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Against the social constructionist account of Japanese politeness

Abstract

This paper examines Cook's analysis of Japanese politeness as an interactional achievement. Taking a social constructionist perspective, and counter to Ide's notion of discernment, Cook contends that social identities and social relationships are fluid, negotiated during the moment-bymoment unfolding of social interactions. Although such cases can exist, they are not the norm. Cook asserts that speakers are not mere observers of social norms, but, rather, active agents constructing their own social worlds. This too can be valid in certain situations. Examining speechstyle shifts in professor-student consultations in Japanese universities, Cook claims that students exercise total freedom in selecting plain, nonhonorific forms. This paper demonstrates that Cook's data do not support her claim. Students did not shift their speech to plain form in their dialogic mode of discourse. Her data support an analysis demonstrating students' awareness that an appropriate attitude in such a setting is to show deference to the advisor, and that this deference cannot be expressed without the use of honorifics. Speakers of Japanese are not as free in their linguistic behavior as Cook contends. Failure to observe the social norm of polite language (tameguchi) is frequently ridiculed and penalized. This fact demands acknowledgement of Ide's notion of discernment. © Walter de Gruyter.

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