A sociopragmatic study of gender and verbal politeness in United States Spanish



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Due to contact with English, United States Spanish is undergoing a process of simplification which reduces the amount of verb forms that speakers regularly use. While some verb forms remain relatively stable, those which are more cognitively complex are declining in usage by speakers of U.S. Spanish (Silva-Corvalán, 1994). The verb forms most susceptible to simplification, namely, the imperfect subjunctive, conditional and synthetic future, are also those which are used to express politeness in Spanish, particularly when making requests. This is because verbs which express temporal and material distance are more removed from the moment of enunciation, and this removal serves as a politeness marker which allows the interlocutor a discursive space to reject the request being made (Haverkate, 2010).

The present study analyzes how language contact affects the use of verb forms to express politeness when making requests. A verbal politeness scale was developed and applied to requests made by speakers in three levels of contact with English. The results indicate that verbal politeness decreases as contact with English increases. However, this decrease in verbal politeness is sharper for men, indicating that women utilize more morphological politeness markers than men. Furthermore, lexical politeness strategies were also considered, and those which serve as compensatory strategies to accommodate a decline in verbal politeness increased in contact situations.

The conclusions drawn from this investigation demonstrate that language contact changes the way requests are made in United States Spanish. However, sociolinguistic forces, such as language contact, are subject to social pressures, such as unequal power relations. In the case of U.S. Spanish, unequal power relations motivate women to retain the use of verb forms currently undergoing simplification in order to present themselves as polite.



Sociolinguistics, Pragmatics, Gender, Language contact situations, Verbal politeness