Untitled Document


Dr. Salam Ni’mat Hurmiz

  1. Introduction


In everyday situations people communicate with each other for a variety of goals and purposes, and in order to be successful in this respect, they have to follow certain politeness strategies that ensure the maintenance of good social relations.


The present study investigates the notion of politeness and conducts a comparative analysis of the politeness strategies manipulated by the English and the Syriac native speakers in an attempt to specify points of similarity and difference between them. The concept of politeness is a controversial issue, and though people of different cultures generally share common underlying principles, they may differ in their conceptualization of what constitutes a polite behavior.


The major conclusion of the study is that while the English native speakers have a tendency towards showing deference and hence negative politeness, the Syriac native speakers (as the data reflect) tend to exhibit solidarity, the main characteristic of positive politeness. In consequence, the Syriac language lacks various negative-politeness expressions which are compensated for with Arabic or Kurdish expressions when they are needed. 



  2. Aim of the study


This study aims at comparing the politeness strategies used by the English and the Syriac native speakers to shed light on points of similarity and difference. This comparison would explain to what extent Syriac native speakers follow the same strategies employed by English native speakers in the same situations and for the same purposes in order to also show the universal and cultural-specific aspects of politeness. Sometimes reference is also made to other languages, such as Kurdish and Arabic.




  3. Significance of the study


This study deals with a currently tackled sociolinguistic phenomenon, namely, politeness. Its importance lies in the fact that polite behavior, whether linguistic or nonlinguistic, has characteristics that can be considered universal, and others which are actually culture-specific. Both kinds of characteristics are significant in shedding light on human language and sociolinguistic behavior. Moreover, the results of this kind of comparative research explain the different sociolinguistic tendencies of the speakers of English and Syriac and the various pragmatic aspects of the two languages. Thus, the Syriac learners of English and the English learners of Syriac (if any) can make use of the findings and implications of this study to avoid committing social blunders when interacting with the corresponding native speakers of the language (i.e. Syriac to English or vice versa).


Furthermore, Syriac is generally an understudied language. The spoken varieties of Syriac are almost neglected since the books published on Syriac chiefly deal with the written variety and exclusively tackle orthographical and grammatical aspects of the language. Consequently, this study can be considered the first that sheds light on how the Syriac native speakers actually use their language in everyday interaction, and also the kind of social relations that link them to one another.




  4. Data


The English examples cited in this study are taken from previous studies on politeness in the English language including articles, journals, and books. Brown and Levinson’s (1987) book on politeness is the major source of these examples since their theory of politeness is the one adopted in this study.


Concerning Syriac, the linguistic analyses and examples are mostly the researcher’s depending on his intuition as a native speaker of the language. Besides, these analyses and examples have been verified by various audio recordings of spontaneous conversations which were produced by Syriac native speakers of different ages and from both sexes interacting in various communication settings.




  5. Brown and Levinson’s view (1987)


Brown and Levinson established their theory of politeness on the notion of ‘face’ defined as “the public self-image that every member wants to claim for himself” (1987:61). On this view, ‘face’ is claimed to have two related sides or aspects:




1.     Positive face: the positive consistent self-image or ‘personality’  claimed by interactants (crucially including the desire that this self-image be appreciated and approved of).


2.     Negative face: the basic claim to territories, personal preserves, rights to non-distraction – i.e. freedom of action and freedom from imposition.




Besides, Brown and Levinson (1987:65) believe that “certain kinds of acts intrinsically threaten face”, i.e. they may cause uneasiness, embarrassment, humiliation, etc., to H and/or to S. The various face-threatening acts (henceforth, FTAs) are distinguished depending on whether they are directed toward the negative face or positive face, and whether they are likely to harm H’s face or S’s face (‘act’ here refers to anything intended to be done by a verbal or non-verbal communication).




  6.Strategies for doing FTAs


There can be many situations where S is likely to cause a threat to H’s positive or negative face, or to his/her own. As such, a rational person will either decide to avoid these FTAs, or to use certain strategies to reduce the possible threat. According to Brown and Levinson (1987:68), these decisions are dominated or at least influenced by three wants:


The want to communicate the content of the FTA


The want to be efficient or urgent


The want to maintain H’s face (and\or one’s own) to any degree




Unless (b) is greater than (c), S normally tries to reduce the threat of his/her FTA.


The first decision that S should make is whether to do the FTA or not. If S chooses, in view of the circumstances, to do the FTA, then there can be four possible strategies, according to Brown and Levinson (1987:68-70), as illustrated in Fig. 1 below:


 1.without redressive action, baldly on record                          2.positive politeness Do the FTA with redressive action  

 3. negative politeness

 4. off record

 5. Don’t do the FTA


A speaker may choose to go on record (i.e., use an utterance which is directly addressed to H) when the communicative intention leading to the FTA is clear to both participants so that there can be no fear of face-threat, and when S wants to avoid any misunderstanding. In this case S still has to choose whether to do the FTA baldly (without redress) or with redressive action:


Strategy 1: doing an FTA baldly, without redress. This is the most direct, clear, unambiguous and concise way of performing a speech act. The circumstances that may invoke such a method include:


1. S and H both tacitly agreeing that the relevance of face demands   


             may be suspended in the interests of efficiency, urgency or danger, e.g.:


(1) Run quickly!


(2) Watch out!




2. The danger to H’s face is very small, as in offers, requests and 


                suggestions that are in H’s interest, e.g.:


(3) Come in.


(4) Have another piece of cake.




  3. S being vastly superior in power to H, e.g.:


(5) Start working on the report now.    (a boss ordering an employee)


(6) Go to your room.                          (a parent addressing his/her child)




A speaker may also decide to go on record but with redressive action, (i.e., using a way which clearly shows that no threat to face, positive or negative, is intended). In this case S should choose between two forms, which constitute strategies 2 and 3 for doing FTAs:




Strategy 2: doing an FTA using positive politeness. This strategy involves S’s


  showing consideration for H’s positive face by giving an   


  impression of  solidarity and appreciation, e.g.:


   (7) I’d appreciate it if you’d let me use your calculator.




Strategy 3: doing an FTA using negative politeness. By following this


               strategy, S tries to satisfy H’s negative face, that is, show respect to         


               H’s want to be  unimpeded and have freedom of action. This usually      


               involves expressions of apology for interfering or transgressing (e.g.


              ‘sorry to bother’), with linguistic and non-linguistic deference, and  


               with softening devices. The most typical form is a question             


               containing a modal verb, e.g.:


    (8) Would you please open the door?




All the three above-mentioned strategies were on record. However, S may choose to go off record, i.e. use an utterance which is apparently not addressed to anyone but is actually expected to receive a response from H:




Strategy 4: doing the FTA off record. This way has the least possible threat to


both S’s and H’s faces because S can act as if the utterance was        really not directed to H (if he/she did not receive the expected response, for instance), and H can act as if he/she did not grasp S’s actual intention (in case H did not wish to respond in the expected way). For instance, if S feels cold and wants H to close the window, instead of going on record and asking him/her to do so, he/she may go off record and make a hint, such as:




  (9) It is cold in here.


The last possibility is not to do the FTA, a choice which may be made by S when he/she feels that there is a serious risk of face loss (his/her own or H’s). This could be labeled as Strategy


  5.To sum up, the same FTA (e.g. asking for a cup of tea) can be done using at least four strategies:


(10) Bring me a cup of tea. (bald on record)


(11) I’d appreciated if you’d bring me a cup of tea.  (positive politeness-on record)


(12) Could you bring me a cup of tea? (negative politeness- on record) 


(13) A cup of tea is best in cold weather. (off record)


  7. Politeness tendencies in English versus Syriac Brown and Levinson believe that these super-strategies can be ordered in degrees of politeness such that the more indirect (i.e. heading from bald on record toward off record) the more polite, a case which might be typical for English native speakers, who generally constitute a negative-politeness culture (Brown and Levinson 1987:129-30; Culpeper and Archer 2008:77; Jucker and Taavitsainen 2008:242). However, in discussing data from Syriac, it was made clear that this language (and, in fact, culture) is based on solidarity, i.e. positive politeness (which might be the case with most, if not all, minority groups as a protective and defensive measure). Thus, for the Syriac people, the more intimacy and closeness are expressed the more polite an utterance is felt.


This difference of perspective has various outcomes on the ground. For instance, in the English-speaking countries (and maybe most western countries) privacy is treasured and it is considered impolite to ask personal questions such as how much a person’s salary is, how a person is doing in his/her marriage or whether he/she is married or about to, and so on. However, all such questions are quite normal in the Ainkawian Syriac community and are interpreted as stemming from concern and solidarity. Furthermore, if a person has been inflicted with the death of a dear relative or friend, it will be considered an invasion of privacy in most of the English-speaking communities to visit him/her everyday for a week, whereas in the Syriac community of Ankawa it will be seen as rude and inconsiderate not to do so, and the person’s true concern will be questioned.


Finally, other outcomes of this tendency difference are, first, that there are situations where a Syriac person would use a positive-politeness strategy instead of a negative-politeness or off-record strategy which is normally used by an English native speaker in the same situation. Secondly, there are cases when the lack of negative-politeness or off-record expressions is compensated for by relevant expressions that are borrowed from Kurdish or Arabic. Thirdly, certain other negative-politeness or off-record strategies are so indirect that they cannot be found in Syriac.


  8. Conclusions


Politeness is an essential constituent of any sort of social interaction. For any interactive member of a society being polite is a prerequisite for establishing and maintaining productive social relations with other members of the same society as well as members of other societies. However, politeness has varying degrees and forms depending on different social and sociolinguistic factors, such as power, the relation between the interlocutors and the purpose of interaction. Besides, different cultures and societies differ relatively in their perspectives of what is or is not polite, and in their tendencies towards the politeness strategies they use; for example, to focus on solidarity (hence positive-politeness strategies) or deference (hence negative-politeness strategies).


The results of this study support Brown and Levinson’s claims of the universality of such notions as ‘face’ (person’s public self image), ‘power’ and the politeness superstrategies, bald on record, positive politeness, negative politeness, and off record. However, languages and speech communities may have different choices from these politeness strategies. Thus it was found out that all the four superstrategies of politeness, along with most of their syntactic realizations found in English can be also found in Syriac; but while the English native speakers are generally in favor of indirectness and taking negative face into consideration (i.e. avoiding imposition upon others), the Syriac native speaker would mostly favor expressing intimacy and solidarity thus paying more attention in their interactions to the addressee’s positive face (his/her desire to be liked and approved of). Thus English is very rich with negative-politeness expressions and hedges whereas Syriac usually includes one for each use and none for some uses. In fact, Most of the negative-politeness expressions in Syriac include Arabic or Kurdish words. However, Syriac native speakers use a lot of kinship address forms (which reflect positive politeness) in their interaction to show intimacy in contrast to the English native speakers who generally try to show deference and respect for the other person’s privacy. In fact, in Syriac the notion of privacy might be almost absent since everyone is expected to welcome visitors any time without prior notice, and to be asked any personal question and give a true direct answer.


Furthermore, because Brown and Levinson’s theory is mainly based on the English language/culture, it assumes that the more indirect an utterance is, the more polite it is felt by the addressee. However, it has been shown that in the Ainkawian Syriac community being so indirect may sound awkward, confusing and actually disharmonious with the people’s feeling of solidarity.


Another worth-mentioning point is that politeness is a reciprocal concept in the sense that in order to maintain his/her own ‘face’ (i.e. public self image), a person should be careful to maintain other people’s ‘faces’, because if a person behaves impolitely toward others, he/she is likely to receive a similar treatment or at least distort or lose the good public self image that he/she is seeking to maintain for him-/herself.


In addition to the different linguistic polite/impolite behaviors of the English native speakers and Syriac native speaker, it has been demonstrated that there are nonlinguistic behaviors which are viewed as normal and appropriate by most of the English-speaking communities, but if they take place in a Syriac community, they would be regarded as impolite and inconsiderate. On the other hand, there are other nonlinguistic behaviors which are unacceptable for the English native speakers though they are quite normal for the Syriac people.