Negating and Affirming a Proposition in Makassarese

Negating and Affirming a Proposition in Makassarese



By. Abdul Hakim Yassi

Cultural Science Faculty of Hasanuddin University of Makassar, Indonesia


One of the basic challenges for research in cross-cultural communication is theissue of universality: to what extent is it possible to determine the degree to which the rulesthat govern the use of language in context vary from culture to culture and from language tolanguage? The present study is an attempt to revisit the universality of Brown and Levinsonmodel theory on politeness (1978, 1987) in the context of Makassarese culture. Inparticular, it has been designed to find out the way Makassarese people in negating andaffirming a proposition in five speech functions; responding to (1) questions, (2) statements,(3) requests, (4) commands, and (5) offers.

The data are 39 dialogues drawn purposively from two Makassarese literary texts whichcontain materials on the history, lives, and culture of Makassarese people. These samplesare then analysed firstly using a semantic approach employing a two-step translation; literaland idiomatic, and these translation are then analysed within the framework adapted fromScollon and Scollon’s (1983, 1995).

The study reveals that in either negating or affirming a proposition, Makassarese peopletend to provide addressees with additional information mainly serving as a validation, anemphasis, or a lubricant of their negation or affirmation. They avoid responding to any proposition by simply saying ‘yes’ or‘no’ only as this sounds impolite. This is mainly intended to keep addressees feel happy and satisfied. Such a good intention can also be identified from the way theyrespond to a command, a statement, and an offer. The data shows that there is no any negationin responding to a command and a statement. This implies that Makassarese people tend toavoid refusing a command and confronting one’s statement,as this will impose addressees’ face. Similarly, they tend to refuse an offer whenit is for their own benefits. This is because of both to avoid bothering the person who provides the offer and being indebted from accepting the offer. Above all,politeness phenomenon in Makassarese culture is all governed by social norms and cultural valuesapplied in the community. Thus, politeness in Makassarese is a norm rather than simply as aninstrument as claimed by Brown and Levinson.


KEY WORDS: Politeness theory, Cross-culture communication, social norm & values, individualistic & collective society.



In recent years, the relevance of pragmatics has become increasingly clear to applied linguists. Though the scope of pragmatics is far from easy to define, the variety of research interests and developments in the field share one basic concern: the need to account for the rules that govern the use of language in context (Levinson, 1983). One of the basic challenges for research in pragmatics is the issue of universality: to what extent is it possible to determine the degree to which the rules that govern the use of language in context vary from culture to culture and from language to language? Answers to this question have to be sought through cross-cultural research in pragmatics. For applied linguists, especially for those concerned with communicative language learning and teaching, cross cultural research in pragmatics is essential in coping with the applied aspect of the issue of universality: to what extent is it possible to specify the particular pragmatic rules of use for a given language, rules which second language learners will have to acquire in order to attain successful communication in the target language?

A number of studies have established empirically (Cohen and Olshtain, 1981; Kasper 1981; House 1982; Wolfson 1981; Blum-Kulka 1982; Thomas 1983) that second language speakers might fail to communicate effectively (commit pragmatic failure), even when they have an excellent grammatical and lexical command of the target language. In part, second language speakers’ pragmatic failures have been shown to be traceable to cross-linguistic differences in speech act realisation rules, indicating in Widdowson’s terms (Widdowson, 1978) that learners are just liable to transfer ‘rules of use’ (having to do with contextual appropriacy) as those of ‘usage’ (related to grammatical accuracy). One part of such a phenomenon is the study on politeness.

In their famous work on politeness, Brown and Levinson (hereafter, B&L) (1987) set out to investigate universal principles of language use. While recent work shows that not all the concepts they developed were applicable across cultures (Matsumoto 1988; Watts, Ide and Ehlich 1992; Kerbrat-Orecchioni 1992b), they did provide a useful analytical framework for the study of politeness phenomena. They showed very convincingly for instance that request are in essence “Face-Threatening Acts” (1987:59), and that all cultures share at least some common strategies to solve this problem.

Problem and Objectives

The search for language universal, however, is not always the most useful approach when dealing with cross-cultural communication, because, as Ide (1988:372) points out, ‘if such universals of linguistic politeness exist, how can we account for the differences in different language …?’ B&L (1987:36) themselves point out that ‘even minor difference in interpretive strategies carried over from a first to a second language … can lead to misunderstanding and cross-group stereotyping of interactional style’.

When exploring problems of cross-cultural communication it is those minor differences - and their sometimes devastating consequences - which inevitably become the focus of the research. It is the case with this study which set out to analyse the universality of Brown and Levinson’s politeness theory in the context of Makassarese.

In Makassarese, politeness is one of the concrete entities of ‘face’ which essentially concerns with ‘one’s dignity’, and ‘honour’. Such an honour is not concerned only with the individuals but also with families including relatives and even with groups. As such, ‘face’ plays a very significant roles in Makassarese cultures since it governs Makassarese people in how to live their lives in harmony which results in what Frazer calls (1990:220) ‘positive politeness’. In contrast, the incongruence of an action with such a cultural value or norm will results in ‘negative politeness’ (Frazer, 1990:220). Consequently, it will ruin their honour which is likely to result in an alienation from their community.

In Makassarese, negating and affirming a proposition could be realised in various linguistic forms such as ‘tena’, ‘tenapa’, ‘tea’, ‘teaja’, ‘teamaki’, ‘teamako’, ‘teako’ denoting a negation, and‘iyeq’, ‘iyoq’, ‘bajikmi’ denoting an affirmation. Another important form in either addressing or responding in an interaction in Makassarese culture is the employment of pronoun ‘you’ which also has some different forms such as -nu, nu-, -ko, -ki, ikau, ikatte, etc. It is presumably assumed that such a variation is likely to be motivated by different settings and social status of participants. It is to this phenomenon this study will be in base. Moreover, the study is also aimed at testing the universality of B & L model theory on politeness (1978, 1987).


The data of this study are dialogues which are taken from two types of Makassareseliterary texts, namely classic and contemporary texts. The classic text is taken from the translation version of a book called ‘Lontarak’, a compilation of preserved palm leaves which contains materials on the history, the life and the culture of Makassarese people which was originally written in Arabic script. The book tells about the story and the life of a holy man, Syech Yusuf, who begot a line of Makassarese kings and lived in about the fourteenth century. The other book contains materials on stories about the life and the culture of Makassarese people. From the two sources, thirty-nine dialogues drawn purposively as the samples of the present study. These samples are then translated into English literally and then idiomatically.


Brown & Levinson vs ScollonScollon Theory

The theoretical framework used in this study is primarily based on B&L’s model theory (1978, 1987) on the notions of positive and negative politeness strategies. They define positive politeness strategy as strategies for doing FTAs on record plus redress to the hearer’s (H’s) ‘positive face’ ie. the want of every member that his or her wants be desirable to at least some others, and negative politeness strategy in contrast are strategies for doing FTAs on record plus redress to H’s ‘negative face’ ie. the want of every member ‘competent adult member’ that his or her actions be unimpeded by others (Brown and Levinson, 1987:60-62).

To be more specific, the study has adapted Scollon and Scollon’s (1995) politeness theory, especially their labelling system, by adding another variable, i.e. +/- K (kinship) as the data of the present study demands. As we know that Scollon and Scollon’s model theory divide politeness strategy into three politeness system and each exhibits only two variables, i.e +/-P; +/-D: Deference, Solidarity, and Hierarchical politeness strategies. They label deference politeness strategy as (-P+D) in which P stands for power and D stands for distance among the interactants , solidarity politeness strategy as (-P-D), and hierarchical politeness strategy as (+P-/+D) (Scollon and Scollon, 1995:44-47).

The crucial reason for adapting Scollon and Scollon’s model theory is primarily motivated by the need to have a somewhat more reliable and comprehensive framework for analyzing the data of the present study. I found that Scollon and Scollon’s theory is still not enough to account for the difference between hierarchical relation within a kin context and non-kin context. These two relations are fused in one in Scollon and Scollon’s. In Makassarese, such a kin relation appears to be much more complex because it concerns with not only the relation which is tied up by a direct blood relation (vertical blood relation), ie. from grandfather/grandmother to grandchildren, but also concerns with a horizontal (indirect) blood relation such uncle/aunt, niece/nephew, etc. Such a relation covers up to three dimensions. Therefore, we have a relational term such as my third nephew/niece, etc. meaning he/she is the son/daughter of my father/mother’s second nephew/niece. Even, there is another indirect blood relation related by a marriage such as my brother/sister in-law, father/mother in law and its scope is quite similar to the two relational forms before.

I believe that the form used in the interactions within a kin context relation is significantly different from those in a non-kin context one in Makassarese. For instance, In Makassarese, forms used will be different in master-servant interaction, an asymmetrical non-kin relation, and those in father-son interaction, an asymmetrical kin relation. In the Scollon and Scollon’s framework, these two interactions will be all mapped onto only one frame, that is, hierarchical politeness strategy which is labelled as (+P-D). As such, in terms of labelling system, the two interactions do not show any differences. Therefore, in the present study I will propose to add another variable to Scollon and Scollon’s model theory, ie. a kin context which is labelled as (+K) and non-kin relation labelled as (-K). So, the two interactions above can be labelled as (+P-D-K) for the master-servant interaction and as (+P-D+K) for the father-son interaction. As such, the distinction between the two interactions is much clearer in terms of their relational patterns. Hopefully, this model could provide a more abstract framework for any other similar cultures.

B&L (1978) present a theory of politeness strategies based on universal wants for negative and positive face. Depending on perceived dimensions of distance and power, both face wants are played off against each other in interaction using different strategies of deference and solidarity politeness. The core of Brown and Levinson’s theory consists of the concepts of negative and positive face.

When people interact in public they are concerned to preserve and present a public image that has two aspects. The positive aspect of a person’s public face is his concern to be thought of as a normal, contributing member of his social world. Since the speaker’s face is his public image, his positive face wants are to be seen as a supporting member of that public. At the same time, though, a person wants to preserve some sphere of his own individuality, his own territory within which he has the right of independence of movement and decision. Within his private sphere he wants the right not to be imposed upon. This aspect of face, because it asserts the right to be independent of the social world, is negative face.

Social interaction in Brown and Levinson’s view consists in each speaker playing off his own positive and negative face wants against those of other interactants. Politeness strategies are the codings of communication which provide in each case the carefully calculated balance of these wants which are continually under negotiation in public communication.

The Presentation of ‘self’

Brown and Levinson (1978) distinguish five categories of politeness strategies. These range from those which involve very little risk of loss of face, their first strategy ‘bald on record’, to the strategy of not saying anything because the risk is too great, their fifth strategy. The second category of strategies they call positive politeness. These strategies emphasise the commonality of the speaker and the hearer. These strategies are addressed to the hearer’s positive face, that is, to his desire to be thought of as a supporting member of the society.

Scollon and Scollon (1983, 1995) call this category of politeness strategies ‘solidarity politeness’ as a way of reminding ourselves that the emphasis of these strategies is on the common grounds of the participants’ relations. Lying behind solidarity politeness is the assumption that there is little distance (-D) between the participants and that there is also at most a slight power (-P) difference between them. Among the strategies that Brown and Levinson give for solidarity politeness are these (1978:107):

1. Notice, attend to H (hearer)

2. Exaggerate (interest, approval, sympathy with H)

3. Claim in-group membership with H

4. Claim common point of view, opinions, attitudes, knowledge, empathy

5. Be optimistic

6. Indicate S knows H’s wants and is taking them into account

7. Assume or assert reciprocity

Brown and Levinson then go on to elaborate these and other sub-strategies with examples from three languages, English, Tzeltal, and Tamil. They show that there are striking parallels in the linguistic forms used to express these and the following deference politeness strategies in these three wholly unrelated languages.

We can now recall that Erickson (1976) found that in gatekeeping encounters co-membership provided significant ‘leakage’ in that it provided improved access to social and institutional mobility for the applicant. Here we can now rephrase this finding. Co-membership emphasises low distance (-D) and low power difference (-P). This configuration (-P-D) is a concomitant of solidarity politeness strategies and allows the communication of impositions with a relatively low risk of loss of face. We think it is this low risk of loss of face, especially for the gatekeeper, that facilitates the conduct of the gate keeping encounter in a way that favours the applicant.

Brown and Levinson (1978) call the third category of politeness strategies negative politeness. This is because these strategies are directed to the negative face of the hearer, to his right to be free from imposition. The essence of negative politeness is deference and so no wonder that Scollon and Scollon (1983,1995) call these strategies ‘deference politeness strategies’. This helps to remind us of the emphasis on deference as well as to avoid possible negative connotations in using the word negative.

According to Scollon and Scollon (1983), unlike solidarity politeness, deference politeness emphasises the distance (+D) between the participants. The speaker, out of respect for the hearer’s negative face, advances his imposition with care. He seeks to give the hearer ‘a way out’ in case the hearer regards the imposition as too great. This respect for the independence of the hearer from social obligations results in the strategies for deference politeness given by Brown and Levinson (1978:136):

1. Make minimal assumptions about H’s wants, what is relevant to H

2. Give H option not to do act

3. Minimise threat

4. Apologise

5. Be pessimistic

6. Dissociate S, H from the particular infringement

7. State the F(ace) T(hreatening) A(ct) as a general rule

Deference politeness acknowledges the seriousness of the imposition in the act of making it. Solidarity politeness, though, is directed more to the general nature of the relationship between interactants.

The fourth category of politeness strategies treats impositions as so great that they are advanced only ‘off record’. By this we mean that the communication is ambiguous. It may be taken either as an imposition or not. The decision is left up to the hearer.

Global Politeness Systems

There are three factors that determine what kind of politeness strategy will be used, power, distance and the absolute seriousness or weight of the imposition. Brown and Levinson suggest that different groups may typically treat these factors differently. If one group for any reason should place a value on maintaining distance (+D) between individuals, this will create an overall deference politeness system. If another group should place a value on emphasising the common grounds of social interaction, this will create a system of solidarity politeness. These two types of system are symmetrical in that both speaker and hearer use the same strategies in their interaction. The symmetry of the system reflects the assumption that there is little difference in power between the participants. For clearer illustration, I have quoted Scollon and Scollon’s illustration (1983:169) as in the following illustration.

-P +D, deference politeness

Speaker 1  Speaker 2


3 (deference politeness)

4 (off record)

5 (not said)

imposition assumed high

-P -D, solidarity politeness

Speaker 1  Speaker 2


1 (bald on record)

2 (solidarity politeness)

imposition assumed low

Where there is a strongly asymmetrical power relationship (+P) a different set of strategies is used by each speaker. The more powerful speaker uses low numbered strategies, especially the first one, ‘bald on record’, in speaking ‘downward’. The less powerful speaker uses strategies of deference (3, 4, and 5) in speaking ‘upward’. This situation can be shown as below: