Politeness Crossing Times and Spaces

International Workshop organised by project C08 “Teaching Early Modern Routines of Everyday Communication within Contexts of Linguistic Diversity” (Head: Prof. Dr. Horst Simon), 11.–12.06.2018


“Politeness.” Print on disc, lithograph, hand-colored, 24 cm. 1833, Library of Congress, USA.

“Politeness.” Print on disc, lithograph, hand-colored, 24 cm. 1833, Library of Congress, USA.

Bericht von Linda Gennies

The international workshop “Politeness Crossing Times and Spaces”, held at Freie Universität Berlin on 11-12 June 2018, brought together researchers from various disciplinary backgrounds to exchange findings and ideas on the so far rather neglected dynamic nature of politeness in pre-modern societies and to discuss their implications for a general theory of appropriate verbal and nonverbal behaviour. 

Despite the continuous attention verbal and non-verbal politeness phenomena have received from linguists, literary scholars, sociologists and other researchers over the last decades, to date most existing studies have been restricted to the synchronic analysis of relatively stable norms of polite behaviour in historical or modern speech communities. Within the framework of the Collaborative Research Center “Episteme in Motion”, which is fundamentally challenging the supposed stability of pre-modern cultures and their knowledge systems and arguing for a dynamic understanding of knowledge as being in a constant state of flux, the workshop was thus specifically designed to bring into focus the diachrony of politeness, including its transfer and dynamic recontextualization in historical contact situations.

Since the individual contributions not only explored the usefulness of different sources in the study of changes in politeness, but also presented interdisciplinary perspectives from such diverse fields as linguistics, history studies or anthropology, the workshop furthermore allowed us to identify general methodological as well as theoretical challenges in the study of (contact-induced) changes in politeness. More precisely, all contributions to the workshop were – against the background of individual case studies in various ancient as well as modern languages – revisiting current models of appropriate verbal and nonverbal behaviour, 

  • challenging the assumed stability of the concept of politeness by contrasting it with neighbouring (historical) concepts suchas courtesycivility or morality
  • questioning the presupposed elitist and monolingual origin of politeness by examining the influence of societal changes as well as of cultural and linguistic contacts on developments in conceptions of appropriate behaviour, and consequently 
  • assessing the explanatory power of current theories of politeness and their applicability to historical situations. 

Francesco Mari (Freie Universität Berlin) opened the workshop with a paper exploring the usefulness of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey for a study of Ancient Greek conceptions of appropriate verbal and non-verbal behaviour. In a critical discussion of the applicability of Brown and Levinson’s as well as Elias’ theories of politeness to historical situations, Mari uncovered important discrepancies between their conceptions and those found in the Ancient Greek epics, which in fact do not contain strict norms but options for individual responses to specific behaviours and therefore appear essentially open to change. Originating from oral tradition, these epics furthermore seem to have been constantly adapted and re-written, thus reflecting subtle shifts in values as well as bigger societal changes. 

An example for the opposite case, i.e. the longue durée of behavioural norms, was given by Giovanna Alfonzetti (Università degli Studi di Catania), who examined the role of Early Modern Italian conduct books or galatei in the definition and implementation of European models of polite conversation. Her study showed the surprisingly long history of certain supposedly modern norms of appropriate behaviour, that can already be found in some of the first European books of manners, e.g. Giovanni della Casa’s seminal Galateo (1558). Refuting Brown and Levinson, Alfonzetti argued against a universalist explanation of the observed continuity and pointed out how especially the Galateo set an example for ensuing works on politeness and thus for the development of behavioural norms in Europe.

In her talk on requests in nineteenth-century Italian conduct books, Annick Paternoster (Università della Svizzera italiana) supports Giovanna Alfonzetti’s findings by identifying several conservative elements in those manuals, most notably formulaic requests in asymmetrical power relations which apparently have been maintained since the Ancien Régime. At the same time, other rules and formulae already appear familiar to present-day readers, which seems to confirm the generally held assumption that the 19th century represented a transitional period between the aristocratic and the bourgeois codes of conduct, in which the latter, after some time of coexistence with the former, gradually replaced it. 

Linda Gennies (Freie Universität Berlin) presented her doctoral research on the change of polite forms of address in Early Modern Europe. Based on a preliminary analysis of a corpus of Early Modern foreign language textbooks created as part of the project C08, which was presented as a promising new source for Historical Politeness Research in the first half of the talk, her contribution afterwards explored the role of intensifying economic and cultural contacts and interdependencies in the Early Modern period in the emergence of new, cross-linguistic conceptions of appropriate verbal behaviour, most notably the development of third person pronominal as well as nominal forms of polite address that appear to have spread from Spain via Italy and its influential books of manners to Germany and beyond.

The talk of Birgit Tremml-Werner (Universität Zürich) offered some intriguing new insights into the negotiation and co-production of shared conceptions of appropriate verbal and nonverbal behaviour in situations of considerable foreignness, i.e. in pre-modern Eurasian diplomacy. Using the example of the concept of friendship, Tremml-Werner gave a detailed account of how Spanish and Japanese officials both made use of the term according to their Judaeo-Christian and Confucian ideologies, respectively, carefully bridging their differences and finding a “moral” middle ground in the demonstration of respect for each other’s sovereigns. In addition, a note on the meaning of silence in oral communication as well as of spaces in written documents – demonstrating the power of the silent interlocutor and the referent mentioned in writing, respectively – opened up an interesting new perspective on the semantics of the gap.

Another example of the negotiation of politeness in pre-modern diplomatic settings was given by Horst Simon (Freie Universität Berlin), who examined literary as well as contemporary witness accounts of Vasco da Gama’s journey to India, in particular in Os Lusíadas by Luís de Camões and its sources. Looking at the problem of appropriate behaviour towards strangers from a layperson’s point of view, Simon closed the first day of the workshop with some interesting 16th-century approaches on how to be ‘polite’ and how to demonstrate respect when communicating with someone about whom one knows (almost) nothing and with whom one doesn’t even share a common language.

Eleanor Dickey (University of Reading) opened the second day of the workshop with a comprehensive account of the diachrony of Ancient Greek politeness from the Classical period (5th and 4th c. BC) to the Hellenistic (3rd to 1st c. BC) and finally the Roman period (1st c. AD and later). Examining both the use of forms of address and of directives in these three periods, Dickey revealed the high sensitivity of the Ancient Greek politeness system towards changes in social structure: With each major shift in governance – from the democratic and egalitarian city-states through the rule of Alexander the Great and his successors to the Roman empire – both the address and the directive systems were constantly adapted to the new hierarchies. In the case of the Roman conquest, the transfer or more precisely the translation of Latin address forms and request formulae into Greek indicates furthermore to what extent Greek speakers were even willing to adapt to new linguistic circumstances. 

With her talk on the change of address forms from Latin to Italian, Chiara Ghezzi (Università degli Studi di Bergamo) subsequently provided an equally comprehensive and detailed case study on changes in verbal politeness. Following a short presentation of the corresponding project (LIS-CORT) and of the development of address forms from Classical to Late Latin, her contribution discussed some preliminary findings concerning the change of polite forms of address in Early Modern Italian. Through the socio-pragmatic analysis of letters and comedies, Ghezzi identified the transfer of the Spanish cultural model and its use of honorifics during the Early Modern period as one of the main factors in the evolution of the Italian address form system, which does however not represent a mere “italianised” version of the Spanish model, but a clear development thereof. 

Vanessa Martins do Monte (Universidade de São Paulo) continued with a study on contact-induced address form changes in the Romania nova. Examining the development of polite forms of address in colonial Brazil, Martins do Monte presented a particularly interesting case of transfer of pragmatic knowledge in Early Modern Portuguese America. There, a minority of European Portuguese men and of African slaves as well as a majority of Christianised native Americans formed a new society that was characterised by considerable linguistic, social and ethnic distance – most notably within mixed families. As a result, the Portuguese address form vossa mercê or você, that was originally used to address people of high social status, was recontextualised as a distance marker, quickly expanding to all contexts, i.e. even to (mixed) family communication.

Andreas H. Jucker (Universität Zürich) offered a comparable case study, examining changes in politeness in medieval England as a result of societal developments relating to conquest and colonisation. Based on the analysis of contemporary lay-people’s perceptions of politeness and impoliteness, Jucker traced the transition from a strictly hierarchical Anglo-Saxon society characterised in particular by the Christian concept of morality to Anglo-Norman England and its worldly concept of courteisie. Thus, discussing the difference between conceptions of appropriate behaviour for a person in a certain social position (morality) as opposed to appropriate behaviour towards a person in a certain social position (politeness), his talk drew special attention to functional changes in politeness. 

Approaching the problem of changing concepts of appropriate behaviour from an anthropological point of view, Luke Fleming (Université de Montréal) subsequently contrasted European with Oceanic address and reference practices. Distinguishing generalized honorifics, i.e. honorific pronouns that are often exclusively stereotypically linked to a circumscribed set of social relationships, from restricted honorifics that are specifically keyed to one dimension of social identity or relationship, his paper pointed out the different diachronic pathways of politeness phenomena in large-scale societies as opposed to small-scale societies. In this context, Fleming furthermore called attention to the obvious lack of honorifics for non-present referents which seems to be indicative of the specific circumstances in which European politeness systems developed.

In her talk, Kim Ridealgh (University of East Anglia) discussed the broader issue of the applicability of modern frameworks of politeness theory to ancient cultures and languages. Against the background of not only fragmented data sets and limited cultural understanding of historical societies but also of the general criticism of different approaches to politeness even for modern cultures, Ridealgh presented a case study on utterances from the Late Ramesside Letters. Her paper argued that politeness in the modern, i.e. in Brown and Levinson’s sense did not exist in Ancient Egypt, where social variables were defined and ranked differently and where a concept of face and thus of face threatening acts was therefore lacking.

Dániel Z. Kádár (Hungarian Academy of Sciences & Guangdong University of Foreign Studies) continued the theoretical discussion of the compatibility of current approaches to politeness with historical situations from the opposite perspective, arguing for the ‘historicisation’ of synchronic pragmatic research, i.e. the application of historical frameworks to modern data. After pointing out the general advantages of this approach, e.g. an increased consideration for the interconnectedness of linguistic phenomena and for their relative stability over time, Kádár demonstrated how the historicization of the phenomenon of online shaming produces more comprehensive and more reliable explanations than modern theories. 

Kádár’s contribution subsequently provoked a general debate over the feasibility of historical pragmatic research and of its fundamental challenges. The final discussion, then, led to the realisation that historical politeness research not only has to study what changes (form or function) and why it changes, i.e. what provokes changes in politeness (social developments, linguistic contact, grammatical change), but also what doesn’t appear to change and how unexpected stability can be accounted for, keeping in mind that (linguistic) knowledge is in a constant state of flux.