According to Brown and Levinson’s theory, in order to avoid acts that can potentially threaten one’s face or their interlocutor’s face, people employ either positive politeness strategies, which emphasize familiarity and similarity in order to minimize social distance or negative politeness strategies, which exhibit respect and non-imposition, so as to maximize the social distance between interactants.
The use of diminutivized forms is a way to manifest politeness in both Greek and English. However, it is a process that occurs much more frequently in Greek rather than English, where there is also greater flexibility in the formation of diminutives. In English on the other hand, there is considerably less flexibility in expressing emotions through the use of diminutives and those that exist are being used with much lower frequency (Sifianou 157). Such linguistic observations reveal commonalities and differences on why the two societies use diminutives, how they express politeness and, consequently, in which ways they differ socio-culturally in that respect.
The prototypical function of diminutives in both languages is to indicate smallness. Concerning the pragmatic functions of diminutives, they are most extensively used to express informality, familiarity, as well as endearment and affection towards the interlocutor. In Greek, diminutives are commonly used in interaction with children, but are also employed among adults as well. Among some instances of diminutive forms that Sifianou provides are those of nouns referring to human artifacts or indicating activities, as well as adjectives having negative connotations, which, through diminutivization, soften their negative force. According to Sifianou, “[t]he primary functions of Greek diminutives seem to have expanded to serve a wide variety of politeness needs” (159). That is, Greeks are claimed to have a tendency to express a rather friendly and informal politeness, either “by claiming common ground and showing solidarity towards the addressee, or by showing affectionate concern for imposing on his/her freedom of action” (159). Thus, the interaction would be marked as positively polite. Notably, Sifianou argues that the highly developed Greek diminutive system provides evidence for the positive politeness orientation of the Greek society.
Diminutives are used extensively in requests, offers, compliments and a variety of other Greek everyday exchanges, which provides further evidence for the fact that in Greek, a positive politeness strategy is generally preferred, in order to communicate similarity and informality between interlocutors. Starting with requests, Sifianou notes that “[r]equests are among the best examples of Greek diminutives exhibiting pragmatic force in polite interaction” (160). For Brown and Levinson, requests always involve some imposition, which needs to be mitigated. According to them, diminutives and constructions with ‘a little’ minimize impositions, functioning as negative politeness markers. Sifianou, however, refutes that claim, by illustrating plenty of situations in Greek culture, where requests are not interpreted as impositions at all. In such contexts, she claims, “softening devices are hardly necessary to mitigate impositions”, as requests are not perceived as such, but they might even be welcomed as chances to be of service (160-161). In such cases, the everyday function of diminutives is not mainly to soften impositions, but to express solidarity and claim common ground with the addressee. In this way “[t]he speaker indicates that s/he perceives equality of status, lack of social distance, and no imposition; in short, that the overall interaction is positively polite” (161). Even in cases when there is a relative social distance and familiarity has not yet been established, there is still a preference for trying to establish friendly contexts for the interaction. Therefore, it has become evident that the notion of imposition is viewed differently in the two societies.
Offers constitute another example of everyday exchanges, where positive politeness strategies are generally preferred in Greek society. By using offers, speakers indicate that they are concerned with the addressee’s desires and needs, which they offer to satisfy. There is a “[s]hared knowledge of the reciprocity of giving and receiving, [which] is mitigated explicitly by the use of a diminutive” (Sifianou 164). In contrast to English interaction, Greeks generally view potential threats to negative face as less significant than paying attention to positive face wants. In the case of compliments, Greek diminutives intensify the compliment and satisfy the addressee’s positive face needs. Greek diminutive forms are found in most everyday exchanges and they are used as softening devices to indicate intimacy, closeness and informality. However, diminutives are not normally used in formal situations, with obvious status differences, as they are deemed inappropriate.
Apart from suffixation, Sifianou mentions another way of expressing diminution, in both Greek and English. That is, by means of syntactic modification, such as by using the word ‘little’ to modify a noun. Such forms, however, are restricted in English, as opposed to Greek. The Greek ‘liyo’ appears to be more flexible than its English equivalent and, similarly to diminutives, it serves as a politeness strategy. In the same way that English speakers use the word ‘please’, so as to be polite, functioning as a negative politeness strategy, Greek speakers use ‘liyo’ in order to be informally polite.
Comparing the function of diminutives and of constructions with ‘a little’ in Greek and English, we have seen that when employed, they generally function as in-group identity markers to claim a solidary framework for the interaction in both societies. In the Greek society, however, they constitute positive politeness strategies, as they are mostly restricted to informal everyday speech, whereas in the case of English, there is a preference towards a more formal marking of politeness. So, the common perception that English people are typically more polite than Greek people might be due to the fact that positive politeness strategies are less readily recognized as politeness markers at all, because as Brown and Levinson point out, “manifestations of positive politeness are frequently representations of linguistic behavior between intimates, while politeness in Western cultures immediately brings negative politeness to mind” (qtd. in Brown and Levinson 1987: 101, 130). The broad implication of the present research is that it successfully tackles the difficult issue of cross-cultural interpretation of politeness. In their review, Preisler and Haberland remark that it actually illuminates potential sources of miscommunication between cultures and deconstructs cross-cultural stereotypes (231). Furthermore, in Blum-Kulka’s review of Sifianou’s work, it is generally argued that Sifianou’s findings support a broader view of politeness as a joint effort toward harmonious interaction at all levels and therefore a phenomenon to which all dimensions of culture are relevant.
In essence, this paper questions the extent to which the concept of politeness is common to different cultures. Wierzbicka agrees that “[f]eatures of English which have been claimed to be due to universal principles of politeness are shown to be language-specific and culture-specific” (145). The conclusion drawn by Sifianou, and where the importance of her research lies for the field of sociolinguistics, is that the linguistic differences observed between the two societies reflect some of their cultural differences as well. On the one hand, as has been noted, in Greek society, there is a tendency for closeness and informality, as well as an unrestrained expression of emotions. The English society, on the other hand, seems to maintain a preference for distance and formality, with a more restrained display of feelings (Wierzbicka 168). Diminutives in English serve to soften or minimize minor impositions, while, in Greek, they serve to express emotional involvement and solidarity.
All things considered, Sifianou’s paper contributes greatly to the study of language and society. Based on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that language reflects culture and vice versa, it can be claimed that through observing patterns of linguistic politeness among different cultures, we get to identify cultural differences in the respective societies. Through her research, Sifianou has come to establish a connection between language and society, by proving that the richer and more complexly developed diminutive system of Greek seems to facilitate the expression of feelings and is indicative of cultures rather intolerant to formality, in which affection and emotions of any kind are expected to be shown overtly. By contrast, English culture does not encourage excessive display of emotion; hence the system of diminution is more limited. Lastly, by discussing aspects of politeness in England and Greece, Sifianou’s findings hold great importance in terms of cross-cultural communication.