Children’s spoken language: politeness and impoliteness

I recently authored part of an online course, including a section on politeness and impoliteness in children’s spoken language. Here are some scraps from the cutting room floor.

When looking at spoken language whether adults or children, we talk about the use of politeness markers,such as ‘please’ and such conventional formulaic expressions as ‘thank you’ and the uber-annoying ‘have a nice day.’ In linguistics, politeness markers are seen as tools used in interaction to avoid giving offence, by showing friendliness or deference. Examples of polite language also include nicknames, jokes or in-group slang to show friendliness, or the use of formal terms of address, hedging or formal language to show deference. 

In languages, such as French and Italian, politeness can be marked by addressing someone using the formal form of you. In Japanese, Korean and Chinese politeness is writ large in the use of honorifics, those titles or words used to express respect. In Korean, for example, the word nim is added to names and titles to show respect and recognition of a higher social status than the speaker. When I was studying Korean while living in Korea, I soon discovered that as a foreigner I was being taught to use honorifics as if I were a child speaking to an adult. Even worse, I was encouraged to use a type of language that was extremely formal and made me sound as if I was making public emergency announcements.

Polite behaviours and language are taught to us from an early age and are associated to some degree with contexts. For example, a young child giving an order to a peer might use an imperative verb form, but that same child would express the same desire to an adult in the form of a question or request. Polite language is also culturally reinforced in written texts found in children’s literature and in other modes and media, such as films and musical stage plays. Typically, in children’s literature protagonists use politeness markers while the villains employ more verbal insults and sarcasm. In my study of politeness in Roald Dahl’s Matilda, a corpus analysis revealed that only the protagonists, Matilda and Miss Honey, used the word please. They were also the only characters to use thank you in a polite sense, as opposed to the sarcastic way this expression is used by the two villains, Mr Wormwood and Miss Trunchbull.

Of course, I found impoliteness more fun to analyse and write about. Like politeness, impoliteness in language is taught to us from an early age, but is more often taught through impoliteness metalanguage – that is, being told that you are being impolite, rude, discourteous, etc. The language of exchanging insults, taunting, making the witty reply and having the last word to ‘one-up’ another child may be creatively improvised by some children. But it seems most children borrow from a repertoire of name-calling and phrases which have been used by other children before them. Among children, impolite language appears to have a range of social functions, such as creating solidarity and being the centre of attention. Consider the use of expressions like cry-baby, spoilsport and mardy baby (an English dialect word for a spoilt child). Depending on the context, these expressions could be meant to anger, hurt or display affection towards the intended target.  Folklorists have also noted that childhood jeers and insults are often softened by using rhymes, as if to say the insult should not be taken too seriously. From my own childhood: ‘Roses are red. Violets are blue. Garlics stink and so do you.’

The pinnacle of impolite language in childhood occurs in the use of swear words. My research into this area of childhood language didn’t teach me anything I didn’t already know. Perhaps this is because what applies to children also applies to adults. Swearing is great for blowing off steam – especially at oneself – but when directed at someone, it’s often counterproductive and belittles the speaker more than the listener.

You’ve probably gathered that these extracts that didn’t end up in the final online units have had some of their academic language shaken out of them and some personal asides added in. There’s another type of language for you – bloggery.