Lancaster University

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If you think we’re rude – you should have heard the Elizabethans

07/01/2009 09:37:57

Notices warning customers not to abuse staff in the post office, acerbic entertainment on TV – you’d be forgiven for thinking polite language is going down the pan. But according to new research from Lancaster University the facts tell a different story.

Dr Jonathan Culpeper of the University’s Department of Linguistics and English Language analysed impolite language as part of a three-year Economic & Social Research Council Research Fellowship.

He found that around 400 years ago everyday language was far more direct with around half of requests using the direct imperative - ‘give me water’ ‘ get thee to bed’. Today, studies show that such requests are rare, fewer than 1 in 10.

What has in fact changed, Culpeper suggests, are people's perceptions of impolite language usage.

He said: “A thousand or so years ago in Old English, it was fine to use brusqueness which is jaw-dropping from our modern perspective.

“Our impression of a massive explosion in the use of impolite language is partly the panic reaction of those with more traditional values meeting new values - values which encourage more direct ways of expressing emotions and doing business.”

Nor has impoliteness invaded all areas of life.

Dr Culpeper’s research showed that when people talk about things they consider impolite, they actually refer to a very limited number of things in specific contexts.

Using the two-billion word Oxford English Corpus, an electronic collection of various writings (newspapers, weblogs, science writing, etc.), Culpeper found that actions likely to be described as rude or impolite included: “eavesdropping”, “interrupting”, “pointing”, “ignoring", “smoking”, "listening (in)" and “laughing”. Whilst people likely to be described as rude or impolite included: “doorman”, “bouncer”, “bartender”, “waitress”, “waiter”, “staff”, “guest” and “customer”. Many of these relate to public service contexts, where people have expectations of service entitlements, which are not always met.

Interestingly, “[New] Yorker” and “French”, also found their way into this list, which indicates that – at least in North America where the bulk of this data comes from - people evaluate some entire nationalities or places as impolite.

He said the impression that we’re living in a ruder world is also fuelled by the prominence of impoliteness in the media.

Dr Culpeper added: “Impoliteness often gets a bad press. It is assumed to be a poor, debased kind of language used for dysfunctional social purposes. But impoliteness can also be sophisticated, creative, and can entertain.

“For example, Anne Robinson, of The Weakest Link fame, uses rude and acerbic remarks including metaphors ‘Who should sling their hook?’, aphorisms ‘He who stumbles should not survive’, and alliteration ‘Despatch the deadwood’.

“People sometimes find observing impoliteness at a distance - on the TV, for example - entertaining, and even more so if it is done skilfully. They get a thrill, they get voyeuristic pleasure, and maybe even a sense of relief that they themselves are relatively safe from such things.”