Mind your manners!

Nov 21, 2011 by

In a recent series of posts on conversational implicatures (see here and here) we’ve discussed H. Paul Grice’s theory on how we recognize and interpret implicatures, including the four conversational maxims he has proposed: the Maxim of Relevance, of Quality, of Quantity and of Manner. However, the latter maxim has not received much attention in the previous posts.

The idea behind the Maxim of Manner is that participants in a conversation should avoid ambiguity and obscurity and be brief and orderly. The sort of structures to be avoided include ambiguous sentences, such as People with children who use drugs should be locked up (who uses drugs? parents or children?); the so-called garden-path sentences, like The horse raced past the barn fell (while processing the sentence linearly, we are initially “lured” to analyze raced as a past tense verb and only when we get to fell, we reinterpret raced as a participial form); and overly verbose sentences, such as Walk up to the door, turn the door handle clockwise as far as it will go, and then pull gently towards you (why not simply Open the door?).

Being a conversational maxim, the Maxim of Manner may be flouted in order to create a specific conversational effect. For example, consider the following sentence: Miss Singer produced a series of sounds corresponding closely to the score of an aria from Rigoletto. If I tell you this, rather than the simpler, less verbose Miss Singer sand an aria from Rigoletto, what inference will you draw from my verbosity? Perhaps, that I am implying that Miss Singer’s singing was not that good…

Curiously, while the Maxim of Manner requires a concise way of speaking, politeness — which is not unrelated to manner(s) — often requires the very opposite. Thus, the more long-winded, indirect ways of phrasing a request (often in the form of a question) like Would you be so kind as to open the door?, Would you mind opening the door?, Would you mind awfully if I was to ask you to open the door?, etc. are considered more polite than the shorter, more direct formulations like Open the door, please or even just Hey, the door! (which can be understood as a request to either open or close the door, depending on the extra-linguistic context).

In addition to using a more complex sentence structure, languages have other ways of expressing politeness, which is really just an expression of social relations (who has a higher status, who has a lower status, etc.). One of such means of expressing politeness is the use of euphemisms, that is words and expressions considered “nice” and “polite” and used to express offensive, unpleasant or otherwise troublesome concepts.

Another linguistic device for expressing politeness is employing certain words in formal occasions, and other, colloquial forms in informal contexts. In English the “lexicon of politeness” consists mostly of various forms of address, to be used in accordance to circumstances, like Your Honor (to a judge), Mr. President, Your Majesty, etc. Notice that the same person may be addressed in many different ways, depending on the circumstances: for example, a certain former US president could be addressed William, Will, Bill, Mr. Clinton, Mr. President, etc.

Many of my American students of Russian literature have complained that it is very difficult to read Russian novels because the same character can be addressed or referred to in so many different ways that it is nearly impossible to keep track of who is who. While the Clinton-example above shows that English is not completely without this phenomenon, indeed the Russian forms of address could easily baffle a novice.

To give you but one example, I can be addressed in Russian — with an increasing level of formality — as Asya (by name); as Asya Mikhailovna (by name and patronymic); as Asya Pereltsvaig (by name and family name); as Asya Mikhailovna Pereltsvaig (by name, patronymic and family name); as gospozha/professor Pereltsvaig (by title and family name). More informal forms of address include hypocoristic, diminutive forms of the first name (e.g. Asen’ka, Asjuta, Asjusha), pejorative forms of the first name (e.g. As’ka, As’kin), familial forms of address like tetja Asya (literally ‘aunt Asya’, but could be a form of address not only by nephews or nieces, but by anyone younger, especially children). Though not a common form of address anymore, I could also be addressed by the abbreviated patronymic Mikhalna. And let’s not forget the now out-of-fashion forms of address grazhdanka Pereltsvaig (literally, ‘citizen Pereltsvaig’) and tovarisch Pereltsvaig (literally, ‘comrade Pereltsvaig’).

Finally, one cannot discuss the issue of politeness without mentioning the T-V distinction, that is the use, within one language, of contrasting second-person pronouns that are specialized for varying levels of politeness, social distance, courtesy, familiarity, or insult toward the addressee. The terms T-form (informal) and V-form (formal) were introduced by Brown and Gilman (1960), with reference to the initial letters of these pronouns in Latin, tu and vos. Languages, even closely related ones, may differ significantly as to which forms they use for informal and formal pronouns. For example, English has lost the distinction between the formerly formal you and the no longer productively used informal form thou. Similarly, Hebrew has no formality distinction among its second person pronouns although it does draw a distinction between masculine and feminine singular and plural second person pronouns: ata (masculine singular second person), at (feminine singular second person), atem (masculine plural second person) and aten (feminine plural second person).

In contrast, Romance language preserve the distinction but do it in different ways. For example, French — much like (late) Latin — draws the distinction between the informal tu and the formal vous, which is also the form for the second person plural. Russian too uses the second person plural vy as the formal second person singular form; in the written language, only this use of Vy is capitalized. (Some dialects of) Spanish use a distinct pronoun usted (and the corresponding plural form ustedes), rather than the plural vosotros/vosotras (you plural masculine/feminine), as the formal second person pronoun; in many American dialects of Spanish ustedes is extended to be used as the informal second person plural. Curiously, Italian does something completely different: it uses the third person singular feminine pronoun Lei (typically capitalized in writing) as the formal second person singular (whether masculine or feminine); thus, a polite form of addressing a man is ‘she’.

The important thing to remember in connection with these special formal second person pronouns is that this distinction in formality is fully grammaticalized: for instance, when one person is addressed formally as vous in French or Vy in Russian, the second person plural form of the verb is used with it; similarly, in Italian the formal Lei is used with the third person singular verb.

The exact circumstances where the T-form or the V-form is to be used differ from language to language (the improper use of these forms may be the first give-away of someone’s “foreignness”). Many (language-specific) factors go into the computation of which form is to be used, including age, sex and social standing of both the speaker and the addressee, and the level of intimacy between the two parties. These rules of “linguistic etiquette” are also subject to historical change. For example, even a hundred years ago I would probably address my husband, my parents and my closest friends (in Russian) as vy, while today ty is called for in such circumstances.

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