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The pragmatic structure of compliment discourse

Compliment discourse (CD) is a verbally constructed environment, where the concept of BEAUTY is represented by different linguistic means and with the help of various pragmatic strategies and tactics. We hold that CD is

  • a) gender-specific,
  • b) strategically and tactically structured from the view-point of both its generation and its interpretation.

We believe that the concept BEAUTY, which constitutes the mental basis for compliment discourse, is gender-marked. This feature of the concept under discussion shows the peculiarities of its representation in the compliment-making speech behaviour of the representatives of the opposite sexes. These peculiarities follow the typical “schedule for the portrayal of gender” (Weatherall 2002: 95). Compliment-making on the level of mental space 1 can be regionalized as three interacting domains (attitude, engagement and graduation) and consists in five interrelated processes: engagement, affect, judgment, appreciation and graduation (Martin and White 2005: 34 ff.). These are lexicalized to various degrees with the help of modal verbs, “evaluative” lexis, intensifiers, both lexical and grammatical, proper names, technical and specialized lexis, slang and taboo words. The focus of this paper is building a pragmatic model of compliment discourse governing the use of the above lexical and grammatical means.

Our research is based on the data obtained from literary (70% of contexts analysed) and spontaneous oral and written discourse (25% of contexts analysed) generated by both men and women speaking English as their mother tongue. The oral and spontaneous written discourse data was drawn from oral interviews with English speakers (150 men and 150 women, aged 20-45, 90% of which come from a European background, all of them permanently employed and having completed at least a high- school course of education), as well as from written (mostly e-mail) interactions with both British English and American English-speaking individuals.

The most general classification of verbal compliments that transcends the gender limits is the classification of compliments into explicit and implicit. Further consideration allows to classify both explicit and implicit compliments with respect to their intention and the semantics of the linguistic expressions the speaker implements. If we look at the intention factor, our data suggests the following differentiation:

  • - in the communication MEN TO WOMEN the dominant intention is to establish leading positions in communication;
  • - in the communication WOMEN TO MEN/WOMEN, the predominant intention is to signal readiness to cooperate with the other communicant or communicants.

With respect to the semantics, we see two more clearly defined tendencies:

  • - in the MEN TO WOMEN communication: explicit and relatively simple linguistic means prevail (71.7% out of 8,000 contexts; 47% compliments centred around appearances);
  • (3) She smiled and Ashurst said: “You are a pretty thing!” (Galsworthy 2005: 67)
  • - the WOMEN TO MEN discourse is marked by the use of implicit linguistic means and relatively complex syntax (69.3% out of 7,800 contexts; 40% compliments centred around characteristics OTHER THAN appearances):
  • (4) I think you’re a much better man than I am a woman. (Maugham 2004: 139)

Interestingly enough, the latter tendency is reversed in women’s pejorative discourse, as 71.7 per cent out of 4,000 oral or written pejorative assessments we have analysed in opposition to complimentmaking employ explicit lexis.

It is well known that in order to communicate a certain message to the recipient, the speaker structures his or her discourse with the help of a number of general pragmatic strategies, each of them containing an array of possible tactics employed to achieve a particular goal as a step toward accomplishing the general purpose (Gumperz 1999). Compliment discourse is no exception in this respect, so its pragmatic structure is essentially an interrelation of the possible goals the speaker may strive to achieve by paying someone a compliment, and the combination of the strategies and tactics used to accomplish the above goal in the shortest way possible.

Figure 3-2 shows the most frequent purposes of making compliments in modern English discourse (these are typical for both gender roles, male and female).

Figure 3-2: The goals of the English-language compliment discourse

The first CD goal is the only explicit one that could be inferred from the corpus we have analysed, this is also the only goal that does not present a clear perlocutionary effect of compliment-making, whereas the two other goals, definitely implicit, manifest an obvious pragmatic perlocutionary effect the speaker aims for when he pays the compliment. Each of these goals has a different value for women and men, both as speakers and as objects of positive evaluation. For each of the purposes in question male and female speakers employ a particular discourse strategy with a whole array of tactics. Below we will try to give an overview of the distribution of the strategies and tactics with respect to the gender roles fulfilled by the speakers and the recipients (or the objects of positive evaluation and, therefore, the source for the compliment).

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