28 Nov 2022
16:15  - 18:00

Englisches Seminar, Grosser Hörsaal

Guest lecture / Talk

Politeness in the History of English: An Overview

Prof. Andreas H. Jucker (Universität Zürich)

When we think of politeness in English, we tend to think of such stereotypical phrases as “I wonder if you could tell us …”, “perhaps you might like to tell me …” or “can I ask you to read …”. A lot of research has already been carried out assessing the real status of such phrases in Present-day English beyond the stereotype, but in this presentation I am interested in the history of politeness. Have such forms existed ever since the beginning of English? Quick spoiler: no, they haven’t, they are, in fact, quite recent. But if such forms are recent, how were people polite before these forms came into more widespread use? Were people polite at all? And how can we even tell what was polite or not so polite several hundred years ago? For the first 1,000 years or so of the English language, the term “polite” did not even exist.

In this lecture, I want to provide some theoretical and methodological background for the investigation of such questions, and I will provide quick snapshots across the entire history of the English language. I will look at some of the terms for appropriate and pleasing behaviour in Old English; at Chaucer’s use of the then newly imported French term courtesy in his Canterbury Tales; at Romeo and Tybalt’s use of you and thou; at the ideological importance of the term politeness in the eighteenth century; and at the rise (and fall!) of non-imposition politeness (as illustrated in the opening phrases of this abstract) in recent decades.


  • Jucker, Andreas H. (2020) Politeness in the History of English. From the Middle Ages to the Present Day. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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