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Linguistic Decorum and the Meliorative Function of Language

Every language has words––like terms of respect––that instantiate politeness through speech. Some languages––for instance, Japanese––even have a whole grammatical adstructure (called keigo in Japanese), to which speakers resort when addressing a person of higher status. These speech patterns are part of linguistic decorum, an important means by which the potential abrasiveness of human relations is forestalled and the transaction of the business of living with one’s fellows is anodized and rendered more bearable.

When encountering an interlocutor who is extraordinarily polite and respectful, one not only has the feeling of linguistic finesse but that of melioration in general of the human condition. Every language has the wherewithal to fulfill this function, but speakers necessarily vary (due to upbringing and temperament) in the degree to which they are adept at implementing it. In this respect, perhaps more than in any other aspect of interpersonal behavior, language has the capability of helping one fulfill one’s capacity to realize what could even be called the religious dimension of human consciousness that is at the root of our peculiarity as sentient beings.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

[Authorial note: This post was prompted by an encounter with a young man, a waiter at the Denver Airport, whose politeness was of such a consummate excellence as to command special admiration.]

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