The speech act of apology in an American soap opera and the German equivalent

Term Paper, 2006

35 Pages, Grade: 1,0


1 Structure

2 Introduction

3 Relevance

4 Overview on the speech act of apology

5 Basic data for my analysis

6 Method of analysis

7 Apology strategies by Aijmer (1996)
7.1.1 Explicit Emotional
7.1.2 Implicit emotional
7.1.3 Implicit Non-emotional

8 The structure of an apology in the American genuine

9 Differences in the dubbed German version

10 Conclusion

11 Bibliography:

12 Appendix – Transcripts

2 Introduction

Across all languages there are more or less conventionalized linguistic means to be found, e.g. to form a question, make a request, express gratitude or utter an apology. The crucial question is how these conventions look, what kind of language behavior is adequate in a certain situation and if it is understood in the context; these conventions differ interculturally.

The speech act theory, whose pioneer is clearly John Austin (1955 “How to do things with words”), is an adequate approach to gain a deep insight in speech acts like greeting, promising or apologizing. This paper deals with the speech act set of apology. Apologies are clearly performative and expressive. They establish and maintain social contacts. All speakers of a language know certain patterns of speech act sequences, i.e. they know what has to follow after an apology and what is inappropriate. The ability to apply these patterns constitutes a part of communicative competence.

In my paper I will focus on apologies made in an American soap opera, trying to find out the structure of this speech act also considering factors like social relationships and afterwards compare it to the dubbed German version. The aim of this paper is to draw a conclusion on whether cultural factors play a significant role for the translated edition and if the genuine is a prime example for this culture.

3 Relevance

Apologies are crucial in daily life to maintain harmony. Therefore it is important to know the rules and how to apply them depending on the context. A factor that has to be taken in consideration is the difference of the realizations of an apology in different cultures. There are several parameters that make up a ‘good’ apology and they differ interculturally; therefore it is necessary to have a notion of them. The field of apology has been examined thoroughly (Olshtain, 1989; Vollmer/Olshtain, 1989; Maeshiba et al, 1995; Bergman and Kasper, 1993) but there are still intercultural differences that have to be examined because of the globalization of the world it is quite likely that the cultural rules to form an apology may mix up.

4 Overview on the speech act of apology

An apology is, in the strict word sense, ‘to acquit of a guilt’ and a plea for forgiveness. The function of such an apology is to support the hearer who was, eventually, malaffected by a violation (Olshtain, 1989: 156). The speaker is – to a certain extent – willing to humble himself or herself and to concede the mistake and responsibility for this violation, in other words, to restore harmony. In this speech act, the face of the hearer is saved whereas the face of the speaker is threatened. In consequence, the hearer’s benefit is partly at cost of the speaker (ibid: 156-57).

The speech act set of apology contains five strategies, two general ones and three situation specific ones. The general strategies are the IFID (Illocutionary Force Indicating Device) and the expression of the speaker’s responsibility. The IFID is realized via formulas or routinized forms, e.g. various apology verbs must be explicit and performative. The use of the IFID as an explicit expression of apology shows the acceptance of the need to apologize on the speaker’s side and also the acceptance of the cost to do so. Usually, the cost is connected with the loss of face in public, but sometimes the speaker’s well-being is endangered because the apology might include guilt on the speaker. The question of cost is crucial concerning the decision of the speaker to use an IFID (ibid: 157).

“If the performance of the apology does not result in real face-losing on the speaker’s part, or if it may be costly not to apologize, we can expect the speaker to prefer an IFID.” (ibid: 167).

With the use of an IFID the speaker takes responsibility for the violation, especially when his perspective is voiced, e.g. “I apologize” or “Forgive me”. If a speaker apologizes sincerely, an explicit expression of responsibility is often added. Also the context of the situation plays a significant role in the choice of the expression of responsibility (ibid: 168). The three specific strategies, which reflect semantically the content of the situation, are an explanation, an offer of repair, and the promise of forbearance (ibid: 157).

Modifying an apology via intensifying or downgrading is also commonly used. The modifications are either realized internally or externally (Vollmer/Olshtain, 1989: 199). Intensification strengthens the apology, creating more support for the hearer and indignity for the speaker. Most of the intensifiers occur internally to the IFID, like conventional intensifiers such as “very” or “really”. According to Olshtain (1989), this strategy is used more frequently by speakers of a lower status in order to cause a stronger and more sincere interpretation of an apology which eventually guarantees the restoration of harmony (ibid: 158). Speakers of a higher status are not so much concerned about this facts and therefore tend to use fewer intensifications. External modification may be realized via e.g. downgrading, meaning, denying the fact that a grave offense has actually happened, e.g. “I’m sorry, but you shouldn’t really get insulted by such remarks.” (ibid: 158).

Social factors influence the decision of the speaker to choose any realization of the speech act over the others, varying due to the situation. This situational variation is related to certain parameters. Social distance is a primary parameter, meaning the degree of familiarity which varies from high to low. Authority respectively assigned power – the relative social status – is another important factor as well as the severity of the insult. For the latter, the level of obligation to perform an apology is rather high. Last but not least, the expectation of the hearer to receive an apology is also rather high because there is nearly no situation where the hearer would not expect it (Vollmer & Olshtain, 1989: 199-201).

Several linguists carried out research papers on the speech act of apology, like Olshtain (1989), Vollmer/Olshtain (1989), Maeshiba/Yoshinaga/Ross/Kasper (1995) or Bergman/Kasper (1993). Olshtain (1989: 164) refers to the strategies of an IFID and responsibility as the most frequent in English whereas explanation is less used by native speakers of English. Other strategies such as offer of repair or downplay are seldom used (Vollmer & Olshtain, 1989: 206). The social status is an important factor concerning the use of an IFID, equal and low status of the speaker correspond to a high use whereas a high status of the speaker correlates with a low preference for this strategy. The use of admitting responsibility for the violation also depends partly on the status of the speaker. In equal relationships it is less used whereas for high or low status of the speaker it is frequently used. The obligation to perform an apology is crucial. The higher the obligation, the more the strategy of responsibility is applied. High severity of the offense correlates with high intensification (Maeshiba et al, 1995: 159). The offer of repair is used more frequently between speakers of American English because they are seen as appropriate ways to redress these violations (ibid: 178). However, the most highly preferred form of redress is a direct apology. Bergman and Kasper (1993) examined apologies between Americans thoroughly. They examined e.g. the formula “excuse me” and found out that this is offered as territory invading signal when addressing foreigners, as announcement of transient absence from ongoing interaction or upon negative impact of another person’s physical space. This formula is used to repair a disregard of a code of behavior or an infringement of a social rule (ibid: 83). The IFID “I’m sorry” is used in a wider range of contexts, e.g. with remedial interchanges when the speaker’s concern is about a infraction of another person’s right or damage to another person’s feelings (ibid: 83).

Vollmer and Olshtain (1989) investigated apologies in German most in-depth. According to their research, IFIDs and the strategy of responsibility are used very often, especially under the circumstance of an unequal social status between speaker and hearer compared to a low use between equals. The examination of this speech act at work resulted in the discovery that IFIDs are used rather sparse and, on the other hand, responsibility frequently. The reason might be, as Vollmer and Olshtain suggest, that open criticism is an acceptable behavior at work and therefore no need to apologize explicitly. This has to do with the equal status between colleagues which has also something to do with low intensification; intensifiers are used more often between status unequals. Germans also have a tendency to use double IFIDs, e.g. “Tut mir leid, ich habe das Buch leider vergessen.” (ibid: 213). The downgrading of an apology is not used very intensively, only sometimes e.g. a conditional like “Tut mir leid, wenn ich dich verletzt habe.” (ibid: 215). Germans tend to question the necessity to apologize more directly, e.g. “Ich glaube, Sie hatten schuld.” (ibid). Moreover, the three situation specific strategies are not frequently used by German speakers.

5 Basic data for my analysis

In my paper I want to analyze data drawn from an American soap opera. The set comprises the first eight episodes of the second season of “Smallville”. This series was shot in the USA in 2002 and is a kind of prequel to the series “Lois and Clark”, although it was directed a long time later. It belongs to the genre of soaps and the main character is Clark Kent, the young Superman. The series deals with his adventures during his adolescence and the difficulties in hiding his origin, namely deriving from another planet. All characters in the series have a very close relationship and are always keen on maintaining harmony. I chose this data because of these close relations between the characters and I hope to find mainly sincere apologies that are uttered to maintain or restore harmony. Furthermore, I want to compare it with the German translation in order to observe how the apologies are realized and whether there is a shift of any kind.

6 Method of analysis

My point of examination is to find similarities and differences in the American genuine and the German equivalent concerning the speech act of apology. In the main part of the paper I want to analyse the structure of the 18 apologies, which were found in the data with the main focus on the different strategies, including intensification and vocatives, and social factors that influence the usage of an apology. I transcribed my data with the help of the GAT transcription system because it shows the content of the conversation as well as non-verbal gestures or pitch. For the analysis of the structure I rely on the study of talk in interaction, the conversation analysis (CA) because it describes best the orderliness, structure and sequential patterns of a conversation, whether formal or informal ones and has to be able to address the question of the form the utterance has to have and also why this is the case (Lakoff, 2001: 210).


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The speech act of apology in an American soap opera and the German equivalent
University of Erfurt  (Philosophische Fakultät)
Sprachstruktur und Sprachgebrauch II
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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American, German, Sprachstruktur, Sprachgebrauch
Quote paper
Claudia Wipprecht (Author), 2006, The speech act of apology in an American soap opera and the German equivalent , Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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