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Language is a necessary tool for effective human interaction. It relates to culture and functions also in the transmission of information as well as norms and rules of the society in which it operates. It concretizes human relationship in their daily life experiences. Ogbodo; et al (2010).  In the same light, language has  been defined as a system through which man collates, organizes, and relates his thoughts and ideas, and also interacts with fellow men. Corder (1973:5). To be able to relate these thoughts effectively, language has to be acquired through formal acquisition process or learning process. Language acquisition  refers to the child’s innate ability to acquire language in his environment, while language learning refers to a situation where conscious efforts are made by both the teacher and learner to help the learner develop communicative skills in a second language.

In Miller’s words, language learning is a conscious process that occurs in formal learning, and it focuses on language form and grammatical competence (1984:72). Language learning according to him, applies to older children and adults developing a second language.

Ogbodo; et al (2010) define a second language as that language that ranks sequentially second in a bi/ multilingual person. It may be a third or fourth language one learns, but it ranks second in the individual’s speech faculty (P. 12). It is often learnt for official purposes and in an official setting.

In Nigeria, English is the second language and therefore an official language, which requires the functional knowledge of the basic skills of the language – this involves listening, speaking, reading and writing. Nweze (2010) Opines that communication is the act of expression of thoughts, ideas, feelings and emotions. In the same way, Crystal (1962:72) states that communication is the transmission and receiving of information between a source and a receiver, using a signaling system. In other words, for an effective communication of thoughts, ideas, feelings and emotions in English language, a native Igbo speaker has to master the tenets and principles of communication of the language he/she is learning.

This effectiveness could be achieved through the study of the structure of the said language, its phonetics and  phonology, semantics, and above all pragmatic principles. This study focuses on politeness as a pragmatic principle, and how the knowledge of the politeness strategies can help a second language learner in proper acquisition and use of a second language.

Pragmatics was introduced into linguistics studies in the late sixties and early seventies (60&70’s), in the work of the American  semiotician and behaviorist Charles Morris, in his distinction of the three parts of semiotics: syntactic, semantics and pragmatics. The foundation of pragmatics was laid by ordinary language philosophers and speech – act theorist, such as John Austin (1962), John, R. Searle (1969), and H. Paul Grice (1979). By adopting this new approach to language studies as human action, linguists hoped to overcome the strict confines of language as a closed system to be analyzed in itself and for itself, as advocated in the structuralist traditions of linguistics after Ferdinand de Saussure and Noam Chomsky. Pragmatics therefore has become the focus of interest, not only in main-stream linguistics, but also in communication studies, discourse analysis, conversation analysis, psychology, the social sciences, artificial intelligence, and the study of language and cognition.

The Wikipedia, non-specialized as it may be, defines pragmatics as a subfield of linguistics and semiotics which studies the ways in which context contributes to meaning. It encompasses speech act theory, conversational implicative, talk interaction and other approaches to language behavior. According to Anna Belza  (2008:22), ‘pragmatics is the science of language seen in relation to its users’. She went ahead to say that speaking a language is performing speech acts and these include among others, making statements, giving commands, making requests, making promises and so on.  Chomsky (1968:19) saw it as ‘performance’, that is, the way the individual goes about using language. Mey (2000:6) defines pragmatics as “a subfield of linguistic which studies the use of language in human communication as determined by the condition of society.”

Grice (1967:47) noticed that conversation like other human interaction is governed by a general principle of cooperation which people observe in order to live peacefully with one another.  This implies that there are laid down principles which govern conversation in a society. These principles are embedded in pragmatics, and they are known as pragmatics principles (Mey, 2002). Pragmatics principles in Mey’s words are elements and pre-requisites for understanding the basic principle of communication. (67). The first of these principles are the cooperative principle, which dates back to the work of Herbert Paul Grice (1975, 1981). He specified four categories which would enable the cooperative principle function effectively. These categories are characterized by more specific maxims and sub-maxims, which he refers to as maxims of Quantity, Quality, Relation and manner (45-46).

The category of Quantity relates to the quantity of information to be provided and under it fall the following demands

  1. Make your contribution as informative as is required (for the current purpose of the exchange)

1b)  Do not make your contribution more informative than is required. The category of quality, under the following demands – that you make your contribution one that is true

2)  Do not say what you believe is false

3)  Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.

The category of  relations and manner has to do with how contributions are made and the relevance of these contributions to the conversation.

The main idea behind the formulation of  these maxims was for the effective exchange of information (Belza, 2009:45).These maxims indicate step by step principle for both language learners and native speakers to perfect their conversational techniques. In addition to the cooperative principle, the ‘conversational implicature’ which is one of the outcome of the violation  of any of the  pragmatic principles has to do with things that the hearer can work out from the way something is said rather than what  was said and these are implied meanings that exist in addition to what is overtly stated.  We encounter this implicature all the time and process them even while we are not aware of it. For instance, somebody could ask the question, “Could you close the window?” In this case, although the speaker used words that conventionally constitutes a question; the hearer can reason out that the speaker is making a request and then, respond by shutting the window.

The Cooperative principle and Conversational implicature have been central concepts in the study of pragmatics. Their study went a long way in pragmatics to provide the ethics of conversations. In later years, both concepts/principles were refined as a result of criticism. This refinement contributed to the development of Relevance Theory and the politeness principles proposed by R. Lakoff (1973), G.Leech (1983) and Brown & Levinson (1978, 1987)

Like the Speech Acts, the Relevance Theory (RT) aims at showing that interlocutors communicate for a particular purpose. With Speech Acts, the speaker shows intentions through linguistic means of speech act type, whereas with the relevance theory, the speaker shows ‘intention through ostensive communication. According to Belza (2009:48), the relevance theory seeks to explain the method of communication, whereby the speaker conveys to the hearer the information that is left implicit. It is a theory that claims that the human mind will instinctively react to an encoded message by considering information that it conceives to be relevant to the message. In the same way Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson (1986:156-157) describes it to mean ‘whatever allows the greatest amount of new information to be transmitted in a particular context on the basis of the least processing effort required to convey it’(156-157). They noted that people who are engaged in inferential communication have the notion of relevance in their minds. Therefore, each interaction participant arrives at the presumption of optional relevance which states that a set of assumptions which the communicator intends to make manifest to the addressee is relevant enough for processing the ostensive stimulus; (b) the ostensive stimulus is the most relevant one the communicator could have used to communicate(158)

The Relevance theory according to Belza (2000) is an automatic principle that works, and is much more explicit compared to the Grice’s cooperative principle. This is because relevance theory aims at explaining the phenomenon of communication as a whole, both explicit and implicit, and it applies to what is said as well as what is implicated (49). This theory tries to show an interesting and important part of human speech. Relevance theory is important in this study for language learners because it is used to account for certain linguistic behaviors that are appropriate in a given situation, but cannot be easily explained through speech Act theory.

The Speech Act Theory on the other hand was developed by the Oxford philosopher John L. Austin whose 1955 lecturers at Harvard University were published post humorously as ‘How to do Things with Words’ in 1962.  Austin’s approach has been developed since, and there is now a large literature devoted to the subject. Speech acts are speaker’s utterances which convey meaning and make listeners do specific things (Austin 1962). The primary concept of speech act is that various functions can be implemented by means of language. Speech acts are determined by the context where multiple factors affect the speakers’ utterances.

According to Austin, when making a performative utterance, a speaker is simultaneously performing an action. For example, when someone says, “I am hungry”, he may express his hunger or is likely to imply a request for something to eat. Austin indicated that people perform different kinds of acts when speaking:

  1. Locution acts: the utterances we use, which have literal meanings
  2. Illocution acts: The intention that a speaker has or the effect that the utterance has on hearers. They are often used to perform certain functions and must be performed on purpose.
  3. Perlocution acts: the results are effects produced by means of speaker’s illocutionary acts.

A speaker can use different locution acts to achieve the same illocutionary force or use a locution for many different purposes. For instance, when you ask someone, “can you pass the salt?”, the literal meaning concerns the hearer’s ability to pass the salt whereas its illocution is to request the hearer to pass the salt to the speaker. If illocutions cause listener to do something, they are per locutions; in this case, the locution produces illocution force which the speaker wants the utterance to have on listeners.

Speech acts are categorized by language function or by their intents. (Austin 1962 and Hymes, 1962) classified speech acts into five types  and then Searle (1969) refined his typological system:

  1. Directives: An intention to get the listener to do something, such as request, command, advice, and invitation.
  2. Declaratives:                   The exercising of power and rights or a completion of a charge by the correspondence between the utterance and the illocutionary force, as in appointing, warning and order.
  3. Commissives:                               An  intention like a promise.
  4. Expressives:                               A psychological expression that

shows the sincerity condition about certain     congratulation.

  1. Assertives :    A reference to the truth of the expressed

utterance, as in argument and statement.

In other to make the illocutionary acts successfully performed, Searle (1969) suggested four necessary conditions, and they include the preparatory condition, the sincerity condition, the prepositional context condition and the essential condition. Take the felicity conditions of directives for example,

1.2. Necessary Conditions for an Utterance of Directives (Request)


Preparatory condition

Sincerity condition

Propositional content condition

Essential condition

The hearer is able to perform an act

The speaker wants the hearer to do an act

The speaker predicates a future

Counts as an attempt by the speaker to get the hearer to do an act.


First, the speaker has to recognize his/her relationship with the hearer and then estimate whether the hearer is able to do the act. Secondly, the speaker makes sure his/her desire for the act is to be completed by the hearer. Thirdly, the speaker’s utterance places the hearer’s act under some kind of obligation. Finally, the utterance is regarded as certain compulsory act by the speaker to get the hearer to perform it. Speech acts are also categorized into direct and indirect speech acts in terms of the extent of the directness. Direct speech acts convey the illocutionary force the same as the surface form, whereas indirect speech acts refer to the illocution different from the literal meanings. According to Searle (1969:35) an indirect speech act is one illocutionary act performed indirectly by using another speech act directly, the utterance. Do you feel cold? Performs an act of asking questions directly, but in fact it implies the speaker’s indirect request for closing the window.

Direct speech act usually lack ambiguity because they have a conventional relationship between utterances and functions. However, indirect speech acts tend to be confused by their implicit meaning and connotation. The hearer has to read between the lines and then infer the speaker’s true intention in the light of certain conventional ways of formulating these acts.

Generally speaking, the speaker often issues directives indirectly to maintain the hearers face. The level of the speaker’s indirectness depends on the degree of the politeness needed.

Politeness theory, unlike Speech act theory goes a long way in determining how a language learner as well as the native speaker interacts with other members of  the same language community. Politeness as a pragmatic principle is the process of using the speech act with special considerations. One of the major criticisms against Gricean’s maxims is that they can be interpreted as a moral code for behaviour.

To employ the principle of  politeness in conversations, one  has to know what it means to be polite (Mey 2000). According to Leech (1983), some illocutions (eg., orders) are inherently impolite, while others like offers are significantly polite. Such a view according to Mey (2000) is wrong on two counts. First, the social positions of the speakers may indicate different politeness values for individual cases. The existence of a social hierarchy (as in institutionalized contexts such as the schools, the military, religious communities, etc.) often pre-empts the use of politeness altogether.

Secondly, the politeness of order depends on the positive or negative effect it has on the person who is given the order. The principle of politeness tells us to minimize or mitigate the effects of impolite statements or expressions (negative politeness) and to maximize the politeness of polite illocutions (positive politeness); all the time, of course, the intentions that direct the ongoing conversations. According to Leech, there is a politeness principle with conversational maxims similar to those formulated by Paul Grice. He lists six maxims: tact, generosity, approbation, modesty, agreement, and sympathy. The first and second form a pair,  as do the third and the fourth. These maxims vary in use from culture to culture; what may be considered polite in one culture may be strange or downright rude in another culture.

1.3 Forms of Politeness  

   Politeness as a principle in language has been a source of concern to scholars of socio-linguistics in recent times, because of the role of language in establishing an effective communicative platform for interaction and cooperation among interactants. Thus, politeness has become an inseparable variable for such attainment. Two major forms of politeness are identified in language use as negative and positive politeness.

Politeness is positive when the addressee is made to realize the fact that he is regarded as a friend, an in- group member, or a well known and liked personality in a particular social environment. The negative politeness on the other hand is avoidance-based, and is oriented towards partially satisfying the addressee’s negative face.  In fact, negative politeness is in line with one of the conversational postulates of Grice (1976:64) known as ‘don’t impose’. This strategy where the speaker recognizes and respects the addressee’s want of freedom, and therefore desist from interfering with this want of freedom.

Using a second language effectively puts enormous stress on the learners. When faced with the task of learning a Second Language (L2), the learner is likely to develop his/her own strategies by delving into his/her first language (L1). The Second Language learner therefore, tends to transfer the first language communicative strategies into the second language. Ogbuehi (2003) asserts that ‘the major obstacle in learning English as a Second Language in Nigeria is that of mother tongue interference. This interference arises as a result of differences between the learner’s mother tongue and the target language. Ogbuehi (2003) further argues that an important reason for the interference phenomenon is that English belongs to the Germanic language family while most indigenous languages in Nigeria belong to Niger-Congo language family (19).

Fromkin, Rodman and Hyams (2011) describe Universal Grammar  as ‘Those rules representing the Universal properties that all languages share’ (298). For instance, both the Igbo language and English language are made up of politeness strategies, and each has specific strategies of expressing its own. Fromkin, et al, state categorically that every language has sentences that include a subject (S), an object (O) and a verb (V), although individual sentences may not contain all the elements, (526).

Politeness is one of the pragmatic principles applied in conversation for effective communication. The English language shares some similarities and differences with the Igbo language. Such relationships between the two languages can be established through a contrastive study.