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First-order and second-order politeness: The dispute over 'modelling' politeness

By Jim O'Driscoll


During the past fifteen years or so, existing models of politeness, by far the most popular of which has been Brown & Levinson (1978,1987), have generated a huge amount of empirical research. For example, whole ranges of structures in a variety of languages have been suggested as structures of linguistic politeness (e.g. terms of address, formulaic utterances, hedges, particles of various kinds, indirect speech acts). At the same time, the B/L model, particularly its distinction between positive and negative face, has come in for a great deal of criticism. With regard to their contribution towards an overall theory of politeness, both these strands of research appear to have severe limitations. For one thing, the idea that any (set of) linguistic form(s) is 'inherently polite' is highly dubious. More significantly, the criticism of B/L has confined itself either to attempts at modification of their model or to advocacy of a return to Goffman's notion of face. Indeed, politeness theory has in many quarters become equated with face theory. This equation is just one example of a major problem with current developments - that they disregard evaluations of (im)politeness made by lay interactants and politeness researchers alike. Another is that 'impoliteness' has very rarely surfaced as an issue (with notable exceptions, of course) despite the fact that there are frequently more numerous evaluations of impolite behaviour in everyday life than of polite behaviour. The core of the problem in the overall attempt to set up a model of linguistic politeness is the hypostasisation of the lexemes 'polite' and 'impolite' to serve as model-theoretical terms to describe what researchers take to be politeness (with the additional complication of those (English) lexemes being transposed into other cultures). The intention of this colloquium is to face the problem head-on by asking whether it might not be more fruitful to take first-order politeness not necessarily as the object of politeness theory but at least as the point from which new theoretical and methodological approaches to politeness should begin. The distinction between first-order (commonsense) and second-order (scientific) models of politeness was first made some ten years ago (Watts, Ide and Ehlich 1992) in order to express unease about the way in which the term was handled by scientific accounts, but did not at the time go further than this. More recently, it has been taken as a starting point to critique models of politeness (Eelen 2001). It is a distinction the epistemological and methodological significance of which has been left unexamined and thus also unaccounted for. In its light, the social-theoretical underpinning of current politeness theories appears inadequate to deal with a term which, however it occurs in other languages, is always contested, a term over which members struggle, like democracy, beauty, justice, etc. If we fail to take cognizance of this simple fact, we may not be able to approach a theory of politeness which adequately accounts for how it plays a role in ongoing verbal interaction. The idea of the colloquium, therefore, is to promote a discussion, which promises to be controversial, which compares the first and second-order viewpoints. Is it possible to create a model of second-order politeness which avoids the pitfalls of such an enterprise? Is it desirable? Or would it be better to create a model of politeness which takes as its starting point evaluation of it as a first-order term

Topics: P1, HM
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