City University of Hong Kong Dep
Department of Chinese, Translation and Linguistics
WHY PRESCHOOL MAINLAND CHINESE CHILDREN
ARE BEGINNING TO SAY ‘PLEASE’ / 請 :
THE SPREAD OF RECIPROCAL POLITENESS FORMULAE
Dr. Mary S. Erbaugh
Center for Asian and Pacific Studies
University of Oregon, Eugene, OR 97403, USA
Date: 18 December 2007, Tuesday
Time: 4:30pm - 6:00pm
Venue: B7603 (Lift 3, 7/F, Blue Zone), Academic Building, CityU
Traditional Chinese politeness had neither honorific grammatical changes nor the reciprocal, egalitarian formulae equivalent to ‘please’ which form the focus of most politeness research. Courtesy was hierarchical and non-reciprocal in both Confucian and revolutionary times. It still centers on: 1) Behavior, e.g. refusing an offer three times. 2) Selecting a kinship or professional title, e.g. ‘younger male maternal cousin’ (表弟). Pronouns sound rude. 3) Tailoring a comment to the context: ‘have you eaten?’ ‘you’re going shopping’, ‘I’m leaving’.
Preschool children learn good manners which stress non-verbal obedience and the kinship titles, modeled even to newborns. Tailored comments are not expected until school age. Not a single formula equivalent to English ‘hello’, ‘please’, ‘thank you’, ‘sorry’ or ‘goodbye’ appeared in 65 hours of Mandarin family conversations taped with children aged 1;10 - 3;10 in the 1970’s, nor in wide-ranging studies into the 1990’s (Erbaugh 1992).
These formulae used to be shunned as impersonal, restricted to foreign strangers. Family, friends or co-workers would have been insulted to be addressed as outsiders. But by 2007 the phrases had spread via trade contacts, especially mediated through Hong Kong, with the all-purpose Cantonese 唔該. The phrases increasingly appear in infant vocabulary surveys of Hong Kong and Beijing, especially ‘please’ (qing), ‘thanks’ (xiexie) and ‘bye-bye’ (baibai ), an English loan. The Communist Party promotes the ‘five courteous phrases’ as ‘civilized’ and ‘simple enough for children’. Preschool classes and parent handbooks stress them. Some mothers even wake their babies with ‘hello, baby’, or apologize for a spanking with 對不起, reversing the old parent-child hierarchy. Bilingual children, who avoid pronouns and formulae in Chinese, may use them fluently in English.
Implications of politeness research include language socialization, language contact, bilingualism, neurology, and even parallels with animal behavior.
Mary Erbaugh, specializes in Chinese psycholinguistics and sociolinguistics. The Journal of Asian Studies will publish her article on ‘China expands its courtesy: Saying “hello” to strangers’ in 2008. Her website presents Chinese narratives across the 7 main Chinese dialects at www.pearstories.org. Erbaugh is courtesy research associate at the University of Oregon (firstname.lastname@example.org). She previously taught in the Department of Chinese, Translation and Linglistics at City University of Hong Kong, at San Diego State, and Bryn Mawr.
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