Assessing Politeness In Language Use By Adepoju Olalekan

If you were privileged to be raised in a typical Yoruba family and you were so privileged to have an older sibling (male or female), then we must definitely have shared a similar experience of calling those older siblings ‘brother/aunty’ while growing up. Well, that’s the beauty of our indigenous languages which, unlike the English language, boast of peculiar lexemes for honorifics with which we show politeness to elders. For example in Yoruba, we can have a reply such as: Won jade (They (HE) went out) to the question ‘where is your DAD’, where ‘won’ (they, a plural pronoun) serves as a respect marker for an elderly male individual (the dad-singular noun).

Unfortunately, the English language performs poorly in the concept of honorifics; hence, many may see the language as lacking in ways of showing whether we are polite or not. Permit me to disagree with you on this because our lexical (word) choices during conversations using the English language medium really show how polite we are.

Basically, we see politeness as a form of respecting elders, and even peers. Politeness ensures a good relation with your listener or reader. There are several strategies we can adopt to show politeness during conversations. Let us just pick TWO for now:

1. Indirectness: This is the strategy used to appear not to be too direct when we speak or write. It is achievable in a number of different but related ways:

a. Using HEDGES: Hedges are softening words which make a speaker appear as respecting the feelings and face of the hearer(s). So how does this work? Let’s see these examples:

INSTEAD OF SAYING: Turn down the volume of that radio

SAY: Do you mind turning down the volume of that radio

INSTEAD OF SAYING: It’s cold in here. Let’s close the window

SAY: It’s kind of cold in here, isn’t it? Could we close the window?

b. Using MODALS: Modal verbs convey specific kinds of meaning, one of which is to show politeness in conversations. Certain modal verbs, especially their past forms (could, might, should and would), are used to show us as being more polite or less direct. We often do this when we ask for something or ask someone to do something:

INSTEAD OF SAYING: Solve this question for me.

SAY: Could you take a look at this question and help solve it?

INSTEAD OF SAYING: Do not address an elderly person in that manner

SAY: You should not be addressing an elderly person in that manner

INSTEAD OF SAYING: Daddy, I need a new laptop

SAY: Daddy, would you please buy me a new laptop

c. Using PAST TENSE: Sometimes, we change the tense of the verb from the present to past form even when referring to a present time. This is mostly done with verbs such as: hope, think, wonder. For example:

I WAS WONDERING if you COULD tell me how to operate this machine.

I THOUGHT you might want to rest for a while.

2. Honorifics: Basically, honorifics are the words or phrases used to show respect to someone of higher status. Like I said earlier, the English language, unlike our indigenous languages, has a limited vocabulary for honorifics. However, you can use the following

Sir/Madam: I wouldn’t mind more explanation on this sir

Titles- when this is used, make sure you complement the title with THE SURNAME of the person so referred. For instance, Professor Odekunle (not Professor Kehinde)

In conclusion, words like ‘please’ and ‘sorry’ can also be used as markers of showing respect or showing how polite we are when in conversation with people older than us. You MIGHT want to check your dictionary for possible ways of using them.

So, may I ask how polite have you been…

©Adepoju Olalekan (@dgreatlekan)


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