Linguistic Impoliteness in (Translated) Children’s Fiction

by Monika Pleyer (Author)
©2022 Thesis 352 Pages


This book presents the first large-scale investigation of the structure and functions of linguistic impoliteness and impoliteness metalanguage in contemporary British children’s fiction. The study ties together findings from pragmatics, language acquisition research, literary studies, and translation studies with novel data-driven insights. The study shows that children’s fiction prefers direct, unmitigated impoliteness tokens to highlight key aspects of plot and characterisation. Impoliteness metalanguage is used to clarify impoliteness events to the child. The study provides a framework for the investigation of impoliteness in translation, which gives evidence of pragmatic differences, as well as differing views of children’s cognitive abilities in two linguacultures.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the authors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Abbreviations
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. Data
  • 2.1 Matilda
  • 2.2 Harry Potter
  • 2.3 A Series of Unfortunate Events
  • 2.4 Artemis Fowl
  • 2.5 Data Collection
  • 3. Impoliteness
  • 3.1 Towards a Definition
  • 3.1.1 Impoliteness is not Failed Politeness
  • 3.1.2 Impoliteness is not Inherent in Linguistic Forms
  • 3.1.3 Impoliteness as a Theoretical Concept
  • First-Wave Approaches to Im/Politeness
  • Criticism of First-Wave Approaches
  • Second-Wave Approaches to Im/Politeness
  • Third-Wave Approaches to Im/Politeness
  • 3.1.4 Definition
  • 3.2 Aspects of Impoliteness
  • 3.2.1 Impoliteness and Contextual Norms
  • 3.2.2 Impoliteness and Intentionality
  • 3.2.3 Impoliteness and Emotions
  • 3.2.4 Impoliteness and Power
  • Institutional Power
  • Power and Impoliteness in the Army
  • Power and Impoliteness in the School
  • 3.2.5 Impoliteness and Identity
  • Face
  • Familiarity
  • 4. Impoliteness in Fiction
  • 4.1 Analysing Impoliteness in Fictional Data
  • 4.2 Impoliteness and Entertainment in Fiction
  • 4.3 Impoliteness in Character and Plot Development
  • 5. Children’s Fiction: A Special Kind of Fiction?
  • 5.1 Children’s Fiction: Towards a Definition
  • 5.2 Children’s Fiction and Pragmatics Acquisition
  • 5.2.1 Shared Developmental Processes
  • 5.2.2 The Language of Children’s Fiction
  • 5.2.3 The Acquisition of Pragmatics
  • 5.2.4 Shared Experiences and Generalisability in Children’s Fiction
  • 5.3 Impoliteness in Children’s Fiction
  • 5.3.1 The Acquisition of Impoliteness
  • 5.3.2 Impoliteness and the Settings of Children’s Fiction
  • Impoliteness in the Fictional Family
  • Impoliteness in the Fictional School
  • 6. Cross-Cultural Im/Politeness
  • 6.1 German vs English Im/Politeness
  • 6.1.1 Directness/Explicitness vs Indirectness/Implicitness
  • 6.1.2 Orientation to Self vs. Orientation towards Other
  • 6.1.3 Orientation towards Content vs. Orientation towards Addressee
  • 6.2 Im/Politeness Perceptions in German and English
  • 7. Translations
  • 7.1 The Translation Process
  • 7.2 Translating for Children
  • 7.2.1 The Intended Reader
  • 7.2.2 Foreignisation
  • 7.2.3 Domestication
  • 7.3 Direction of Translations
  • 7.4 Translating Im/Politeness
  • 8. Translating Harry Potter
  • 8.1 The Translation Process of Harry Potter
  • 8.2 Translating Individual Phenomena
  • 8.2.1 Translating Culture-Specific Items
  • 8.2.2 Translating Names
  • 8.2.3 Dialect and Register
  • 8.2.4 Humour, Puns and Wordplay
  • 9. Methodology and Hypotheses
  • 10. Analysing Impoliteness Token Structures in Children’s Fiction
  • 10.1 Conventionalised Impoliteness Formulae
  • 10.1.1 World- and Setting-Specific Conventionalised Impoliteness Formulae
  • 10.1.2 Magical Curses as Conventionalised Impoliteness Formulae
  • 10.1.3 Insults
  • 10.1.4 Pointed Criticism and Unpalatable Questions
  • 10.1.5 Dismissals
  • 10.1.6 Silencers
  • 10.1.7 Threats
  • 10.1.8 Dares
  • 10.1.9 Non-verbal Conventionalised Impoliteness Formulae
  • 10.2 Implicational Impoliteness
  • 10.2.1 Form-Driven Impoliteness
  • 10.2.2 Convention-Driven Impoliteness
  • Convention-Driven Impoliteness: Internal
  • Convention-Driven Impoliteness: External
  • 10.2.3 Context-Driven Impoliteness
  • Context-Driven Impoliteness: Unmarked
  • Context-Driven Impoliteness: Absence of Behaviour
  • 10.3 Politic Behaviour
  • 10.4 Polite Behaviour
  • 10.5 Conflict Beginnings
  • 10.6 Conflict Termination
  • 10.7 Conclusion
  • 11. Analysing Impoliteness Metalanguage in Children’s Fiction
  • 11.1 Text-Internal Impoliteness Metalanguage
  • 11.1.1 Explicit Mention
  • 11.1.2 Third-Party Evaluation
  • 11.1.3 Tags
  • Verb
  • Verb + Action
  • Verb + Adverb
  • Verb + Adverb Voice/Manner of Articulation
  • 11.2 Text-External Impoliteness Metalanguage
  • 11.2.1 Explicit Mention
  • 11.2.2 Emotions
  • Disgust
  • Shame
  • Fear
  • Sadness
  • Anger
  • 11.2.3 Utterance Target
  • 11.3 Mixed Cases
  • 11.3.1 Voice Description
  • 11.3.2 Volume or Tone
  • 11.3.3 Action Description
  • 11.4 Conclusion
  • 12. Analysing Impoliteness in German Translations: A Case Study
  • 12.1 Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
  • 12.2 Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
  • 12.3 Discussion
  • 13. Conclusion
  • List of Figures
  • List of Tables
  • References
  • Series Index

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1 Introduction

Impoliteness as an aspect of human communicative behaviour has been shown to be highly salient in society. For example, this is evidenced by the public outcry following actor Alec Baldwin’s abusive phone call to his then-11-year-old daughter Ireland, or by the prevalence of several formats of exploitative TV shows that contain impolite behaviour. See, for instance, Anne Robinson’s persona in the exploitative quiz show The Weakest Link (Culpeper 2005), or the judges in the talent shows The X Factor and American Idol (Culpeper & Holmes 2013). This is not to say that impoliteness is a recent phenomenon, as, for example, insults in Shakespearean plays such as Lady Macbeth’s ‘quite unmanned in folly’ (Culpeper 1996; see also Rudanko 2006) prove evidence to the contrary.

Impoliteness, then, seems ubiquitous in the contemporary entertainment sector. It is not only present in the media, but also in fictional texts for diverse audiences, where it fulfils a variety of functions (Culpeper 1996; 1998). Behaviour that is open to an interpretation as impolite also occurs in entertainment for children, especially fictional texts for young readers. We can best illustrate this usage by looking at examples:


“What a bunch of nauseating little warts you are.” (MA: 141)1


“you demented freak” (AF 1: 109)


“those repulsive orphans he had lying around the house” (Series 2: 92)


“Professor Snape is an ugly git” (HP 3: 287)

The usage of impoliteness in (1)–(4) is even more striking if we consider the context of the utterances in question: (1) is uttered by a teacher on first perceiving her new class of first-year students in elementary school. (2) is used as a personalised reference to the child protagonist, after he has suggested the adult main character open a suspicious package. In (3), the child protagonists are conceptualised in terms of unwanted possessions that one might keep in the house regardless, and (4) is directed at the adult main character. It stands to reason that readers ←15 | 16→of all ages will recognise this behaviour as violating contextual expectations for the setting(s), even if they might not use the metalinguistic label ‘impoliteness’ to describe such behaviour. There is certain evidence that examples of conflictive discourse, such as the ones above, are prevalent in contemporary English-language children’s fiction (see, e.g., Loveday 2016; Pleyer 2015; 2016), much more so, it seems, than in naturally-occurring dialogue. However, the question as to the usage and function of impoliteness in children’s fiction has not yet been a focus of research, despite the great relevance of the topic.

One of the reasons for this lack of research might be the understanding of impoliteness in the wider field of linguistic pragmatics. For much of the research into the history of impoliteness and its related field politeness, impoliteness was conceptualised as a communicative failure. For instance, Leech (1983: 105) claims that “conflictive illocutions tend, thankfully, to be rather marginal to human linguistic behaviour in normal circumstances.” Yet, impoliteness can be described as more than marginalised behaviour. Thus, starting with a first strategic paper in the 1980s (Lachenicht 1980), impoliteness research has sparked three waves of research focusing on theoretical notions (e.g. Culpeper 1996; Kienpointner 1997) on the one hand, and participant evaluations on the other (e.g. Locher 2004; Watts 2003). Recent publications also include analyses of impoliteness in a variety of contexts, such as different cultural settings (e.g. House 2005; Stewart 2005), online communication (e.g. Kleinke & Bös 2015), television discourse (e.g. Bousfield 2007a; 2008a; Culpeper 2005; Dynel 2012), and literary texts such as Early Modern (e.g. Bousfield 2007b; Rudanko 2006) and contemporary plays (e.g. Culpeper 1998). At the time of writing, a search for the keyword ‘impoliteness’ turns up over 550 research articles in the Journal of Pragmatics alone – this is surely a better picture than the merely five papers Locher and Bousfield (2008: 2) refer to in their introduction. This further confirms the importance of understanding and describing impolite behaviours in a variety of contexts. In this light, one of the aims of my research is to further an understanding of impoliteness, both as a theoretical concept and as a tool to investigate a specific context. In doing so, I hope to help rectify “the enormous imbalance that exists between academic interest in politeness phenomena as opposed to impoliteness phenomena” (Locher & Bousfield 2008: 1).

A further reason for the lack of research into impoliteness in children’s fiction can be seen in the critical view researchers hold towards fiction for children. Its conceptualisation as a marginal phenomenon in the literary polysystem, as well as a supposed lack of quality, led to children’s fiction not being investigated by either linguistics or literary studies. This is despite the fact that contemporary research has identified fictional texts as a data set in its own right regardless of its constructed nature (see, e.g., Jucker & Locher 2017). Research especially ←16 | 17→highlights the entertaining function of fictional texts (e.g. Culpeper 1998), and of children’s fiction in particular (e.g. Zipes 2005). The connection of impoliteness and plot construction and characterisation is further emphasised (e.g. Culpeper 1998), which also sheds light on the nature of fiction. Surprisingly, this connection has not yet been explicated for fiction for young readers.

The analysis of impoliteness in children’s fiction is further relevant, in that it can shed light on how impoliteness is used and conceptualised for a young audience who lacks pragmatic abilities and contextual awareness, that is, an audience who needs to be socialised into their Community of Practice (Eckert & McConnell-Ginet 1992). Fictional texts have been shown to serve this function, which is even more pronounced in texts written for children (e.g. Metcalfe 2003). First, a simplified use of language in terms of syntax and lexis (e.g. Gamble & Yates 2002; Kümmerling-Meibauer 1999a; Kullmann 2008; Stephens 2004; 2009) helps the child understand pragmatic strategies which, in addition, are commented on using impoliteness metalanguage. Second, the narration is set in special narrative spaces such as the school, or the family home (e.g. Alston 2000; Avery 2004; Grenby 2008; Ray 2004), in short, narrative spaces the child is familiar with from her own embodied experiences. These, then, are spaces whose norms the child is familiar with, so that violations of contextual expectations, and thus an understanding of impolite language use, are made easier for the reader. How exactly the use of both simplified language and narrative spaces furthers impoliteness has not yet been investigated.

In a globalised world, though, children’s fiction is read not only in its country of origin, but popular books and series such as the Harry Potter series are read widely as translations. The target culture(s) into which the series has been translated, however, might not share the same communicative preferences as the British source culture. These differing preferences, such as different levels of directness in request formation, have been explicated in cross-cultural pragmatics (e.g. House 2005; 2010). Yet, while translation studies have focused on the translation of specific elements of children’s fiction, such as the use of dialect or humour in translation (e.g. Davies 2003; Lathey 2005), the translation of impoliteness has so far remained a research desideratum.

From the above discussion follow two questions that have, so far, not been sufficiently answered in impoliteness research:

Answering these questions necessitates an interdisciplinary approach, drawing together and adapting existing frameworks and models from different fields, including linguistic pragmatics, literary studies, and translation studies; my study thus places itself firmly at the interface of multiple disciplines. In doing so, I attempt to do justice to impoliteness as a multifaceted field of study. This approach further highlights the important position of children’s fiction as a data set, a position which has been previously ignored in research.

To be more precise, the objective of the present study is to analyse impoliteness in English-language children’s fiction and German translations. To do so, I propose a descriptive qualitative model that contains three analytical steps:

(1)an analysis of impoliteness strategies in children’s fiction;

(2)an analysis of impoliteness metalanguage surrounding conflictive discourse in children’s fiction; and

(3)a cross-cultural comparison of impoliteness in an English-language fictional text for children and its German translation.

In my application of analytical criteria of impoliteness to children’s fiction I seek

(a)to fully understand impoliteness in this setting,

(b)to gain insights into the relationship of entertainment, plot construction, characterisation and impoliteness in children’s fiction,

(c)to refine existing analytical criteria of linguistic impoliteness so that they can represent the full nature of fictional discourse, and

(d)to understand which types of impoliteness strategies are predominantly used, and to use these results to draw conclusions about the nature of the implied child reader and her preferences.

In my second analytical step, I seek to fill the gap of research into impoliteness metalanguage in fictional texts. I establish analytical criteria that are tailored to the data set at hand to understand how characters and the narrator comment on, and evaluate, impolite behaviour, in short, how they conceptualise impoliteness. Further, it is my aim to gain insights into how this metalanguage can help the reader understand how and why a given utterance is salient and open to an interpretation as impolite.

Third, I wish to further an understanding of how impoliteness is conceptualised in different speech communities. Focusing on translations allows me to show these different conceptualisations ‘in action’; here, I investigate how different understandings of the implied child reader and her (linguistic and narrative) preferences can lead to changes in impolite usages in translated children’s fiction.←18 | 19→

In conducting these three analytical steps and providing answers to the research desiderata postulated above, the present study will be a significant contribution to existing research on impoliteness.

The present study is organised in 13 chapters. Following this introduction, Chapter 2 presents a close description of my data; I focus especially on the selection criteria and offer a brief summary of the texts that make up my corpus to illustrate the reasons for my choice.

In Chapter 3 I explore the linguistic concept of ‘impoliteness.’ As the term has proven difficult to define (see, e.g., Culpeper 2011a), I establish a definition of the scientific term (Section 3.1) by first looking into what impoliteness is not, that is, it is not failed politeness, and not inherent in linguistic forms. The section ends with an in-depth discussion of how impoliteness has been conceptualised in first- and second-wave approaches. I then provide reasons for my own third-wave approach and select a definition. Following this, I describe several aspects that influence a participant’s understanding of impoliteness; these include contextual norms, intentionality, power, and identity (Section 3.2).

Chapter 4 addresses impoliteness in fiction. First, I discuss the validity of using fictional data for linguistic analyses, a point often criticised in older research (Section 4.1). Then I explore the relationship between impoliteness and entertainment (Section 4.2), as well as the link of impoliteness and character and plot development (Section 4.3). Both these factors help explain why impoliteness is especially prevalent in modern (children’s) fiction.

Chapter 5 concentrates on children’s fiction as a special case of fiction. As the terms ‘literature’ and ‘children’ have proven conflictive in previous research, I will first approach a definition and give reasons for my use of the term ‘children’s fiction’ instead of ‘children’s literature’ (Section 5.1). I then focus on the acquisition of pragmatics, and how this is scaffolded by the specific characteristics of children’s fiction, such as the language used, and shared experiences that are expressed in narration (Section 5.2). I further discuss the acquisition of impoliteness, and how the specific settings of children’s fiction may scaffold this acquisition process (Section 5.3), which may provide cues as to how and why impoliteness is used.

In preparation for the study of impoliteness in translation, the focus of Chapter 6 is on the realisation of impoliteness in cross-cultural analyses. I especially address dimensions in which German and English impoliteness preferences can be contrasted (Section 6.1) and how these different preferences are perceived by members of the other culture (Section 6.2).

This leads me to Chapter 7, which considers translations. In particular, I examine the translation process through which a text is made accessible to an ←19 | 20→audience with a different language (Section 7.1). I provide an in-depth discussion of translating for children (Section 7.2) as its intended readers’ preferences and social and linguistic knowledge differ from that of adult readers of fiction (Section 7.2.1). I also comment on the two translation strategies, or schools, that are most often used in children’s fiction: foreignisation (Section 7.2.2) and domestication (Section 7.2.3). Here, I highlight how the choice of a particular translation strategy influences the level of closeness between the target and source text. The chapter concludes with remarks on the most common direction of translation (Section 7.3) and a discussion of the translation of impoliteness (Section 7.4).

Chapter 8 remains in the field of translation studies and focuses on translating Harry Potter as a case study, with special emphasis on the translation process (Section 8.1). It further considers research into the translation of individual phenomena, such as cultural artefacts, names, dialect and humour (Section 8.2) that provide the basis for my own analysis in Chapter 12.

Chapter 9 draws together the implications from the previous chapters; here, I present my methodology and discuss my research hypotheses.

Chapters 10–12 contain my analysis. Specifically, Chapter 10 offers a detailed analysis and description of impoliteness strategies and related linguistic phenomena, such as polite and politic behaviour. I also comment on the structure or progression of conflictive discourse in children’s fiction. In Chapter 11 I present my analytical criteria for the analysis of impoliteness metalanguage in children’s fiction; I comment on how metalanguage can help the child understand the usage of impoliteness. Chapter 12 focuses on a case study of impoliteness in the German translation of Harry Potter; here I show global translation tendencies and discuss how impoliteness is translated and conceptualised for a German audience. Finally, in the conclusion (Chapter 13), I draw together insights from impoliteness research, research into the nature of children’s fiction, and translation studies, and point out areas for future research.

A final remark on my use of language: whenever I refer to persons in the singular, such as ‘the child,’ ‘the reader,’ ‘the speaker,’ or ‘the hearer,’ I use the feminine ‘she’ as a generic pronoun.

←20 | 21→

2 Data

The data chosen for this study consist of three contemporary English-language children’s book series and one stand-alone book. I have included data from a number of English-language authors in order to increase the validity of my findings. The data were chosen by means of the following criteria:

(1)number of impoliteness tokens

(2)contemporary publication

(3)age of readership


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2022 (August)
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2022. 352 pp., 23 fig. b/w, 11 tables.

Biographical notes

Monika Pleyer (Author)

Monika Pleyer is a linguist at the English Department of the University of Heidelberg, Germany, where she teaches and researches linguistic im/politeness. She holds a PhD from thae same university. Her areas of interest include children’s fiction in translation, gender and online health communication, and the evolution of im/politeness.


Title: Linguistic Impoliteness in (Translated) Children’s Fiction