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  • Cited by 1
  • Print publication year: 1996
  • Online publication date: May 2010

15 - Politeness in schizophrenia


Twenty years ago I wrote a paper on schizophrenic language (Brown, 1973) saying that in a strict sense of language there is no such thing; that is, there is nothing consistently awry with any of the systems linguistics describes, nothing amiss with phonemics, phonotactics, morphology, or syntax. Of course, there is something wrong or strange about the speech of some schizophrenics some of the time and the strange utterance is easily spotted by either laymen or psychiatrists and such utterances can be reliably rated for degree of “strangeness” from, for instance, odd to bizarre. When we try to say what “strangeness” is, we invoke irrationality, thought disorder, delusion, or failure to test reality. What all such characterizations lack is a systematic definition. They lead nowhere theoretically.

We have recently obtained a hint of evidence that there may be something clearly definable and already systematically described that is startlingly off, even totally missing, from some schizophrenic speech. It is not a system of linguistics, but a system of pragmatics. Linguistics is a theory of sentences in abstraction from context. Pragmatics is a theory of utterances by specified speakers in specified contexts. The pragmatic system of interest is politeness, specifically the universal theory of politeness constructed by Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson (1987), who are, respectively, an anthropologist and a linguist at Cambridge University. I think this theory is a masterpiece of social science, almost unequaled in scope, rigor, and nuance.