Politeness as normative, evaluative and discriminatory: the case of verbal hygiene discourses on correct honorifics use in South Korea

Research output: Contribution to journalReview ArticleResearchpeer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)


This paper uses the concept of "verbal hygiene"(Cameron, Deborah. 1995. Verbal hygiene. Abingdon, UK: Routledge) to analyze metadiscourses in South Korea regarding a recent innovation in the use of subject honorific markers in the service industry. This innovation, commonly referred to as samwul contay 'inanimate object respect' involves using honorifics when the grammatical subject of the sentence is an inanimate object, typically the products or services being offered to the customer. Critical discourse analysis was conducted of materials produced by language authorities and mainstream media, as well as layperson-produced blogs and reader comments. The analysis shows that the materials mobilized discourses of ungrammaticality and immorality to delegitimize samwul contay, and stigmatize the sales personnel who used it. By applying the concept of "verbal hygiene"to politeness-related metadiscourses, the current paper advances the perspective that politeness is occasioned through the recursive evaluation of linguistic behavior. Rather than being idiosyncratic, these evaluations appeal to established language norms and moral orders. The way that verbal hygiene discourses promote the language usage of the powerful while stigmatizing the powerless demonstrates that politeness relies inherently on socio-historically imbedded discriminatory practices of placing value on the language usage of certain groups, while delegitimizing that of others.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)63-91
Number of pages29
JournalJournal of Politeness Research
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 23 Feb 2022


  • honorifics
  • metapragmatics
  • moral order
  • moral panic
  • verbal hygiene

Cite this