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Pragmatic Variation in the Spanish Language

Updated on December 11, 2011

What Is Pragmatics?

Pragmatics is the study of the manner in which context contributes to the meaning of a word, phrase, or dialogue! In the Spanish language, this often comes down to the linguistic phenomenon of cortesía (courtesy or politeness in English). Cortesía varies immensely between different geographic regions and sociolinguistic groups and this hub aims to help elucidate these differences in plain English!

This will consist of covering some basic terminology and outlining some case studies that have been conducted by linguists.

Essential Spanish Pragmatics Vocabulary

These terms constitute some of the basics that I believe every student that is studying Spanish pragmatics should familiarize themselves with.

Imagen Social (Face)

The concept of imagen (face in English) can at times be a bit difficult to understand. The term "face" does not actually refer to the actual face of a speaker. Instead it is an idiom that refers to the dignity or prestige of a speaker. Nearly everyone is concerned with "saving-face," or keeping their dignity in interactions. There are two types of face:

Positive Face (Imagen Positiva) - A person's positive self-image and personality as well as the desire for this to be appreciated in interactions.

Negative Face (Imagen Negativa) - A person's right to territory, personal space, and to not be bothered.

Face-threatening acts (actos que amenazan nuestra imagen social), or FTAs, are actions that a person can take that could potentially damage face for themselves or others. Requesting something of someone can threaten that person's negative face, or right to be left alone, for example. (Brown and Levinson 1987)

Autonomy (Autonomía) - The desire of an individual to be seen as just that, an individual. It is a certain self-awareness and desire to be seen as an original person that involves focusing on the positive qualities and accomplishments of one's self.

Affiliation (Afiliación) - The sense of belonging with a group and focusing on the positive qualities and accomplishments of the group. The Spanish notion of confianza, which is a closeness or trust among members of the group, deals with this and a certain style of interaction that enables Spanish speakers to speak and act in a very open and familiar way with one another.

Cortesía (Politeness)

For an in-depth look into cortesía I recommend researching "Politeness Theory" or checking out some of the literature that I have been citing in this hub. Otherwise, these are the absolute basics of politeness.

Politeness Strategies:

Positive Politeness - The aim of positive politeness is to appeal to the positive face of the listener. This essentially means that the speaker is trying to boost the listener's self image and make them feel good about themselves. This often involves expressions of friendship, solidarity, or just general compliments. Positive politeness is often times very direct and occurs frequently in Spanish speaking societies.

Negative Politeness - Negative politeness, on the other hand, is concerned with appealing to the listener's negative face by seeking to avoid imposition on them. It often involves hedges, questions, and general indirectness.

According to Ruzickova, "both positive and negative politeness are forms of redressive action." This means that they seek to prevent loss of face and minimize face-threatening acts.

Ruzickova (2007) - Requests in Cuban Spanish

This study dealt with distinguishing between the different types of politeness strategies that are used in a market environment. There were three main types of petitions mentioned in this study:

Acts of imposition or direct requests (Actos impositivos o petición directa) - Direct requests refer to requests that are just frankly asked with no subtext. These are instances of positive politeness. Example: "Give me five pounds of beef please."

Conventional indirect petitions (Petición indirecta convencional) - Indirect requests are made through the use of conventional language that is standard throughout the community. Indirect requests are instances of negative politeness. Example: "Would it be possible for me to get some cheese?"

Non-conventional indirect peticions (Petición indirecta no convencional) - Hints and other non-standard indirect requests. Example "It would really be nice if there were tickets available."

This study found that Spanish speaking countries are typically more direct than English speaking countries, especially in Peninsular Spain. South American countries such as Argentina and Cuba use the conventional indirect often (~ 50% of the observed Cubans), but still use direct requests more often than their British or American counterparts.

Additionally, Cuban men preferred conventionally indirect request more so than Cuban women who had no clear preference. An interesting conclusion of this study was that while Cubans were more apt to use conventionally indirect requests, they were still more conserved with saving positive face instead of negative!

Works Cited:

Brown, Penelope and Stephen C. Levinson. (1987). Politeness: Some universals in language usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ruzickova, Elena. (2007). Strong and Mild Requestive Hints and Positive-Face Redress in Cuban Spanish, Journal of Pragmatics, 39, 1170-1202.


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    • Doctor Kristy profile image

      Kristy Callan 6 years ago from Australia

      Interesting, and well formatted.