Politeness in English and Japanese

Seminar Paper 2005 16 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Linguistics


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Definition Politeness

3. Basics
3.1. Grice’s theory of conversation (1975)
3.1.1.. Basic Idea
3.1.2. Grice “Maxims of Conversation”
3.1.3 Conversational vs. Conventional implicatures
3.2. Brown and Levinson’s theory of politeness ( 1978, 1987)
3.2.1. Negative and Positive Face
3.2.2 Face – Threatening - Acts (FTAs)

4. Grice’s theory of conversation and Brown and Levinson’s theory of politeness applied on the Japanese language including the comparison between English and Japanese politeness

5. Conclusion

1. Introduction

“Politeness is the flower of humanity”, (Joseph Joubert , 1754 – 1824, French moralist). “Politeness is to human nature what warmth is to wax”, (Arthur Schopenhauer, 1788-1860, German philosopher).

Politeness and tact play an important role in dealing with other people. The term calls a behaviour that shall demonstrate respect for the vis – à – vis. In order to avoid embarrassing situations or abashing someone polite behaviour has to be used.

In the following paper, I will deal with the topic “Politeness in English and Japanese.” As a basic concept I will use two essays: “Politeness and conversational universals-observation from Japanese” by Yoshiko Matsumoto (1989) and “Keigo – Höflichkeit und soziale Bedeutung im Japanischen” by Florian Coulmas (1987). On the basis of these two papers I want to show what politeness is like in Japanese and English and whether the principles of conversation generated by Grice (1975) and Brown and Levinson’s theory of politeness (1978, 1987) are universal as they are claimed to be. In order to analyse this assertion I will take a closer look on the Japanese language.

At first I will give basic information to understand what the respective theory is about. I will first give an overview of Grice’s theory and will then focus on Brown and Levinson’s theory of politeness and explain their notion.

The next point will comprise the transformation of the theories’ properties on the Japanese language to confute or verify their alleged universality. I will use Matsumoto’s and Coulmas’ essays to indicate the construction of the Japanese language and will demonstrate this with many examples.

Subsequently I will illustrate whether Brown and Levinson’s theory is also appropriate for the Japanese language system.

Section five will give a summary of the topic and present the result of the analysis.

2. Definition Politeness

“Politeness results from the requirement to create an undisturbed interaction with the members of one’s own group. The function of politeness is among other things to create a framework to open conversations (i.e.: greeting, greeting back, introducing oneself etc.), to have a conversation (i.e.: interruption, change topic, questions of understanding, etc.) and to finish discussions (i.e.: conclusion of a topic, saying goodbye etc.), as well as to maintain conversations.”[1]

3. Basics

3.1. Grice’s theory of conversation (1975)

3.1.1.. Basic Idea

The basic idea of Grice’s theory of conversation, which he proposed in 1975, is that communication is cooperative acting and it’s about reaching understanding. Understanding is the basic condition of communication. That means: if the participants in a conversation do not have a minimal common interest, then communication cannot come about. The participants assume that the speaker is being cooperative and the interlocutor has to make his/her contribution acceptable and understandable for the hearer. Grice calls this general principle: “cooperative principle”. 1

Grice defines his cooperative principle in the following way: "Make your contribution such as it is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged".[2] The cooperative principle four “Maxims of Conversation” are subordinated.

3.1.2. Grice “Maxims of Conversation”

1. Maxim of Quantity

“Make your contribution to the conversation as informative as necessary. Do not make your contribution to the conversation more informative than necessary.”

2. Maxim of Quality

“Do not say what you believe to be false.

“Do not say for which you lack adequate evidence.”

3. Maxim of Relevance

“Be relevant, (i.e. say things related to the current topic of the conversation).”

4. Maxim of Manner

“Avoid obscurity of expression.”

“Avoid ambiguity.”

“Be brief (avoid unnecessary wordiness).”

“Be orderly.”[3]

3.1.3 Conversational vs. Conventional implicatures

In situations where the communicative sense of an utterance is unclear methods of interpretation are used, which try to give sense to an utterance. Grice differs tow ways of interpretation which he calls “implicature”. The term derives from the English verb “to imply” (andeuten). So implicature terms what is implied.

Grice distinguishes “conventional” and “nonconventional implicatures “ Nonconventional implicatures contain conversational implicatures. An implicature is on hand if there is meant more with an utterance than is said.

Conventional implicatures exist, if an additional meaning is implied to a word-for-word meanings with conventional means, i.e.:

(1) “He’s an English man. He’s brave .”

In this example it is implied that all English men are brave.

Conversational implicatures exist if additional information are implied without being indicated by conversational means. No direct linguistic clues are used, i.e.:


[1] http://www.sw2.euv-frankfurt-o.de/VirtuLearn/hs.sommer00/ling-2/grice.html

[2] Grice, Paul (1975). "Logic and conversation". In: Peter Cole / J.L. Morgan (eds), Syntax and Semantics,

vol.3, New York, pp 41-58.

[3]Grice, Paul (1975). "Logic and conversation". In: Peter Cole / J.L. Morgan (eds), Syntax and Semantics,

vol.3, New York, pp 41-58.


ISBN (eBook)
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510 KB
Catalog Number
Institution / College
University of Rostock – Anglistik (Amerikanistik)
Politeness English Japanese Proseminar



Title: Politeness in English and Japanese