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Linguistics Analysis: Stop Wasting Time Being Polite

This is a graduate level linguistic analysis of the function of polite language in social interactions, and the funny things that happen when our intentions are misinterpreted because we’re trying too hard to be polite!

Stop Wasting Time Being Polite
by John Hamm

May 14, 09

Fiddler on the Roof staring Topol as Tevye, 1971

Most speakers of any language feel that their means of expressing themselves, communicating information, and socializing through verbal interaction, is the most efficient. Many cultures have developed complex systems and patterns of speech that are used in everyday conversation. Some of these patterns are described as modes of politeness and good manners. The English language is riddled with words and phrases that express politeness, but what function do they serve? Are we speaking simply for the sake of speaking? Or do they provide a more significant function in everyday society? We shall see that some of these patterns are a very inefficient means of communicating, depending on what the dialogue is supposed to accomplish.

A scene from Fiddler on the Roof provides fertile ground for miscommunication as a result of polite patterns of speech. Lazar the butcher has sent for Tevye the milkman, to ask about marrying Tevye’s daughter. Tevye is unaware of the the reason for the meeting, which leads to much confusion. A copy of the script is provided at the end of the essay for reference. A line will be referred to by the number following it. To start, we will identify how patterns of speech are structured. Then we will see how they relate to conceptions of politeness in English.

Roman Jakobson says in Linguistics and Poetics that, “For any speech community, for any speaker, there exists a unity of language, but this over-all code represents a system of interconnected subcodes; every language encompasses several concurrent patterns, each characterized by different functions” (1260). As was stated in the introduction, politeness is a subcode of English with interesting patterns that we can identify by examining the functions that Jakobson describes.

Jakobson breaks down the standard addresser – message – addressee system to see how each unit contributes to constructing a pattern of speech. The “emotive or expressive function, focused on the addresser, aims a direct expression of the speaker’s attitude toward what he is speaking” (1261). An emotive expression is generally not a sentence, but an interjection of sound that is used by the addressee to confirm that they understand the speaker’s feelings. An example might be the response, “Oh my!” as a means of showing sympathy for a friend’s bad luck.

A second function is the phatic. These messages might be sounds, words, or entire phrases that are “primarily serving to establish, to prolong, or to discontinue communication”
(1263). This function is so prevalent in English speech patterns that we often do not realize we are using them. Entire conversations can be held with them, without seemingly conveying any important information. Conversations are prolonged or ended with phatic particles like, “You don’t say?” and, “Take care.” In our example, Lazar uses several phatic elements in the beginning of the dialogue (1, 3, 5), to which Tevye responds appropriately. It is interesting to note the average length of these sentences compared to the ones later in the dialogue – they are very short and seem to contain no important information about the subject.

The next function is the conative, which “finds its purest grammatical expression in the vocative and imperative” (1262). This function comes in conflict with patterns of politeness. Imperative sentences are direct, factual statements that leave little room for negotiation or discussion. An imperative sentence might be a very efficient means of communicating information. For example, the imperative sentence, “I am going to marry your daughter,” leaves little room for argument. Whereas the declarative sentence, “Would you consider allowing me to marrying your daughter?” builds on a completely different speech pattern. In keeping with polite patterns, Lazar never actually makes an imperative statement regarding marriage. We will identify a possible reason for this shortly.

Finally, one of the most important aspects that Jakobson identifies is the metalingual function. This function is used “whenever the addresser and/or the addressee need to check up whether they use the same code” (1263). The implications of this function will become apparent when we see how patterns of polite speech impede our ability to do metalingual checkups. Tevye performs this function in lines 19 and 21 when he asks, “What are you talking about?”

These functions of speech work in a regular pattern. Lines 1 through 9 are phatic functions that establish communication. Lines 10 through 18 are referential, which means the speakers are talking about the topic of the conversation. This might include conative and emotive statements. Lines 19 through 24 perform metalingual functions where the speakers communicate to confirm that they are using the same code (which it turns out they are not). Then lines 25 to the conclusion are more phatic statements, meant to conclude the conversation.

Now that we understand how a conversation might be structured, we must ask, what is the purpose of language? Why do Tevye and Lazar engage in so much phatic conversation before referential? And why does referential come before metalingual? The answers are held in the various purposes of language. In The Seeds of Speech, Jean Aitchison claims that, “In spit of the widespread view that language is primarily for conveying information, language is not particularly good at this: it is poor at handling spatial information, and information about emotions” (25). This applies directly to our example: It takes 24 lines of dialogue before the characters finally convey the intended information. Also, emotional information is covered by the emotive function, which strangely consists of odd sounds and not of information containing elements.

We preform phatic functions when initializing conversation, and with such frequency that one might be tempted to conclude that we talk for the sake of hearing ourselves speak. But how does the phatic function aid in speech efficiency? It certainly did not help Lazar and Tevye. Aitchison describes phatic functions as, “Ritual words and gestures that are exchanged when people meet” (22). These words are indeed ritualistic, and perhaps convey more information than we realize.

Phatic dialogue does in fact give valuable information, although it does not have anything to do with the referential function. Note that lines 1 through 9 have nothing to do with marriage. Nancy Bonvillain examines how phatic functions and politeness are related, and the possible information they contain in her book, Language, Culture, and Communication. Bonvillain seems to be relating the idea of connative/imperative statements to “face threatening acts” where a statement threatens the addressee in some way (128). Bonvillain notes that, “The more threatening an act is, the more polite and indirect are the means used to accomplish it… The most imposing requests are expressed through indirection and hints” (128). This gives us some explanation for Lazar’s exceedingly cautious and extended use of the phatic function. He clearly feels that this is a dangerous situation in which he might highly offend Tevye.
The politeness pattern in language seems to be serving a need for social harmonizing. Lazar cannot get what he wants through a face threatening act, or an imperative statement. Bonvillain notes that we do see dialogue patterns that lack phatic elements. They are directly related to one’s power relationship to the addressee (Bonvillain 129). Lazar does not have a real advantage of power over Tevye, so he decided to use phatic elements to put Tevye at ease. These elements almost have an emotive part to them, where Lazar tries to convey emotions of fraternity and security to Tevye.

This brings us back to the question of what function language serves, and do we employ it efficiently? More specifically, we should ask, what function do individual patterns of language have, and how do they work together or against each other? Lazar makes what is probably a wise choice in using phatic elements to begin the conversation. He asks Tevye to sit down, asks him if he wants a drink, and asks him how his family is doing. We know what Lazar’s goal is: to marry Tevye’s daughter. But the possibility of a face threatening act seems to force him to take the most indirect route, as Bonvillain said above, in which he hints at the subject of the conversation.

Although we know Tevye is highly confused, he indicates in line 11 that he knows exactly what all this business is about, at least he thinks he does. In a sense, line 11 even confirms the code prematurely. Because of this, neither speaker makes any further metalingual effort to confirm the code until line 19. The idea of the necessity of effort in communication is important when considering patterns of politeness. Michael Reddy discusses the importance of making an effort to understand each other in his essay, The Conduit Metaphor. Reddy claims that, “Human communication will almost always go stray unless real energy is expended” (174). The phatic function seems to be always dragging us away from the real subject, and yet we wait so long to exert the necessary energy to understand the topic of conversation. Reddy says that, “Successful human communication involves an increase in organization, which cannot happen spontaneously or of its own accord” (175). Our pattern of politeness is thwarting both of Reddy’s statements. It demands that we put off the metalingual function in conversation, perhaps indefinitely.

Yet Reddy’s solution of increasing organization seems to be exactly our problem! Our language patterns have become so highly organized that the result is no two people really know what they are talking about at any given time, at least in examples like this. In essence, we have created a very ineffective way of transferring information. This is because precedence has been given to the phatic function in an attempt at reducing possible face threatening acts.

If the most important function of language is to convey information, then we are going about it all wrong. Shouldn’t Lazar get the important business out of the way first, and serve the vodka second? Unfortunately (or fortunately?) the opposite is what occurs: We get the vodka first, get our brains all muddled up with small talk, then proceed to the real business once we are so confused that nothing meaningful can be accomplished. If the most important function of language is to make sure we do not kill each other on sight, then perhaps a phatic, “Hi, friend!”  and, “Have a drink!” are indeed called for.

Of course, this is somewhat of a generalization, but it applies well to dialogue that requires polite patterns of speech. Consider for a moment the other possible outcomes of the conversation. Lazar could have started with an imperative, insulted Tevye, and gotten smacked over the head with a vodka bottle. Or, Tevye might have said this, “I know what you want to talk about, and I agree!” before performing a metalingual function. Just think how the butcher would feel when Tevye sent a cow to be married! Maintaining patterns of politeness leads us into all kinds of trouble every day. Although it is the least efficient mode of conveying information, politeness does convey its own messages that keep us out of different kinds of trouble.

Works Cited

Aitchison, J. (2000). The seeds of speech. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.
Bonvillain, N. (2003). Language, culture, and communication. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.
Jakobson, R. (2001). Linguistics and poetics. In V.B. Leitch (Ed.) Norton anthology of theory and criticism. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.
Norman Jewison (Producer and Director). (1971). Fiddler on the roof. [Motion picture]. United States: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios.
Reddy, M. (1993). The conduit metaphor. In A. Ortony (Ed.), Metaphor and thought (pp.  164-201). United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

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