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5. The Theoretical Foundation for the GEBCom Reception Test On the different sentence forms

In Durst-Andersen (2011, pp.116-120) the differences between sentence forms are based on the notion of negotiating a contract. The imperative (in its naked form) is less of a negotiation and more of a contract, already agreed to by the speaker and simply awaiting the hearer’s confirmation (Durst-Andersen, 2011a, p. 117). When Jane says it looks good, but add more flour, she presents John with a contract which reads: I hereby ask you to add more flour, a contract already accepted by her and which leaves no room for negotiation. The declarative and the interrogative, on the other hand, are both strategies for negotiating the contract between speaker and hearer. Whereas the declarative is a closed negotiation, i.e. the speaker leaves less room for the hearer to make her impact on the outcome of the contract, the interrogative is an open negotiation (Durst-Andersen, 2011a, p. 121). For example, when Jane says it looks good but you should add more flour, she is negotiating a contract which reads I hereby say to you, if it is possible for you, you add more flour.

The negotiation is closed in the sense that by stating the possible action (you add flour), she leaves little room for John to make his impact on the contract. However, when Jane uses the interrogative and asks it looks good, but why don’t you add more flour, she enters into an open negotiation about a contract which reads As you do not add more flour, but I assume that you are able and


willing to, I hereby ask you: why do you not add more flour? By phrasing it as a question, Jane verbalises her thought or wondering about John’s attitude, which leaves the negotiation more open for John to make his influence on the final contract.

The role of the different sentence forms as different strategies for entering into a contract between speaker and hearer, or as different strategies for solving a problem, are interesting, especially in an intercultural setting. According to Durst-Andersen (2016a), this is a universal, but nevertheless an individual approach. It is universal in the sense that given that all three sentence forms are possible in a language, the choice between them is a choice between three different approaches to solving a problem, and the three different sentence forms express that given approach regardless of language. And it is individual in the sense that this choice between sentence forms is a choice made solely by the individual speaker according to which way of solving the problem she finds most suitable in the given situation and context.

However, Durst-Andersen’s theory of directives is strongly (and intendedly) focused on the speaker (2011, p. 116) with the exact role of the hearer left undefined in detail. From the theory of the communication process we know that Durst-Andersen does indeed ascribe to the hearer an active part in communication through intake, in which the hearer recreates in her own mind the journey made by the speaker only in the opposite direction. In other words comprehension (or reception in Durst-Andersen’s terminology) might be seen as a mirror image of production.

Whether the same can be said for speech acts, i.e. if the comprehension of speech acts is a mirror image of the production thereof, is not clear from the theory, which makes it even more interesting to investigate.

Implications of the Durst-Andersen framework for the GEBCom Reception Test Besides serving as a theoretical framework for the overall understanding of speech acts and the role of the speaker and the hearer, the Imperative also served as practical inspiration when designing the category Form of Approaching the Hearer. We assumed that different sentence form, imperatives, declaratives and interrogatives, would play different roles in relation to speech acts and we wanted to include this element in the test. This meant that the texts for this category were designed so that they altered between imperatives, declaratives and interrogatives.


In addition, the overall Peircean inspiration in Durst-Andersen’s theories and the notion of firstness, secondness and thirdnees were included in a quite practical application. The theory of Communicative Supertypes emphasises that different languages, due to their supertype, express a natural preference for either reality, speaker or hearer. Linguistically the three transform into third person (reality), first person (speaker) and second person (hearer). Without having any specific assumptions or expectations we wanted to see if the linguistic notions of first person, second person and third person had any impact on the way the participants comprehended the texts.

On the role of Politeness

As part of the investigation into the comprehension of directives, we knew we had to include elements of politeness. After all, “politeness could be considered the heart of successful inter-cultural communication” (Holmes, 2012). Politeness, however, is also a tricky notion; perhaps especially in a project that celebrates linguistic diversity. How do you embrace a somewhat universal term with the intention to let it cover every aspect of what the participants may consider to be polite without it being then completely empty and with no real meaning in itself? Perhaps part of what makes politeness such a complicated or muddy concept is its inherent duality: it is both a theoretical concept (and for some researcher also an analytical tool) and a common notion.

As Gagné (2010, p. 126) also points out, politeness faces another, often conflicting, duality, namely that it is both a universal theoretical concept and a multitude of variations through local interpretations.

Since Brown & Levinson’s (1987) famous politeness theory, which links the notion of politeness with the notions of face and face work, the debate about politeness and face as universalistic vs relativistic concepts has not lost its interest. A universalistic approach, as that in line with Brown

& Levinson, would argue that politeness (and face work) may take on different linguistic forms and involve different strategies across cultures, but it is still possible to speak of a universal conceptualisation of what constitutes politeness. Differences in linguistic forms are then merely different interpretations and realisations of the same underlying universal concept. Researchers who favour a more relativistic approach to politeness would instead view differences in linguistic forms and strategies as a result of fundamentally different conceptualisations of what constitutes politeness.


The concept of politeness is interesting to include when investigating comprehension because in a way it forms part of the pragmatic layer of comprehension. Particularly interesting for this project is the relationship between politeness and its linguistic realisations. Is it possible to speak of politeness in relation to a certain linguistic form, or is it more so that: “no linguistic structures can be taken to be inherently polite [and] at least in English, linguistic structures do not in themselves denote politeness, but rather they lend themselves to individual interpretation as

‘polite’ in instances of ongoing verbal interaction” (Watts, 2003, p. 168). Even before beginning the discussion, we notice the many dilemmas that surface when dealing with (linguistic) politeness: is politeness a universal concept or relative to culture, should politeness be viewed as linguistic strategies or social practice, is it possible to speak of politeness on a (lingua)cultural level or only at an individual level? To these, Eelen (2001) adds the questions of how to distinguish between politeness as a common concept in everyday use and politeness as a scientific concept (the politeness1 vs. politeness2 distinction), if politeness should focus only on politeness or include impoliteness, whether politeness should be viewed from the point of view of the speaker or the hearer, i.e. as production or comprehension, and many more.

The field of (and literature on) politeness is immense12. The point of this section is not to give a complete review of the current status of the debate on face and politeness as this lies well outside the scope of my project, but rather to give a brief introduction and to discuss how the notion politeness is understood and used in the GEBCom Reception test in relation to the area Form of Approaching the Hearer. As the purpose of this project is to investigate the comprehension of English texts by non-native speakers with a focus on the possible influence of the mother tongue, I will focus on politeness and its possible relationship with linguistic structures, taking my starting point in Brown & Levinson’s (1987) theory on politeness and then discussing it in relation to a universal vs relativistic perspective as well as the (perhaps) special role of politeness in an intercultural or ELF setting.