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How to ask? Politeness strategies in historical letters

Thursday 25 May 2023 - Friday 26 May 2023
Lipsius 2.11 (25 May) and Huizinga 0.06 (26 May)
‘Turkish scribe’ by Henry J. Van-Lennep (1815-1889) dated to 1862. It is now in the New York Public Library. Image via Creative Commons.

This workshop brings together linguists, historians and document specialists to examine how rhetorical strategies in letters of request differed across different linguistic historical cultures. Presentations cover cases from classical to early modern Europe and Middle East.

For much of the pre-modern and early modern period, in societies around the world, letter-writing was the medium for registering a complaint and attempting to put the wheels of redress and remediation into motion.

The way in which people formulate their questions and grievances, the terms with which they make their case, and the emotions they appeal to are windows onto the values, expectations, hopes and prejudices of the societies in which they operate. By looking at how letter-writers organise their sense of fairness, the sources of authority they invoke, and the rich incidental detail they offer, we can gain remarkably vivid and fertile insights into the contours – their structures, politics, hierarchies, contradictions and ambiguities – of their worlds. And, conversely, we gain insight into how social relationships and identities (status, class, profession, gender, religion, ethnicity) impact linguistic conventions, with repercussions for the analysis of present-day communication practices.

Questions that will be addressed at this workshop are: How do people formulate a request for help in a letter? What linguistic strategies do they apply? How do they balance the need to be effective with the urgency of the problem at hand? When does strategic politeness turn into importunate carping? What role do writing and orality play? And how, methodologically, can these writings be most usefully deployed to illuminate the societies that produced them? And how politeness models and insights from pragmatics can be applied to historical societies?


9.30-10.30 Andreas Jucker (University of Zürich) - I returned his civilities with the same politeness” Politeness in epistolary novels of the long eighteenth century

10.30-11.30 Giuseppina di Bartolo (University of Cologne) - How to Ask in Ancient Greek: a (socio)pragmatic analysis of letters from the Postclassical period

11.30-12.00 Coffee/tea

12.00-13.00 Daniil Pleshak (Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen) - Politeness and Rudeness in the Letters of Photius

13.00-14.30 Lunch

14.30-15.30 Edmund Hayes (Radboud University, Nijmegen) - From “I praise God for your sake” to “May God extend your life”: the polemical worlds behind a transition in epistolary politeness conventions in 7th to 10th century Arabic letters

15.30-16.30 Petra Sijpesteijn (Leiden University) – Wanting or asking? Formulations of request in Arabic papyrus letters

16.30-17.00 Coffee/tea

17.00-18.00  Marijke van der Wal en Gijsbert Rutten (Leiden University) - Forms of address in seventeenth-century Dutch letters

10.00-11.00 Josh Brown (University of Western Australia, Perth) - Never Ask, Never Apologise: Politeness strategies in Italian merchant letters between London, Milan, Florence, 1392-1410

11.00-12.00 Miriam Wagner (Woolf Institute and University of Cambridge) –  Do not destroy my heart with the fire of your cruelty”: asking strategies in Judaeo-Arabic letters.

12.00-13.00 Response and final discussion: Marina Terkourafi (Leiden University)

For abstracts of the papers, please click here.

All are welcome to attend the lectures!

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