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Review of  Gender, Politeness and Pragmatic Particles in French

Reviewer: Fay Wouk
Book Title: Gender, Politeness and Pragmatic Particles in French
Book Author: Kate Beeching
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Subject Language(s): French
Issue Number: 14.2485

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Date: Tue, 16 Sep 2003 09:37:55 +1200
From: Fay Wouk
Subject: Gender, Politeness and Pragmatic Particles in French

Beeching, Kate (2002) Gender, Politeness and Pragmatic Particles in
French. John Benjamins Publishing Company, ix+246pp, hardback ISBN
1-58811-256-X, $87.00, Pragmatics & Beyond New Series 104. Announced at

Reviewed by Fay Wouk, University of Auckland


This study looks at the use of four pragmatic particles c'est-á-dire,
enfin, hein, and quoi. The main goal of the study is to compare male and
female usage of these particles, and to test the claim that women's
speech is more polite than men's in the sense of being more tentative. A
secondary goal is to examine the distribution of the use of pragmatic
particles according to age and social stratification, as represented by
level of education. The book consists of 9 chapters, three containing
introductory material, 5 presenting the study and one providing a

Detailed description of contents

Chapter one provides a general introduction to the study, and a detailed
review of the literature on gender differences and politeness. After a
brief discussion of a possible biological basis for male-female
linguistic differences, Beeching turns to politeness, and reviews some of
the major approaches to politeness that have been put forward. The first
approach she describes is what she terms the social norm view; this
section is quite eclectic, as it covers patterns in the use of profanity,
some of the variationist literature on gender differences in the
frequency of standard and non-standard forms of sociolinguistic
variables, and some of the literature on gender differences in
conversational style, including interruptions, gossip and shared vs.
contested conversational floors. Following sections cover the
conversational maxim approach, based on the work of Lakoff and Leech,
Brown and Levinson's theory of positive and negative face,
Kerbrat-Orrecchioni's notion of face-enhancing acts, Fraser's
conversational contract approach, and Eelen's modus operandi view of
politeness, which makes a distinction between politeness 1 (everyday
notions about politeness) and politeness 2 (scientific theories about
universals of politeness). She then reviews many of the claims that have
been made about how differences in male-female linguistic behavior (both
in the use of standard and non-standard variants and in conversational
style) can be explained in terms of politeness. This includes a detailed
look at some of the work on the use of tags and hedges as expressions of
tentativeness. Beeching concludes, on the basis of this review, that the
general consensus is that women are more polite than men.

Chapter two begins by reviewing attempts to define pragmatic particles,
and then presents the definition employed in this study, which combines
aspects of a number of previous definitions into a list of nine
characteristics. Beeching then discusses methodological issues of
appropriate level of detail in describing the function of a given
pragmatic particle, and briefly reviews some work on the use of pragmatic
particles in reformulations, and on gender and the use of pragmatic

Chapter 3 describes the way data were collected and transcribed for this
study. Beeching begins by reviewing the available corpora of
conversational French, and explaining her decision to collect her own
data rather than use existing corpora. This decision was based on
Beeching's desire for a corpus that was not limited to a single
geographic region within France, and the need for a representative sample
of age, social stratification and gender, in order to test the effect of
all three variables on the use of pragmatic particles. The data were
collected through sociolinguistic (or conversational) interviews done by
the author.

Chapter 4 is entitled Qualitative Analysis, and I expected it to contain
a qualitative analysis of the discourse functions of the four pragmatic
particles under investigation. However, that was not the case. Instead,
Beeching makes use of Lakoff's (1975) rules of politeness (1. Formality,
2. Deference and 3. Camaraderie) to classify her interviews in terms of
style, and to identify the types of speakers and topics that are
associated with each style. Four styles are described, one associated
with each rule, and one combining rules two and three. Puzzlingly, the
rule one style is also associated with loudspeaker announcements, and two
interviews are identified as being loudspeaker announcements, although no
mention is made of this in the methodology described in chapter 3. Based
on this analysis, Beeching concludes that pragmatic particles are avoided
when speech is carefully monitored, and when the speakers are maintaining
social distance or formality.

Chapters 5 through 8 are devoted to the four pragmatic particles that are
the focus of the study: c'est-á-dire (que), enfin, hein, and quoi. Each
chapter follows the same pattern; first the characteristics of the
particle, as it has been described in the literature, are given, next the
uses found in the corpus are outlined, then the sociolinguistic
stratification according to gender, education and age is shown, with
tables and bar graphs, and finally there is a conclusion. The labelling
of categories in the bar graphs was not done in the most effective
manner. In all the graphs, categories were labelled numerically, and no
key was given to translate the numbers into the age, education and gender
categories under consideration. While it is relatively easy to translate
mentally between numbers and levels of education or age groups, this is
not the case for gender. This minor inconvenience detracts from the
utility of the graphs, and could easily have been avoided.

In all four cases, a wide range of functions are described in the
literature for the particle in question, but only a subset of those uses
are found in the data. I outline below Beeching's major findings for each

C'est-á-dire is used to introduce reformulations and explanations, mainly
what Beeching calls "referential updatings of the preceding text" (p.
126). Its use shows little correlation with gender, and it appears to be
mainly a marker of higher levels of education, and thus presumably of
social class.

Enfin is used mainly as a corrective, either to restrict the scope of a
proposition, to introduce a hedge, or to downplay the strong assertion of
an opinion. There were no statistically significant correlations with
age, education or gender; however, Beeching argues that there are
tendencies toward gender asymmetrical differences in function, with women
using enfin more in its canonical sense of summing up, and men using it
more often to introduce explanations. She explains this asymmetry in
terms of women's greater ability to structure discourse, due to
biological differences in brain organization between the sexes.

Hein is a tag, a request for agreement or approval, which seems to have
two major functions in the corpus, emphatic and discoursal (creating
cohesion). For the corpus as a whole, the only statistically significant
correlation was with age. However, when a sub-set of male and female
speakers of the same age was compared, women used discoursal hein
significantly more frequently than men did.

Quoi is used in the corpus mainly to mark inadequate or vague
expressions, sometimes accompanied by a reformulation. It is a
stigmatized form used mainly by male speakers with low levels of

Chapter 9 concludes the book by summarizing the main findings of the
first nine chapters, and then discussing their implications. Beeching
finds that women's speech is no more tentative than men's, and explains
the overall lack of significant gender differences in terms of Brown's
(1998) suggestion that gender differences reflect social structure, and
will be greater in societies where women's social status is lower.
Beeching suggests that her study indicates that in France there is not
much social asymmetry between the genders. She then argues that the
observed gender asymmetries in the use of pragmatic particles relate less
to politeness or social disparity than to different biological aptitudes.
She then affirms the usefulness of Lakoff's 3 rules of politeness as a
model for the analysis of conversational style, in the way that she
analyzed the style of individual interviews in Chapter 4.

Critical evaluation

There were two things about this book that puzzled me. Firstly, although
Beeching's review of the literature on politeness shows that she has read
quite widely in the area, she bases her investigation on the earliest
work in the area of language and gender, Lakoff (1975), which equates
tentativeness with politeness. Yet much of the later literature, which
Beeching reviews, raise questions about making this correlation,
questions that Beeching ignores. For example, Holmes' work on tags (1984)
and you know (1986) clearly show that male uses are more tentative, while
female uses are more solidarity oriented. Which group of speakers is then
more polite? Further, in her conclusion, Beeching suggests that her study
indicates a lack of gender inequity in French society, as she does not
find the women speaking more tentatively than the men. Yet the literature
on gender differences, language and power suggests a much more complex
interplay between gender, power and politeness. Indonesian, for example,
shows a distinct lack of gender differences in the use of pragmatic
particles (Wouk 1998). On the other hand, numerous studies have shown
gender differences in English. However, one would not wish to argue that
Indonesian society is more egalitarian than that of most English speaking
countries. A more careful, and critical, reading of the literature on
gender and politeness would have greatly benefited the study.

Secondly, for a study of the use of pragmatic particles which comprise a
wide range of functions, she chose to use as her database a set of
'conversational interviews' by a non-native speaker (herself). The
artificiality of this situation would necessarily restrict the functions
that might appear, and thus could have major impact on the results of
the study. This method of collecting data does have the advantage that it
compares the usage of the two sexes in the same social situation, and
certainly one principle that has emerged clearly from the past almost 30
years of investigation into language and gender is that language use
reflects social role and social goals as much as it does the gender of
the speaker (Freed & Greendwood 1996). However, there are other methods
of obtaining comparable data that would produce a more natural, and thus
more useful database, such as asking chosen subjects to tape naturally
occurring casual interactions with close friends, as employed by
Pilkington (1994, 1998).

In summary, I feel that the book, although it provides some interesting
information about the distribution and use of a number of French
pragmatic particles, does not live up to its promise, due to limitations
in the type of data used, and in the author's conceptualization of

Brown, Penelope. 1998. 'How and why women are more polite: some evidence
from a Mayan Community'. In Coates, J. (ed.) Language and Gender, p.
81-99. Oxford: Blackwell.
Freed, Alice and Alice Greenwood. 1996. Women, men and type of talk:
What makes the difference? Language in Society 25: 1-26.
Lakoff, Robin. 1975. Language and Woman's Place. New York: Harper & Row.
Pilkington, Jane. 1994. Women, Men and Gossip: What's the Story?
Unpublished MA thesis. Wellington: Victoria University.
Pilkington, Jane. 1998. 'Don't try to make out that I'm nice.' The
different strategies women and men use when gossiping. In Coates, J.
(ed.) Language and Gender, p. 254-69. Oxford: Blackwell.
WOUK, F. 1998 'Gender and the use of pragmatic particles in Indonesian.'
Journal of Sociolinguistics. 3 p. 194-220.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER Fay Wouk has a Ph.D. in Linguistics from UCLA, and is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Applied Language Studies and Linguistics at the University of Auckland. Her research interests include discourse-functional grammar, conversation analysis and interactional grammar, with a focus on languages of Indonesia.