Is an over-polite compliment worse than an impolite insult?: Pragmatic effects of non-normative politeness in Korean

AbstractHonorifics in Korean appear as verbal inflections and have been considered as markers of politeness. This study investigates the pragmatic effects of honorifics, and suggests that honorifics can contribute to the semantic interpretation of verb phrases in complex ways. Native Korean speakers reported different inferred meanings of "did very well" and "did very poorly" based on the normative or non-normative honorific forms. We found significant effects of non-normative honorifics in positive assessments: over-polite honorifics brought negative interpretations. This suggests that pragmatic listeners interpret utterances based on the interaction between literal meanings, honorifics, and the normativity of the honorifics within a relationship context, to obtain an estimate of the speaker's intended meaning. This is inconsistent with the previous explanations of honorific usage as discernment or volitional politeness. We suggest that non-literal meaning inferences reflect listeners treating the honorifics as signals to potential communicative goals.

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