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The reasons for Politeness. The Birth of Contemporary Politeness in the Behavioural Treatises of 19th Century Italy.



Ossola C.


Rocci A.


Paternoster A.


Saltamacchia F.



This project is setting out to research a key transformation within the history of politeness and good manners that takes place in the 19th century in Italy. During the 19th century, Italy is inundated by conduct manuals. There are at least 186 original editions, whereas in the previous century publications on good manners were very few and far between. Our purpose is to explain this stark numerical contrast as indicative of the birth of a new concept of politeness that emerged when the political turmoil of the previous century caused the decline of the aristocracy. Ancien Regime politeness is governed by the principle of 'discernment': it is based upon highly conventional formulae that are determined by the rank of the participants and by the ceremonial required by the context: politeness is a matter of following a set protocol and, above all, showing the correct amount of deference. We anticipate that, during the 19th Century, social conventions lose their imperative character. Although they survive in very specific contexts (diplomacy, e.g.), elsewhere a new social order emerges, in which the individual determines a polite way of behaving, by negotiating contextual expectancies, social and more local norms, alongside his personal goals. The project is testing this hypothesis for the 186 conduct manuals, published in 19th Century Italy. We will study the birth of contemporary politeness through three interdisciplinary research questions: 1) How is (im)politeness conceptualised in these prescriptive texts and with what type of argumentation is it justified both as a general concept and as a set of specific rules? 2) Do the dialogues in these treatises contain language forms that are being positively or negatively evaluated in metacomments? 3) What metaterms are used within metapragmatic evaluations ('affettuoso', 'gentile', 'freddo'...) and what arguments are used to justify these evaluative comments? We intend to examine, within the context of 19th century Italian conduct manuals, the intimate connections between the concepts of (im)politeness, linguistic forms of (im)politneness and evaluative language of (im)politeness. After gathering the corpus from libraries in Tessin and in the North of Italy, the texts will be scanned and digitalised. It will then be lexicalised with a concordancer that will allow the extraction of (im)polite concepts, forms and metaterms. The identification of (im)polite concepts, forms and metaterms will be executed partially through a manual annotation, in a multi-method approach. Importantly, we will only define a language form as polite or impolite as and when the text itself tells us a language form is polite or impolite: as we are working with historical materials, the 21st century researcher cannot anticipate what is polite or impolite unless he knows how politeness or impoliteness is defined and evaluated by the text itself. Situated at the crossroads of pragmatics of (im)politeness and historical pragmatics, the project follows a discursive, second wave approach, which we want to integrate with the dialectical and rhetorical dimensions of argumentation, in order to reconstruct, punctually, the historical 'reasons for politeness'.

Additional information

Start date
End date
53 Months
Funding sources
Swiss National Science Foundation / Project Funding / Humanities and social sciences (Division I)