between person, local and time deixis. Special to deictics is the fact that they are meaningless unless we know who speaks and thus forms the center of orientation - the origo[1]. Personal pronouns, however, form a category of person deixis. They relate to either the addressee or to someone talked about in a conversation, they “characterize the referent as well with respect to the speech act role and the size of the respective speaker and hearer groups.”[2]

In a discourse, personal pronouns lexicalize the relation between the origo, which is the cognitive ground for an act of pointing, and the intended referent, who is the figure of the pointing act. Unlike in local or time deixis, this intended referent is a human being (I will omit the situations when human beings speak to animals here), not an inanimate thing like a piece of furniture or an abstract unit like for example a time span – in short, it makes a difference if I say something like: “Here is the green chair”, or “It rained really hard yesterday.” or if I speak either about “I have met that Mrs. Jones” or directly to “You can leave the room now” other persons. If in direct address or not, the issue of politeness gets important in these cases. We can express distance and dislike in demonstratives as shown in the Mrs. Jones sentence, and we can be nice or rude depending on the form of address we use.

As this paper thus will primarily be focused on person deixis, I will omit the topics of local and time deixis but investigate the use of person deictic expressions in their various uses with regard to the question of politeness.

Therefore, I want to start with a chapter about politeness in general: What is politeness? Why are human beings polite (or impolite)? And how is this politeness conveyed through language? To specify the various strategies used to perform politeness, I will then introduce Brown and Levinson’s concept of “Face”, and, later, draw the link to the use of personal pronouns.

Personal pronouns in the different forms of address will thus form the center of the following chapter. I will, for instance, discuss the German sentence “Wie geht es uns denn heute?” (used in a discourse between a nurse and a patient in a hospital) and examine the “wrong” use of the 1st person possessive pronoun “wir” more thoroughly.

To conclude, I will elaborate on the differences between English and German in politeness distinctions in personal pronouns.

2. Politeness

First of all, human communication serves to convey information. To do this most efficiently, according to the language philosopher H. P. Grice it is based on the following cooperative principle (CP): "Make your conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged"[3] (Grice, 1975, p. 45). Grice′s theory of conversational implicature[4], includes certain conversational moves on the basis of four maxims: maxim of quantity, maxim of quality, maxim of relation and maxim of manner. Recapitulating, Levinson states: "In short, these maxims specify what participants have to do in order to converse in a maximally efficient, rational, co-operative way: they should speak sincerely, relevantly, clearly, while providing sufficient information"[5]

In actual conversation, however, people do not seem to act according to these maxims, which implies that there must be also other functions of language. Regarding discourse also as a means to establish and maintain social contacts, it becomes obvious that politeness may be one reason to not stick to the maxims and make efficiency the leading principle in all utterances.

But what exactly is politeness? Richard J. Watts[6] suggests that polite language use may be defined as “less direct”, “displaying respect towards or consideration for others”, “containing respectful forms of address and “polite” formulaic utterances like, please, thank you, excuse me etc.” In different languages and cultures, however, the notion of what is or what is not polite, may differ considerably. What seems to be common everywhere seems to be that there is a need to show respect towards the conversational partner and the wish not to hurt anybody, which again is based on the fact that we, apart from conveying information, often want to receive a certain reaction or make from our conversational partner do something. Fillmore[7] points out that politeness is also often due to the relationship of the conversational partners. If the relationship is asymmetric, e.g. one partner ranks in some respect higher than the other, the other partner has to use politeness in order to maintain the relationship and not sound aggressive. In a symmetrical relationship, however, politeness markers to are normally not needed. Nevertheless, also in these relationships, it is not advisable to abandon being polite in conversations. Politeness thus obviously serves not only the goal of maintaining hierarchical structures but also the goal of making people feel comfortable on different levels. In Brown and Levinson’s theory, two major strategies of politeness are explained. These can be regarded as universal to most, if not all languages and cultures.[8]


[1] Bühler, Karl (1982 [1934]). Sprachtheorie. Stuttgart/ New York: Gustav Fischer.

[2] Helmbrecht, Johannes (2001) Politeness Distinction in Personal Pronouns. In: Comrie, Bernard, Dryer, Matthew, Gil, David, and Hespelmath, Martin (eds.): World Atlas of Language Structures. Leipzig: Max Planck Institut für evolutionäre Anthropologie. P. 187

[3] Grice, H.P. (1975). “Logic and Conversation”. In: Cole, Peter and Morgan, Jerry L. (eds.) (1975). Syntax and Semantics, 3: Speech Acts. New York, Academic Press. P. 45

[4] for a short survey, compare: http://mh.cla.umn.edu/grice.html

[5] Levinson, Stephen C. (1983). Pragmatics. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University.Press 102).

[6] Watts, Richard J.(2003). Politeness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[7] Fillmore, Charles J. (1997 ). Lectures on Deixis. Stanford, CA: CSLI Publ.

[8] Despite its popularity, the model has of course also been criticized, mainly for its Eurocentrism. Compare for example: http://www.shu.ac.uk/wpw/politeness/bargiela.htm

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Politeness Distinction in Personal Pronouns and the Concept of Face
University of Hamburg
Human Perspective and Language: Deixis
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Politeness, Distinction, Personal, Pronouns, Human, Perspective, Language, Deixis
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Cornelia Charlotte Reuscher (Author), 2006, Politeness Distinction in Personal Pronouns and the Concept of Face, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/60171


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