The Art of Conversation and Its Gratifying Impact

Conversation as the subject of the present chapter will be the principal form of the phatic use of English. In this form conversation is not a serious argumentative discussion which is customary in academic circles or parliaments. It is very much like small talk proper, i.e. conversation about ordinary and unimportant matters, usually at a social event or on casual meetings. Such conversation is the principal form of the phatic use of English because its topics and conditions coincide with the general conditions of the phatic use of language (cf.: pp. 43-52, above). Indeed, the phatic use of language is the speech at the beginning and end of speech acts or in situations of leisure, in which people converse to imply their civil attitude rather than exchange information.

This specific kind of talk was associated by Bronislaw Malinowski with leisure: “when a number of people sit together at a village fire, after all the daily tasks are over, or when they chat, resting from work, or when they accompany some mere manual work by gossip quite unconnected with what they are doing...” (Malinowski, 1923/1960, 313). This description concerned fishermen of primitive societies, whose life Bronislaw Malinowski investigated. But this author was very prompt to draw parallels between the talk as described and that in a European drawing-room. Malinowski further outlined the leisurely European talk in which “inquiries about health, comments on weather, affirmations of some supremely obvious state of things” (Malinowski, 1923/1960, 313) are exchanged not to inform or express thought. Such and similar conversations are conducted to create a sense of sharing and friendliness. It is this kind of conversation that will be my concern in the present chapter. It is sometimes called social conversation or simply small talk.

This kind of conversation is treated as an art by numerous authors (cf.: Mahaffy, 1888; Campbell, 1903; Wright, 1948; Burke, 1993). It is indeed an art because it is so developed in the Western tradition of communication that it renders pleasure to the participants and is always appropriate to the conditions of time and place. Its reference sources and principles outlined in them also bespeak it an art by the accumulated knowledge and conventional wisdom.

The focus on social conversation as the principal form of the phatic use of English is chosen with a purpose in mind. One of the aims of the present paper is to reveal the mutual influence of language and thought. There is no better choice than social conversation whose influence on thought may be studied in the widest circles and in most various circumstances. If argumentative conversation may please and influence the thought of a select group of people, social conversation as a form of the phatic use of English exercises its influence on the widest audiences. Therefore my observations in this context may not be short of evidence and credibility.

From the History of Conversation of Western Tradition

There exists no complete and consecutive history of the art of conversation. In his study The Art of Conversation (Burke, 1993. 89-122), however, Peter Burke begins with as early time as the classical Greece and Rome. This author mentions that “Socrates was presented by Plato as a master of the art of speaking or of encouraging others to speak in small groups” (Burke, 1993, 96). Plutarch is mentioned for his treatise on garrulity and how to cure it, as well as for the Symposiakon, in which he discussed the appropriate topics of conversation at drinking parties, “including philosophy, but excluding idle, frivolous, empty talk” (Burke, 1993, 96). This, naturally, excludes polite social conversation which is my primary concern here. There is an interesting note about Dio Chrysostom in the paper by Peter Burke, who is said to have considered symposia and to have praised the man who ‘introduces appropriate topics of conversation ... in order to create harmony’ (Burke, 1993, 96).

Peter Burke chooses Cicero from the Romans, who discussed ‘ordinary talk’ (sermo communis) in his treatise on social duties because, unlike in oratory, the rules of private conversation had not been formulated. Cicero is said to have recommended that talk of this kind should be free from passions and easy-going (lenis), that it should allow everyone present to take his turn and that it should avoid malicious gossip about people who are not present (Burke, 1993, 96). A modern author, Robert Harris, also remarks, in his novel Imperium, that Cicero’s “manners were impeccable”, that his wit always charmed people, but that he could cut even eulogy expected from him if the situation was inappropriate. This brief paragraph reminds of politeness, tact and appropriateness in speech, while in social conversation these virtues are indispensable as they always had been.

Although ‘the importance of talk in the aristocratic, ideal world of courtly living can hardly be exaggerated’ (Burke, 1993, 97), there is no recorded history of how social conversation was conducted and developed during the Middle Ages. First, there is no real equivalent to classical or modern discussions of ordinary conversation. Second, only specific kinds of talk are generally considered: separate authors considered specific varieties of social conversation, such as ‘polite talk’, urbanitas, appreciated in court circles, or model speeches for men and women of different social status. Conversations of different styles and on different topics have also been known as a mode of flirtation from medieval romances (Burke, 1993, 97). But various manuals on good behaviour, produced in the later Middle Ages, were not concerned with speech. It is true, some studies were concerned with public speaking. One can only guess what the ideal of social conversation in different situations was or what techniques were recommended for stylised flirtation in the Middle Ages.

A better recorded history of social conversation began in the age of printing. Like many authors, Peter Burke begins his survey with the sixteenth century Italy, with The Book of the Courtier (Cortegiano) by Baldassare Castiglione (Castiglione, 1975), published in 1528. As an introduction to its present publication has it, “for those who still believe in a cultivated society this book will remain as the first genesis of that ideal” (Castiglione, 1975, xxiii).

Questions of speech and conversation appear in the dialogue in The Book of the Courtier time and again. The author pays homage to Cicero whose model he follows in his book and illustrates his precepts in the conversations represented in the dialogue itself (Burke, 1993, 99). In The Book of the Courtier, primary attention is paid to the speech of a gentleman. Counte Lewis of Canossa, one of the speakers in The Book of the Courtier, declares that whatever the Courtier does should “have a good grace” and this should be especially obvious in speaking (Castiglione, 1975, 49). Knowledge is the principal matter and necessity for the Courtier to speak and write well. He should be able to select words and shape sentences so that the same language would be fit for speaking and writing (Castiglione, 1975, 56, 58). The Courtier should avoid affectation and too much effort in whatever he does, because “too much diligence is hurtful” (Castiglione, 1975, 48-49, 51).

Another speaker in The Book of the Courtier, Sir Fredericke Fregoso, recommends ‘a kind of friendly style of everyday conversation’ and the ability to shift styles of speech (Burke, 1993, 99). The Courtier must be able to govern himself with a certain honest mean in conversation and shield himself from envy, “which a man ought to avoid in what he is able” (Castiglione, 1975, 133). His conversation should also indicate how well he understands his company and be subtle so as to have the listeners interested. Thus the Courtier’s conversation should reveal his hidden virtues which may not be known to the company (Castiglione, 1975, 124).There are also a few observations concerning specifically the language of the Courtier in The Book of the Courtier. The subject of conversation would not matter if it were not expressed in fair, witty, subtle and fine or grave words if necessary. When the subject is more difficult, the Courtier’s words and sentences should be pointed “to express his judgement, and to make every doubt cleare and plaine after a certaine diligent sorte” with a certain touch of unpedantic care (Castiglione, 1975, 57). A good voice together with fit manners, neither affected nor forced, should accompany the Courtier’s conversation (Castiglione, 1975, 56).

The ladies’ talk is postponed to be considered in the Third Book in The Book of the Courtier. Ladies in general are muted by Castiglione, although the Duchess of Urbino is present and the Lady Emilia Pia chairs the discussion in the Book (cf.: Burke, 1993, 100). The first thing that belongs to the Lady of the Court is “a certaine sweetnesse in language that may delite” (Castiglione, 1975, 190). Thus she may entertain all kinds of men she happens to talk with by the talk worthy the hearing and honest, well applied to the time and place and the degree of the person with whom she communicates.

Like the Courtier’s fit manners and gestures, her manners should also be sober, quiet and honest, which is to stay in all what she does. Her speech must show a ready liveliness of wit and she should be far from all dullness. She must be wise and courteous, agreeable, witty and discreet. To retain these qualities, the Lady of the Court must observe a certain mean in her behaviour, keep to certain limits and never pass them. There are more critical remarks on woman as an imperfect creature in The Book of the Courtier (Castiglione, 1975, 196-197), but Castiglione’s general idea is the courtesy and correctness of behaviour and speech as well as the pleasure these may render.

Concerning hierarchy in conversation and communication, one must observe that, for the most part, Castiglione’s idea of conversation implies a kind of equality. This was possible to retain because the dialogue in the Book is set in a court without a ruler. Hierarchy comes to be introduced when the participants discuss the way the Courtier should talk to his prince. “He should not be offensive, should not boast, should not contradict... Recent scholarship has shown that the emphasis on hierarchy is stronger in the published version of the text than it was in earlier drafts” of The Book of the Courtier (Burke, 1993, 100).

As has been said above, The Book of the Courtier is still considered one of the first ideal sources of knowledge for a cultivated society. Its principal statements have been reviewed to some length here where the subject is social conversation in English, because this Book has had a considerable influence on the English nobility. Published in 1528, it was translated into English by Sir Thomas Hoby as early as 1561. The Book was also translated into Latin to make it accessible to a broader public (Burke, 1993, 57-58, 102).

Another famous Italian source on the art of conversation Galateo by Della Casa “reads like an amplification of Castiglione’s remarks on the subject, simplified for the sake of a wider audience” (Burke, 1993, 100). The influence of Castiglione’s Book on the culture of Western Europe can hardly be exaggerated.

The tradition of conversation in the seventeenth century France indicates that much attention was given to the Italian authors. Indeed, the translation and publication of Castiglione’s Cortegiano and Della Casa’s Galateo into several European languages, primarily into French, by the early seventeenth century confirm this interest. Publications in French which gave recommendations to good behaviour and plain maxims to do with speaking in company were numerous. Later in the century, treatises of this kind increased in French: they concerned civil behaviour, rules of propriety, manners of speaking, conventional wisdom presented in a refined way or even faults of conversation, and were meant for schoolboys and adults (Burke, 1993, 103).

Another set among publications of this kind were treatises on correct language in French. This is a notable phenomenon for the French because they considered ‘polite’ or ‘polished’ language a necessary condition for good conversation. The authors who published on this account had even subtle titles to them. They called their books ‘Remarks on...’ because other words, such as ‘laws’ or ‘precepts’ were inappropriate to them in this domain. These authors voiced criticism on the use of ‘low’ words and what they called ‘dishonourable words’ among other points made on polite usage (Burke, 1993, 103-104). These publications may have had an influence on the British aristocracy because its members emphasise the merit of the French in good breeding and education (cf.: Campbell, 1903, 12, 14, 36).

The rising interest in the topic of polite behaviour and polite conversation in the seventeenth century France was confirmed by the new translations of the famous Italian books mentioned earlier. A new genre appeared, too, which was a treatise or dialogue devoted completely to conversation. Although most of these books were by secular authors, rules for monastery usage were also given, and they followed the laws of ‘civil conversation’ (Burke, 1993, 104-105). The general rules of conversational tradition in these treatises followed the Italian models. It was advised not to talk too much, and to relate one’s conversation to one’s company. The latter was considered to be an important principle. More advice was given on how one should speak to one’s superiors because hierarchy in relations was implied by the above principle (Burke, 1993, 105). The use of concrete indirect phrases was recommended. For example, it was not ‘told me’ but ‘did me the honour of telling me’ that was recommended. When people of higher status were present, the person of lower status was not advised to speak first in reply to a question.

Other rules in the French publications further echo the Italian authors. A strong point is made of the incivility of speaking of oneself. Interruption was considered a great faux pas. Listening with interest was emphatically proposed and a warning given against monopolising the conversation. Unlike in speeches, in conversation everyone was advised to listen and speak in turn (Burke, 1993, 105-106).

Even the tone of voice was mentioned. The assertive manner was not considered becoming the familiar style of conversation. Like Castiglione, the author of the book The Art of Pleasing in Conversation warned against affectation and recommended something like the urbanity of the ancient Romans. The need of at least apparent spontaneity was stressed. The speakers were advised against speaking like a book, i.e. against using figures of speech and speaking too well. Hesitation and occasional clumsiness were recommended to preserve the illusion of spontaneity (Burke, 1993, 106).

In refined conversation, wit was treated with more caution than in Castiglione’s time. Objections to various kinds of jokes were given as these were considered fairly low usages. For the same reasons, swearing was rejected. The recommendations indicated that the elite was withdrawn from popular culture (Burke, 1993, 107).

The new recommendations and prohibitions concerned not only the speaking style, but also the subjects of conversation. Some writers distinguished ‘serious’ conversation like that in academies and ‘light’ conversation. But there was little agreement among different authors as to the topics of conversation. Some books mentioned that men’s talk of hunting, hawking and wars tired women, but other recommended topics that women should avoid. These included fashionable clothes and housewifery. The most general advice on the subject was that the topics had to be ‘indifferent matters’, excluding religion and politics (Burke, 1993, 107).

The subjects of conversation were related to the speech which was to be avoided, i.e. too direct, excessively pedantic or technical speech. Direct interrogation together with imperatives and short answers ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ were discouraged. Among more general prohibitions was speech in a language which was not understood by the rest of the company. Learning and pedantry were excluded from polite conversation. Saying all one knows even to the marginal notes was considered rude. There were indications against ceremoniousness. Formality was related to old-fashioned people, and the people of the period were said to like more liberty (Burke, 1993, 108).

As Peter Burke assumes, there were two aspects to the tradition of conversation in the eighteenth century England. One followed the Italian-French trend, while the other was peculiarly English a kind of innovation. The contribution of English authors to the art of conversation in the seventeenth century was inconspicuous. In the eighteenth century, though, the publications became more numerous. Some precepts in these publications concerning conversation in the eighteenth century England were traditional. Direct contradiction was forbidden, while raillery had to be kept within bounds because it disturbed conversation. The recommendation on contradiction may have influenced the appearance of peculiarly English expressions of apology, such as ‘I’m afraid that’ and others (Burke, 1993, 110).

The traditional concept of ‘accommodation’ was reiterated: it was considered fitting to adapt one’s conversation to the company one was conversing with to keep conversation civil. Egotism, boasting and self-praise were banned, and the imperious tone condemned. Interrupting the speakers and the monopolising of discourse were considered the greatest rudeness. Foreign languages and ‘syllogisms’ were to be avoided. Participants in conversation were advised ‘never seem wiser or more learned than the company’ they were in, and ‘talking shop’ was not recommended, although this particular expression entered the English language only in the nineteenth century (Burke, 1993, 110-111).

The point in which the English conversation tradition diverged from the Italian and French in the eighteenth century concerned ceremony and compliment. In the seventeenth century yet, influential English authors recommended plain and direct talk even to noblemen and warned against flattery and the ‘excess of Ceremony’ (Burke, 1993, 111). In the eighteenth century even the French authors moved into this direction, but the stress on informality among the English authors was greater. Addison, for example, found conversation too stiff, formal and precise, and voiced the need of reformation against excessive ceremony. Steele desired sincerity in conversation and claimed that it was ‘swell’d with Vanity and Compliment’, ‘surfeited... of Expressions of Kindness and Respect’ (Burke, 1993, 112). Speakers were warned against long apologies and excuses when one’s opinion was requested. The general tendency was toward equality among members of the speech community. These tendencies were so strong in the English tradition of conversation that some people, like Dr Johnson, for example, who were admired as conversationalists, had been known for the roughness of manner, silences and the breaking of the non-contradiction rule (Burke, 1993, 112). As Peter Burke remarks, “French conversation had the odour of the court, while that of the English still had a whiff of the country” (Burke, 1993, 114). Whatever the tendencies in the eighteenth century England and whatever the practices of the notable individual speakers, the precepts of English conversation in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries followed the most refined principles of the West European tradition, at least in publications of the nobility.

The nineteenth century tendency of English conversation is well reflected in The Principles of the Art of Conversation by J.P.Mahaffy (Mahaffy, 1888). Intending to outline the principles of conversation, Professor Mahaffy defines it as art. Conversation is an art requiring skill in the true sense of the word because, in the Western tradition, “it is a matter of common courtesy to say something, even when there is hardly anything to say” (Mahaffy, 1888, 1-2). This condition alone requires skill from the speakers to conduct conversation and make it pleasing.

Although Professor Mahaffy calls his work a social essay, his book is basically a psychological study of the conditions and principles of conversation, amply illustrated with examples and motives of sociocultural character. This author reviews the so-called subjective conditions which abide in the speaker and are, according to him, physical, mental and moral. In objective conditions, which abide in the hearer, Professor Mahaffy considers the quantity and quality of speech, differences of age and sex, and degrees of intimacy. A consideration of the content of conversation and its handling, done with some allusion to the categories of the classical rhetoric, concludes his study. According to this work, one may assume that conversation in the nineteenth century England followed the tendency of the best society conversation.

Professor Mahaffy draws parallels between conversation and such verbal arts as logic and rhetoric. He assumes that all these arts apply certain principles but they should be kept intrinsic rather than be paraded. In logic, for example, “the formally logical reasoner is generally a bad persuader” (Mahaffy, 1888, 9). Similarly, in rhetoric, a person who without any gift of speech attempted to expose the flourishes of rhetoric, would only expose his stupidity and spoil the effect altogether, because “what the orator gains in display, he loses in power” (Mahaffy, 1888, 9-11). Both in logic and rhetoric, natural gifts are required to be perfected with the technique. In conversation, too, natural aptness is necessary because conversation, above all, has to be spontaneous. “To take up what others say in easy comment, to give in return something which will please, to stimulate the silent and the morose out of their vapours and surprise them into good-humour, to lead when one seems to follow - this is the real aim of good conversation” (Mahaffy, 1888, 6). This definition alone exposes what it means to be spontaneous in conversation and handle it as an art.

However, there are certain conditions and principles which, like the technique of logic and rhetoric, can improve conversation by their mere presence and make one more successful as a talker. The first physical condition is the voice. Nothing is more appealing than a soft and sweet tone of voice. On the contrary, a harsh and loud voice is not only repulsive but, as the old Greeks maintained, implies bad breeding and low social status (Mahaffy, 1888, 16-17). Professor Mahaffy recommends that the voice has to “be carefully cultivated or protected in youth as a valuable vantage-ground in social intercourse” (Mahaffy, 1888, 18).

There are more conditions which, alongside with voice qualities, are important in good conversation. The habit of wrangling with people who will not listen without interruption and who try even to shout down their company, or even a losing of one’s temper, like uncultivated voice, generate a noisy and harsh way of speaking. This is not acceptable in good society. Similarly, good conversation is likely to be chilled by “the dogmatic or over-confident temper which asserts opinions loudly, and looks round to command approval or challenge contradiction” (Mahaffy, 1888, 17). Such temper requires upbringing not to set people against the speaker.

The presence of a strong local accent is also thought to hamper conversation especially at its outset and among strangers. Professor Mahaffy further assumes that such accent marks a man as provincial, which is akin to vulgarity, narrowness of mind, and a lack of the knowledge of the world. It is only a great mind which can turn a local accent into a merit, but usually not in social conversation (cf., though, Post, 1945, 28). Therefore, Professor Mahaffy concludes that the efforts of educators to eradicate peculiarities of accent or pronunciation in children are welcome (Mahaffy, 1888, 18-20).

In Professor Mahaffy’s opinion, there is one more point to the physical conditions of conversation, which can damage it. This is disagreeable tricks, “such as the constant and meaningless repetition of catchwords and phrases, such as unmeaning oaths of our grandfathers, such as inarticulate sounds of assent, such as contortions of the face, which so annoy the hearer by their want of meaning and triviality as to excite quite a serious dislike to the speaker” (Mahaffy, 1888, 20). The impression of such tricks may be so bad at the start that the speaker should further expose true brilliance to improve the impression about himself.

Further Professor Mahaffy points out mental and moral conditions in conversation, which had been principal in the classical rhetoric. Knowledge and intellectual quickness belong to mental conditions and both are required in good conversation. Knowledge is important and is likely to contribute to conversation, but, like many things, it has to be treated with care. There is special and general knowledge. People with special knowledge are usually good specialists and, when such a person is present, interest is aroused by the very occasion to speak with him. Single specialists in a company usually contribute to good conversation, while a group of specialists usually makes conversation incomprehensible to others and tedious (Mahaffy, 1888, 27). Extraordinary or routine experience of other people makes them similar to specialists, but if such people talk endlessly of some specific sports they are familiar with, hunting or business, they may be very disagreeable in conversation. Similarly, a specialist may become boring if he resists to give up the topic when its interesting aspects have been exhausted. People who insist on talk interesting to one sex only are usually as boring (Mahaffy, 1888, 25-28).

A separate note on people with general knowledge, which comes from reading and travelling, was given. General knowledge is likely to contribute to good conversation, but even here Professor Mahaffy makes an important remark. Good conversation is meant for pleasure, not for instruction, and so, to be useful to conversation, all knowledge has to be treated as talk, not as a lesson (Mahaffy, 1888, 29). The point here is that ardent readers who attempt to read most of what is coming from the press are not exempt from developing such features as narrowness, awkwardness and self-consciousness (Mahaffy, 1888, 32). All people are supposed to study literature, and their knowledge of books can hardly fail to tell in the company of cultivated men and women. But when the readers who attempt to read most without a system develop the above mentioned features, they may be boring to a company of people less familiar with books.

Similarly, a person who, with less knowledge, happens to be acquainted with interesting people and gains in travel is likely to be an agreeable member of society. But, if in his travel, he trusts only what newspapers or beaten guide-books offer to him, and rushes through tunnels and capitals, he “gets scraps, perversions, even lies, served up for him by way of universal information” (Mahaffy, 1888, 34). This kind of practice induces men to spend far too much time in gathering materials and in no way improves their conversation. Such knowledge interferes with both liberty and leisure of thought and cannot contribute to good conversation.

Intellectual quickness is a second mental condition in social conversation. This is the faculty of producing what is stored in one’s mind without effort (Mahaffy, 1888, 35). Of all man’s qualities discussed, intellectual quickness is most due to nature. It can hardly be trained. It is sometimes characteristic of nations. To an extent, however, intellectual quickness may be improved by intercourse with people who have this faculty well developed.

Excellent by nature, this gift may be a dangerous advantage in conversation: “if not deepened by solid acquirements, or chastened by moral restraints”, it “may make a man rather the scourge than the delight of his company” (Mahaffy, 1888, 36). A quick-witted person may be a bad joker, especially if he pays attention only to some of his listeners or to his own amusement, and an impatient listener, because he may interfere with more modest minds which might be good contributors to conversation if they were allowed to speak without hurry or pressure. A good hostess usually takes into consideration the mental contrasts of the members of the company. In a company of strangers whose names one had not caught, the quickness of intellect is always the best quality in starting a pleasant conversation.

Professor Mahaffy maintains that knowledge is principally expected from men in their role in conversation, but the quickness of intellect, “which is often impaired by deeper study, is the proper attribute of women, and ought to be the distinctive quality of their conversation” (Mahaffy, 1888, 39). The author adds that it is French society that expects this feature to be so functional.

As the next step following physical and mental conditions, Professor Mahaffy considers moral conditions in conversation, into which he includes modesty, simplicity, unselfishness, sympathy, and tact. A whole range of features is called modesty here, “from mere bashfulness to that moral self-restraint which makes us fear to assert ourselves, lest we should imply an over-estimate of our powers’ (Mahaffy, 1888, 41). According to Professor Mahaffy, modesty is very attractive. It is related to simplicity and honesty and is opposed to artificiality which is the outward sign of some kind of dishonesty. This author traces modesty in a heaven-born genius who attains great results without apparent effort and is therefore not infected with pride. It may also be an issue of great and solid labour, which teaches either how much one fails to know or how small a fragment of human knowledge one has compassed.

Modesty has a property of naturalness. It is very agreeable in conversation. But modesty without simplicity is detrimental to good conversation because, when it becomes conscious, it usually assumes two vicious forms - “the parade of apology or the cloak of reserve” and becomes a social vice (Mahaffy, 1888, 44).

Simplicity is defined as that “temper which, without assumption of ignorance or parade of inexperience, opens a candid eye of inquiry upon the company, receives with readiness new information, and is willing to tell without conceits or ornaments the actual impressions in the speaker’s mind” (Mahaffy, 1888,47). This concept of simplicity excludes natural foolishness which has the appearance of irrelevance or shallowness, bluntness, which is a form of rudeness, and primitive truthfulness, which is a vice paraded under the form of virtue and results in not sharing the feelings of others. The praiseworthy simplicity has the effect on the company as if it has come in direct contact with the speaker’s mind. It excludes people whose minds seem to lack the purity of nature because of conceits of style or over-delicacy of sentiment, or of education in an artificial atmosphere (Mahaffy, 1888, 49). The best is the effect of simplicity combined with modesty, assumes Professor Mahaffy, because this combination would exclude the speaker’s pretence and assumed virtues, which are always obvious and may damage conversation.

Discussing shyness and reserve, as the main violation of simplicity, for the sake of completion, the author dismisses these features with a few remarks. Professor Mahaffy notes that shyness is assumed to be a physical thing, while reserve implies deliberate choice to stand aloof and repel any intimacy of conversation. The author finds that shyness is not praiseworthy because it is usually conscious modesty which has to do with a subtle form of conceit (Mahaffy, 1888, 53).Finally, he considers that shyness is nothing better than vanity, which fears the results of conversation and is to be treated as an injurious anti-social vice. The only forgivable thing about shyness is a delicate sensitiveness which shyness may conceal or expose, but this feature may have better and nobler ways of affecting society than by impeding conversation (Mahaffy, 1888, 56). Reserve is not a vice if and when it saves the company from familiarity which may be offensive and uncomfortable. But reserve rarely improves conversation, and, together with shyness, really violate simplicity.

A consideration of unselfishness in conversation follows modesty and simplicity. According to Professor Mahaffy, unselfishness may be lacking and may be desirable in conversation because it is that quality which keeps the focus off from oneself in conversation encouraging others to participate. When unselfishness is lacking, even a good talker may abuse his position when he monopolises conversation, keeps other people waiting for himself to finish the story or who even insists on telling anecdotes evidently unpleasant to some of the company (Mahaffy, 1888, 59). But unselfishness should be minded by the silent people who often selfishly refuse to participate in conversation, even though they may know a lot on the subject or be experts in the field. Unselfishness has also a role to play in encouraging the socially and intellectually inferior to participate in conversation because these people often suffer from the unnecessary constraint. Unselfishly moved to converse, they sometimes appear most pleasant talkers.

Sympathy is the quality which means the ability to share in the feelings of others and which may be the whole root of good conversation (Mahaffy, 1888, 65). The essence of sympathy in good society and in conversation lies in the condition that people are so well disposed that they are willing to talk upon the same subject, to hear what each member of the company thinks about it and, above all, to feel an interest in their hearers as distinct persons (Mahaffy, 1888, 66-67). A sympathetic person is willing to expose the best side of his company in conversation, because one is naturally inclined to what is beautiful. Sympathy makes a person not only a good talker but also a supporter in conversation and a good listener. There is a difference between sympathetic silence which creates companionship and selfish silence which chills the company. But sympathy must not be excessive in quality, i.e. demonstrative and repelling in conversation. This excess is obvious in people who are gushing and who show sympathy before it is required by agreeing with everybody and annihilating a welcome discussion. Professor Mahaffy assumes that excessive sympathy spoils lively conversation.

Sympathy may also be excessive in quantity, which is the case when an interlocutor is ready to join the speaker in some strong antipathy to somebody. Such indiscriminate expression of unfavourable feelings is not pleasant in conversation. People who are known to have special sympathy for some particular age or sex or class in society are usually accepted as more agreeable because they express their feeling in a discriminating way. Indeed, a person who pleasantly denies something is a more agreeable companion or conversant than the one who embraces all the world in his affections (Mahaffy, 1888, 72-73). In this context, Professor Mahaffy warns of the reserved attitude of the English to display their feelings and especially sympathy, “without a careful introduction of it” (Mahaffy, 73). This is not to lead to “social mistakes in England on the score of sympathy”, for this is a peculiarity of Anglo-Saxon manners.

Tact, which, to Professor Mahaffy, is a combination of intellectual quickness with lively sympathy (Mahaffy, 74) and which, in modern understanding, is a skill in creating a favourable impression by saying or doing the right thing, is treated as the highest and the best of all moral conditions for conversation. Further defining tact as “the sure and quick judgement of what is suitable and agreeable in society” (Mahaffy, 75), Professor Mahaffy rightly assumes that tact is applicable far beyond actual conversation. But in conversation, tact secures all the necessary conditions - the choosing of the company, the selection and suggestion of pleasant subjects of talk, the avoidance of disturbing conditions and other minor inconveniences. The opposite of tact, to Professor Mahaffy, is social stupidity which conditions and encourages embarrassing or beaten and tedious topics of conversation. With such a tendency prevailing in the company, the tactful hostess would lead away from it even a little bluntly, if necessary, rather than let the embarrassment and tediousness develop. But real tact always prompts an excuse in society, which seems natural and unavoidable. Although tact is significantly inborn, it may be developed by observing the behaviour of good society or by analysing one’s own errors.

Following moral conditions of conversation, Professor Mahaffy praises moral worth and truthfulness in people, which is usually inherited. The author also finds it relevant to mention the role of wit and humour as of special qualities appreciated by people engaged in regular work, to whom conversation should be relaxation (Mahaffy, 1888, 86). Wit and humour, one of which is quick, while the other sustained, must be or appear to be spontaneous, because a man who prepares in advance for conversation or even keeps a record of the happy trifles heard and probably applicable in further conversations is very likely to be irrelevant and hardly a source of a real joke. A person who only pretends to be a humorist should beware of excesses. Sometimes a sense of humour develops with age and is very appropriate for the purposes of conversation, but ageing people should avoid the danger of becoming sarcastic or satirical, which are grave faults in conversation.

Discussing the objective conditions of conversation, Professor Mahaffy begins with the size of the company and the initiation of a topic which may be even the beaten topic about the weather. There is also a difficulty of rousing some people to conversation in a larger company, but in such cases some confidential talk might help, as well as encouraging questions. It is the duty of the hostess to see that the company should conduct a general conversation and that it should not break into fixed couples who would ignore the remaining company.

Considering agreeable topics in a company, the author finds that women ignore practical men’s talk and often discuss politics, while literature is a no less interesting topic. But since papers rarely publish literary works in addition to politics, dinner time conversation usually turns to gossip. This is normally not censured too much, because “the ordinary object of conversation is neither instruction nor moral improvement, but recreation” (Mahaffy, 1888, 111). However, it is occasionally desirable to shift conversation from people to things. Unfortunately, Professor Mahaffy finds, that most people are not educated well enough and not habituated to talk about things rather than people.

When a large number of people happen to participate, the objective conditions of conversation are respectively different. Professor Mahaffy considers it practically impossible to converse with a large company. The idea is that it should be broken into small groups or there must be a story-teller, but such a person is not always favoured with equal attention. There is a mentioning of exceptions when a leading person of a high status entertains a crowd of people, usually going through the rooms and talking in succession to all sorts and conditions of men. If conversation is practised as an art, it is by such distinguished people in modern times, for their role demands skill in changing topics, questions and interests to please the motley audience. Professor Mahaffy finds that, apart from princes, the best conversation with many is usually carried out by persons who had received French upbringing and polish.

On the point of the quality of the company in conversation, Professor Mahaffy is as descriptive as on the other points, but the rule is clear - whatever the actual position of the conversants in society, it is a conditio sine qua non in good conversation that equality should be established. Casting some light on the European social tradition, the author claims that socially and intellectually superior should be treated with respect in conversation but not with humbleness. The best issue is when the interlocutors can rise to the superior in conversation. Although there may be many causes of inferiority in society, the inferior may be successful in conversation even when they had lived bilingual in their provincial walks of life. They may be supported in conversation, too: for example, the just approach to them would be to take up a line of conversation which leads to common interest or to the special knowledge the inferior may possess and therefore may be assumed to be and feel superior.

Professor Mahaffy also remarks on conditions arising from the age of the participants in conversation, but this remark is very general in character. He finds it obligatory that the old participants should be treated with respectful silence when they are speaking and approached with great care when they are becoming tedious. In the company of young people, the author assumes that the older person should lead the discourse and encourage the young to talk about themselves if they can be expected to tell something interesting. If the young are lost in having nothing much to say, interesting stories and experiences of the older might be proposed to them, and they usually treat such effort graciously. But the social duty of probing for the strong point of others in conversation is as important with the young as with those advanced in years.

On the point of sexes in conversation, the first thing Professor Mahaffy observes is that normally “the natural attraction of opposite sexes will make ... conversation far more agreeable than that of men and women separately” (Mahaffy, 1888, 152). Women, especially if they are gifted with the ordinary talents for conversation, are found to have a fresher way of expression than men. But freedom of expression is not likely to redeem ignorance, rudeness, and graver vices, if such abide in the speaker. In morally strict societies, however, in which women are ignored, they grow disinterested in men’s business, and, in such cases, a company of men is thought more agreeable than a mixed one.

Writing by the end of the nineteenth century, Professor Mahaffy found it relevant to note that extreme form of courtesy called gallantry which had been proper to please a woman was gone in his time. An intelligent woman did not expect flattery and still less her treatment as a pet. A man would find an intelligent woman more sympathetic if he seized the opportunity of a conversation to consult her on some familiar matter. Flattery to old men was allowed, but a warning was given that the golden mean had to be observed here, for a woman should never flatter a man. Professor Mahaffy is in line with Emily Post on this point, who, half a century later, warned women of this misdemeanour in conversation (Post, 1945, 10, 44-45). Again, the equality of sexes in conversation is found to be the best issue.

Intimacy and different degrees of intimacy raise their own requirements in conversation. The author of the book under review finds it important to say that topics and problems known only intimately in some circles should not be thrust upon a stranger in conversation. To include strangers into conversation, more than one speaker has to make effort to make them feel at home, to turn their minds to some common thought, and to establish an agreeable and sociable spirit. The higher classes are found to be more successful in entertaining strangers, because their experience is the efforts of several generations. Like in the issue with a single distinguished person entertaining many, in this case the higher classes excel with an equal success.

Objective conditions created by people in conversation exhausted, Professor Mahaffy turns to the objective side of the topics discussed. He asserts that in quantity the topics are infinite (Mahaffy, 1888, 164), while the ways they are discussed differ and may be serious and trivial, universal and special, or general and personal. The author reminds that talk itself is to be a recreation, so both over-seriousness and great triviality are to be avoided as the extremes. “Brilliant talk alternates between grave and gay, and above all shuns dryness, detail, minuteness - in a word, tediousness” (Mahaffy, 1888, 166). Trivialities are tolerated only at introductions, when people remark on the weather or say something in general but mean nothing.

In good society conversation, general topics should be preferred to the personal and gossip avoided, while in couples people usually discuss personal matters and find them interesting. That things are to be preferred to people is a claim by Professor Mahaffy as a general rule. In this respect, literature is an indispensable topic.

To discuss the modes of treatment in conversation, Professor Mahaffy refers to the classical rhetoric for the modes of discussion. He finds the ancient modes of the treatment of the subject - the deliberative, the controversial, and the epideictic, applicable in conversation. According to the author, the deliberative mode of discussion, where each member gives his opinion and contributes something to the shared subject, when each is not only listened to in turn, but is expected to speak, is the best in good conversation. But the controversial mode may also have an application. For example, a topic may be taken up by two leading minds in company and discussed in a friendly argument, keeping the temper and avoiding to monopolise too great a share of the time and attention of the rest. This would be a highly instructive form of conversation. There may also be cases when some remarkable person, or a funny man, or a much experiences traveller takes it upon himself to delight the company with ‘real fiction’. This would be truly the florid, the epideictic or show-off style of talk when even a rival listens. With this, Professor Mahaffy exhausts the question of the objective conditions of conversation.

In conclusion, the author resorts to an explanation why he has made the subject so interesting quite dull. This is because the fascinating practice of conversation has been reduced to a few general observations. It might be recommended, the author assumes, to read and try to follow the mode of conversation of the best authors, but it is not likely that no more than a few phrases could be borrowed in such practice. Professor Mahaffy concludes with a statement that the perfect practice of conversation is a mystery and defies an explanation. It is the practice in which the myriad manifestations of human genius admire many, but which few or nobody can explain.

This thorough review of The Principles of the Art of Conversation by Mahaffy confirms that, in the nineteenth century, a rational approach to the treatment of conversation was known, but it did not actually contribute much to the development of the art of conversation. An attempt to be rational and thorough made the approach dull. When members of the nobility wrote on conversation, their descriptions were brief and evaluative, and therefore instructive. There are more studies of conversation of such rational kind (cf.: Wright, 1948), but they are neither very interesting nor extremely useful. Members of the nobility are briefer but more eloquent on the question.

In her book Etiquette of Good Society, Lady Colin Campbell (Campbell, 1903) mentions conversation in the Chapter on etiquette and social observances. She defines good conversation as the art which consists as much in listening politely as in talking agreeably (Campbell, 1903, 45). It must be lively without noise. This author makes the point of the eyes of the interlocutor, which should not wander to other objects during a conversation and warns against whispering as a breach of good manners. Interruption is a disagreeable act to her, too. She also praises the singing voice and a musical laugh. As is obvious, the precepts of Lady Colin Campbell are reminiscent of those known yet from The Book of the Courtier .

Having in other context defined politeness as the art of pleasing, Lady Colin Campbell implies it in conversation, too. Similarly, having stated that no lady would patronise, she implies this rule in conversation. This author also mentions precise language of a well educated gentleman, the elegant language of a lady, coarseness of language as vulgarity and other points. Without an attempt to treat the subject consistently or exhaust it, members of the nobility provide lively fragmentary information which applies to conversation in good society.

To conclude this review of the conversation of the Western tradition, one has to mention what “the redoubtable Emily Post” (Lund, 1964, 90) has to say about it. Surprisingly, however, I find nothing new in the most recent edition of Emily Post’s Etiquette (Post, 1992). Probably because etiquette is prescriptive, in Chapter on the good conversationalist, Elizabeth Post includes all that is relevant to good conversation from the known sources. Like Lady Colin Campbell and Professor Mahaffy, Emily Post emphasises the importance of polite and sympathetic listening (Post, 1992, 239). She is especially careful to warn that one has to think before one speaks because “most conversational errors are committed not by those who talk too little but by those who talk too much” (Post, 1992, 239). According to Emily Post, it is not advisable to talk ceaselessly and to continue at breakneck speed, because conversation is not a race (Post, 1992, 240). Like Lady Colin Campbell, Emily Post actually begins by saying that conversation should be a matter of equal give-and-take (Post, 1992, 239). To turn it into a “take” and to monopolise conversation is a grave misdemeanour, forbidden by the rules of etiquette.

Thinking before one speaks is a valuable note from Emily Post (Post, 1992, 240). Thoughtless and inconsiderate talk is tiresome. She recommends that the speaker has to be considerate, i.e. mind the listener’s interests, and never focus on the topic interesting only to himself or connected solely with his own life. Like Professor Mahaffy, Emily Post recommends probing into the interests of the interlocutor in conversation. With respect to conversational content, Emily Post’s advice is to resort first to what one knows about the company, to ask advice from the listeners and not to avoid even controversial topics, asking the listener’s view first.

Emily Post writes very favourably about compliments to people but, like Mahaffy, warns against flattery which is indigestible. She also warns not to be a nuisance: compliments must be met with appreciation and pleasure. Simpering and belittling are not a becoming attitude. Compliments should be met with thanks and some remark expressing pleasure.

Personal remarks about some disorder of the dress or similar matters are permissible if the speaker knows the other person well and if his remark can remedy the situation. Unkind and tactless remarks may simply be cut in conversation, and unkind talk about other people should never be shared. Emily Post reprobates gossip, especially malicious, about other people. Like Professor Mahaffy, she recommends to change the topic of people for some other topic.

Emily Post argues wisely about the difference of opinion in conversation. Her idea is that a topic should be changed if another’s opinion is totally unacceptable. One’s own opinion should also kept to oneself if one cares too intensely about a subject. The point is that heated argument should not be allowed to develop in good conversation: “Argument between cool-headed, skilful opponents may be an amusing game, but it can be very, very dangerous for those who become hot-headed and ill-tempered” (Post, 1992, 241). This is also known from a proverbial piece of advice: “See that your conversation generates more light than heat”.

According to Emily Post, it is important that the speaker should notice the reaction of the company and stop his talk if he sees bored expressions or attempts to escape his company. To improve one’s own impression, Emily Post advises to read current magazines or to think and find a topic of general interest. Everyone should beware of unnecessary wailing in conversation, of readiness to finish the speaker’s sentences or of contradicting in the first person. All these types of conversants are as objectionable as a bore. Emily Post makes a number of other concrete remarks. Like Lady Colin Campbell, for example, she warns against the displeasure of wandering eyes in conversation and against whispering. She also gives other brief recommendations, such as to meet wittily a question of age or to cut ethnic and other insults, or change the topic.

Advice and recommendations given by Emily Post indicate that the Western tradition of conversation developed drawing on the best practice known from the best sources. One can trace reflections even from The Book of the Courtier in the fifteenth edition of Emily Post’s Etiquette. This means that what had been known about good conversation from the practice of the nobility is observed in conversation in the West today. It is in accord with the concept of politeness in the French understanding: the spirit of politeness is to “govern our behaviour, so that by our words and actions others may be pleased with us and with themselves” (Campbell, 1903, 36).

This concept may exhaust the question of polite society conversation. Although I have not specifically considered intelligent conversation, a few remarks on it may be gleaned from what has been said. Ogden and Richards in their time hoped that when the emotive and symbolic uses of words are distinguished and when the influence of language on thought is understood, the way may be open to an Art of Conversation “by which the communicants can enjoy something more than the customary stones and scorpions” (Ogden, Richards, 1923, 250). What is normally enjoyed in intelligent conversation is an encouragement of thought and the pleasure of argument. The questions that have to be understood in connection with conversation according to Ogden and Richards has been the concern of the present chapter all along. One general rule, which would apply to intelligent conversation, sums up in the known saying quoted above: one has to take care that one’s conversation generates more light than heat.

Verbal Features of Polite Social Conversation in Britain

It is difficult to describe verbal features of social conversation without distorting it some way and making it dull. Professor Halliday maintains, for example, that we cannot specify the use of any given utterance when “we come to examine the adult language in its contexts of use” (Halliday, 1978, 28). The adult uses of language are indeed mixed and composite and a single utterance can perform a number of functions for the adult. I have referred several times to Ogden and Richards in this paper for their idea that no particular verbal unit, or ‘device’ in their terms, can be appropriated to any one of the functions of speech because “it is sure to be borrowed on occasion by the others” (Ogden, Richards, 1923, 224). As has been mentioned above, I consider social conversation only as a form of the phatic use of English, i.e. as a form of only one use of language. Since, however, social conversation is represented by a number of types of situations rather by singular contexts of situation, one can attempt to describe the typical verbal features of these contexts with some credibility47 (cf.: Halliday, 1978, 29).

A researcher into the use of English in different contexts tends to focus specifically on the language of conversation. I can say with some confidence that the following features identify social conversation in the phatic use of English in Britain: 1)simple syntax and relatively fixed intonation contours; 2)ample emotively coloured phrases and simple sentences of various types; 3)fillers-in and other parenthetic units, including discourse and stance markers; 4)recurrent fixed major units of meaning most of which are verbal stereotypes; 5)basically neutral vocabulary; 6)the levelling of the semantic content of the neutral vocabulary; 7)a fixed inventory of the conventional topics of conversation.

The simple and short syntax identifies social conversation in Britain as much as it identifies spoken English in general. Furthermore, the length of the sentence in conversation seems to be in accord with the general requirement in English that sentences should be of moderate length (cf.: Brooks, Warren, 1950, 323ff; Thomas, 1963, 246, 248-249; Warner, 1964, 13; Pinckert, 1981, 213). The number of short sentences in social conversation increases because of the currency of elliptical and incomplete sentences, as well as of response tokens, which are socioculturally idiomatic phrases but represent short utterances by their structure and intonation contours.

The simplicity of the syntax does not mean, however, that only simple declarative sentences are used. Sentence structure happens to be extended but its complexity is limited. The most frequent complex sentences are sentences with object complements, which may have the form of subordinate clauses (E.g.: I suppose you’re right. I thought it might be a bit... I thought we might note all the guests. I’ve told you before I don’t like it. I’m so glad I met you both... That’s just what I’ve been saying. I think I do, etc.) and with the adverbial clauses of time (E.g.: I was amazed when your mother sent the invitation to both of us. What will you have when you get married? What are you going to do when you come down? etc). The most complicated sentences that occur in social conversation include co-ordinated structures of the opposite co-ordination. Developed subordination is rare, while subordinate clauses of cause and consequence are virtually absent. If they happen to be used, they appear in rare explicit statements tending to irony or humour. This is very much in accord with the smooth superficial character of conversation in the phatic use of English, which centres on the lively exchange of utterances requiring no judgement.

The structure of the collocation simplifies the grammar of conversation because collocations of two members with or without the article are current (E.g.: a nice/lovely day; lovely weather; very/awfully sorry; so glad; quite/very pretty; very beautiful, etc.). Collocations of three members usually appear at the expense of intensifying words which are very frequent in social conversation (E.g.: jolly fine weather, pretty marvellous really, an absolutely wonderful man; rather good material for noting, etc.). But the collocations of three members do not complicate the syntax because of their explicit character. Almost all collocations of three members that appear in social conversation are built so that they analytically divide into two pairs of words which have a shared member (E.g.: jolly fine weather - jolly fine and fine weather; a clever little girl - a clever girl and a little girl; an awfully nice chap - awfully nice and a nice chap, etc.).

The moderate length of the sentence and the simplicity of the syntax together with the stable structure of the collocation preserve regular rhythm in English social conversation, which is predominantly the iamb. Relatively regular rhythm is one of the sources of ease and comprehension of the superficial and laconic character of conversation in the phatic use of English.

Discounting emphasis of various degrees, relatively fixed intonation contours are characteristic of English social conversation (cf.: Koberski, 1979; Bald, 1980, 100). This is most obvious in fixed macro units of meaning. But relatively fixed intonation contours do not mean that conversation in the phatic use of English is monotonous and can be easily mastered by foreigners. Politeness is expressed, as a rule, by high falls and rises, and higher pitch definitely signals politeness. Low rise in certain utterances may be rude especially from the inferior to the superior (cf.: Bald, 1980). Pitch variation alone is an intricate and rich phenomenon of meaning. Otherwise a variety of intonation is achieved by various forms and degrees of emphasis, by friendly expression of the face and individual kinesics of the speaker. The variable components of speech make conversation in the phatic use of English difficult to master, while native speakers are extremely sensitive to the slightest variations of the tone and pronunciation, and a foreigner can hardly hope to achieve a near-native identity in conversation in the phatic use of English.

The recurrence of emotively coloured sentences in English social conversation is related to the character of speech. Speech in the phatic use of English has to be friendly and welcoming, and the conversation has to confirm the speaker’s involvement. The use of emotively coloured sentences emphasises lively involvement and produces at least a superficial interest of the speaker. This type of sentences is therefore indispensable in English social conversation. Emotively coloured sentences in English social conversation fall into three groups: 1)emotively coloured sentences with the formally expressed emotive colouring, 2)emotively coloured sentences with a specific structure, and 3)emotively coloured sentences with the semantically expressed emotive colouring.

Sentences with the formally expressed emotive colouring include interjections and convey the respectively expressed emotiveness. (E.g: ‘Oh? I am sorry to hear that.’ ‘Oh, I don’t mean it.’ ‘Oh, yes Yellow roses for me.’ ‘Oh, Michael -’ ‘Oh, heaven.’ ‘Why, what’s wrong with David?’ ‘Christ, it was funny...’ ‘Good heavens, no wonder it looked out of this world.’ ‘Good lord, no. How on earth did you hear all this?’ Although the interjection is a minor part of speech, concrete interjections have their concrete meaning. For example, oh expresses surprise, fear or joy, and sometimes is used to attract somebody’s attention, while why expresses surprise or impatience. In conversation in the phatic use of English this meaning of the interjections is levelled, and they express lively reaction, interest and involvement. They also emphasise a positive and a negative answer and intensify any relevant aspect of meaning. Therefore sentences with the formally expressed emotive colouring convey somewhat emphatic involvement of the speaker, lively attitude to the subject and to the listener and contribute to the impression of the favourable atmosphere. Interjections and their equivalents with strong emotive colouring, such as Christ, Good heavens and others are slightly redundant in social conversation. But their function is to attract the listener’s attention and to encourage his reaction. Therefore their function in the creation of rapport is essential.

The meaning of emotively coloured sentences with the specific structure (E.g: What an unusual name. How very simple for you enchanting to see you! How deadly! etc) is not exhausted by praise and positive attitude to somebody or something. This type of emotively coloured sentences contribute to the development of social conversation and are therefore structurally important. They often occur in turn-taking and at the beginning of speech as a means of the expression of interest or as a means of the introduction of a new topic or a clue to further speech. Despite the occasionally heightened emotive colouring, emotively coloured sentences with the specific structure add the desired emotiveness to conversation and may help even to retain a certain distance if they are pronounced with the falling tone. Their general function is involvement and encouragement.

Emotively coloured sentences with the semantically expressed emotive colouring (E.g.: And the weather was gorgeous. I have got rather a miraculous leather coat, though. Louise looked quite ravishing, in a coat without a collar and a wonderful fur hat. David thinks she is awful, etc.) contain the semantic nucleus which is usually expressed by adjectives or adverbs of positive or negative evaluation. The evaluation may be of different degrees, which depends on the meaning of the adjective and adverb. Depending on the degree of evaluation which may be overstated (amazing, fabulous, lovely, awful, shocking, terrible, etc) and understated (quite nice, not bad, bearable, etc.) sentences with the semantically expressed emotive colouring may contribute to the atmosphere of sympathy. They may also create certain emotive redundancy which is necessary for contact maintenance in social conversation.

The recurrence of emotively coloured sentences in English social conversation has a bearing on the character of emotiveness which the English permit themselves. It was the view point of traditional linguists that understatement and litotes are characteristic of the speech of the English (cf.: Schlauch, 1945, 121-122; Esar, 1961, 261-263; Stone, 1961, 106-107; Spitzbardt, 1962, 126-136; Warner, 1964, 46-52). It used to be assumed that the British are restraint in their emotive expression (E.g: It isn’t half bad. Not half. It is rather good looking. It was not too well. etc.) and that understatement is characteristic of their speech. The British way of the expression of sympathy in conversation was noted by Professor Mahaffy (see p. above). However, as even a few select sentences above testify, emotive expression in contemporary English conversation is not restrained. Emotively coloured utterances, especially those with the semantically expressed emotive colouring, imply fairly open expression of emotions. But this statement has yet to be reconsidered while reconsidering the character of the emotively coloured sentences.

Utterances with the formally expressed emotive colouring are indicative of only superficially expressed emotions. Emotively coloured utterances with the specific structure express reaction and attitude to something, usually the subject of talk, rather than emotions themselves. So these utterances are not indicative of the character of the English in their expression of emotions, either. The most interesting and problematic are utterances with the semantically expressed emotive colouring. Their bearing on the character of the English may not be as neutral. Although the semantically expressed emotive colouring may be positive (E.g.: marvellous, wonderful, etc.) and negative (E.g.: dreadful, absurd, etc.) and of different degree (E.g.: absolutely marvellous, so lovely, enchanting, etc.), utterances of this kind do not seem to identify with the classical British statement.

As the few examples given above indicate, the classical British understatement is an antonymous statement in the negative of something opposite. For example: This is by no means an uncomplicated case. It would not be altogether disagreeable. That wouldn’t be too unacceptable. It seems that, in the classical British understatement, there has to be a statement which is reversed in its meaning. Emotively coloured utterances with the semantically expressed emotive colouring, as well as exclamations, whether positive or negative in content, state an assumption directly. There is no antonym and no negative statement in them. For example: ‘... We have friends in common. A ghastly chap called Wilfred Smee. And believe me he’s neurotic all right.’ ‘She can be terrible.’ ‘Oh, don’t ask, They’re all making as atrocious mess of it as me...’ ‘They’re amazing.’ ‘It’s perfect.’ ‘That would be lovely.’ The currency of direct, positive and negative, statements does not mean that the classical English understatement is gone. For example: ‘It looks rather nice like this,’ said Louise, ‘sort of encamped and temporary.’

‘I trust that we haven’t interrupted your studies?’ said Stephen.

‘Not half,’ I said. ‘I was just settling down for a quiet day in the library.’

The currency of the classical English understatement seems to be socioculturally motivated. It seems to be more frequent among people advanced in years and predominantly in other uses of language than the phatic. Conversation in the phatic use of English is marked by overstated evaluative utterances, most of which are emotively coloured.

The emotively coloured sentences, whether positive or negative, which are current in conversation in the phatic use of English identify with the English concept of overstatement. Overstatement has had a less defined character than understatement in English. Its definition can be found only in general English explanatory dictionaries. The Concise Oxford Dictionary, for example, defines the verb to overstate as meaning to state too strongly, to exaggerate. Consequently overstatement would mean a too strong statement, an exaggeration. With so general a definition of the overstatement, any emphatic statement, especially emotively coloured, would be an overstatement. For example: I used to think she looked marvellous in it,... ‘ was so marvellous to talk to you that day at Louise’s wedding,...’ ‘You knew perfectly well I wouldn’t leave it for you.’ ‘It’s perfect... You look absolutely perfect.’ ‘This, of course, was the most fascinating remark I had heard for weeks.’ ‘And congratulations on your degree, we were terribly impressed...’48 Minding the English classical understatement, it must be agreed that evaluation is overstated in the above sentences not only by the adjectives (perfect, marvellous, fascinating, etc.) but especially by the intensifying and degree words (absolutely, the most, so, perfectly, terribly, etc). With the declarative structure of the sentence present, all these utterances must be treated as overstatements in English social conversation. Their role is obvious: they stimulate and encourage the speaker. There is nothing like such an overstatement in the phatic use of English “to rise the morose from their vapours”, in Professor Mahaffy’s words.

The semantic content of emotively coloured utterances expressing negative evaluation is similarly construed. For example: It’s too dismal. I get so terribly fed up... of being alone... She had a horrid yellow dress on. It’s simply morbid not to be able to forget the washing-up. It’s hopeless, utterly hopeless... It’s frightfully hot in here, isn’t it? How terrible. ‘Oh, ghastly. Good but ghastly.’ Daphne thinks his books are shocking. The point is something negative or unacceptable in the above utterances, and the emotively coloured words (dismal, horrid, morbid, hopeless, terrible, ghastly, etc.) strongly emphasise the feature. Minding that the intensifying words are used with some of the adjectives, the points in question are overstated. Thus, one tends to conclude that the emotively coloured utterances with the semantically expressed emotive colouring, whether positive or negative, are overstatements in conversation in the phatic use of English. The tendency to overstate is strengthened because the meaning of evaluative adjectives and adverbs is levelled. For example, although the meaning of the adjective terrible is very unpleasant or serious, causing one to feel very unhappy or upset, in attributive use this adjective means very great, while the respective adverb simply means very. The adverb frightfully, too, is only an intensifier because it is informal and means very, extremely. Similar remarks would be true of adjectives and adverbs expressing positive evaluation.

The material reviewed above leads to certain obvious conclusions. One can conclude with certain confidence that the classical English understatement exists and has a function to perform in English speech. It occurs mostly in the referential use of English and characterises the British as restrained. In conversation in the phatic use of English, however, overstatement dominates49. Whether positive or negative, evaluation expressed by an overstatement becomes a means of encouragement in conversation. Because of the levelled meaning of the emotively coloured words which are central in such colloquial overstatements, such utterances sound playful and convey emphasis as well as emotional involvement. Both of these factors have primarily the function to stir the listener to a response. Whatever the character of the British and whatever the frequency of the classical understatement, conversation in the phatic use of English rests considerably on overstatement. Emotively coloured utterances, thus, have a very important role to play in this type of conversation.

The frequency of fillers-in in English social conversation is also determined by the character of speech in the phatic use of English. As noted by Emily Post, conversation is not a race to run and reach the finish line as soon as possible, but silence is undesirable in conversation. It is even impolite to maintain silence even if one is at a loss at what to say. If a person is willing and ready to speak but looks for the best wording of his utterance, fillers-in may come to rescue. Similarly, fillers-in make turn-taking smooth and often revert the point of emphasis from the first person.

There are one word fillers-in (E.g.: er, hm, ahm, and, well, etc.), most of which are mere sounds literally filling in pauses. False starts on conversation approximate the function of fillers-in, when any word happens to be repeated to get over a hitch in an otherwise smooth flow of speech. For example: ‘No... It - it isn’t really, I’m afraid - I’m afraid...’ ‘I’m not brave. It’s - it’s the waiting...’ ‘Oh, she’s a - she’s a sort of research student.’ Single sounds and certain conjunctions similarly fill in pauses by voicing them and signalling the intention to continue the talk. These single sounds and single word fillers-in together with false starts are motivated not only psychologically but also physiologically. Therefore they are not strictly ethnic features of English social conversation. Some of them easily become international. It is not so, however, with the filler-in Well. Well is rarely introductory or final. It occurs as a rule in turn-taking, i.e. at the beginning of a response. For example: ‘Oh well yes,’ ..., ‘I suppose you must be quite happy in the house...’ ‘Well, it was really about her husband, at some sort of conference in Paris.’ ‘Well, we haven’t exactly got one but I thought I might go and look...’ ‘Well,’ ..., ‘there’s not very much to see here tonight, is there?’ Thus used, Well helps the speaker to overcome hesitation over the wording of a relevant answer or to decide what to say when the speaker is uncertain what he could say. When used initially, in questions and responses, Well serves the function of arresting attention and implies that there might be other choices in conversation. For example: ‘Well, what was Paris like?’ ‘Well, the, what shall we talk about?’ ‘Well’, ..., ‘how do you grow up?’

Well may function with the interjection oh which prolongs the pause without adding much emotive colouring. But well is not irresponsibly frequent. It should be motivated by the various aspects of its function described above (cf.: Watts, 1986). Too frequent well makes English unnatural. For example, in the 1970s, East European speakers of English happened to be identified in California by the hand-covered mouth and too frequent well. Though a little word it is, well carries about itself sociocultural meaning which should not be violated to retain its idiomatic character.

There are different fillers-in in English which are current in social conversation. They consist of two or more words which vaguely retain their literal meaning. This group of fillers-in includes you know, you see, you mean, I mean to say, I must say, I think, I suppose, I hope, I believe and others. They are called discourse markers in modern grammars (Carter, McCarthy, 2007, 220-221: 109). You know and you see can be regular fillers-in, involving the listener into the statement. As a rule, they appear only at the end of the sentence and trail it off. For example: Oh, with Christian forgiveness, you know. She was jealous, you know, of her being supposed to be such a beauty... ...I did want a baby so, but I wanted it to be all proper and intentional with pink nurseries and flowers in hospital, you know... He’s a French dog, you see. ...but I shouldn’t think it right, in my position, to do so - I can’t only be thinking of myself, you see. In sentence final position the meaning of you know and you see is levelled to mean mere involvement of the listener. In sentence initial position, which is rare, they retain the meaning ‘you have to consider and understand’, which also means partial involvement and continuity. For example: ‘You know I never do. Wine’s such a horrid stuff You know I’m sure I’ve seen you somewhere before. You see, he has literally nothing to do from morning to night, except water his geraniums, and you know how bad it is for them to have too much water. ‘You see he doesn’t believe that women ever are intellectuals, hardly ever, perhaps one in ten million - Virginia Woolf perhaps.

It is not impossible that some of these units can function as the principal clauses in an utterance. But even in such circumstances, their meaning is obvious and they do not form a proposition. For example: ...And I mean to say, whoever heard of a novelist who didn’t drink? ...I mean to say not for someone like her. I must say I wondered... ...I suppose she could go on giving dinner parties all her life. I think a lot of nonsense is talked about drink. Though much depends on intonation, units of this kind are never emphasised. In sentence central position they therefore only soften the statement adding an aspect of subjective attitude to it.

Used parenthetically, these units are only fillers-in because they function like indirect personal reference trailing off the end of the sentence to an indefinite end. They soften the statements and add colloquial liveliness to them. For example: I’ll be seeing you some day, I suppose. She impressed me, I think. PPE, I believe? Everything I want, you mean? Good Lord no. I mean, there are limits ... model dresses, and so forth, you know. But most things, I suppose... It seems so odd - I mean, it seems so easy that there must be some reason against it... I’m sure I have seen your face somewhere before that lift, I mean. Although it is said and prescribed that first person statements should not dominate in social conversation, parenthetic I mean, I suppose, I think, I believe, I hope and others are very frequent in this kind of talk. In parenthetic use, these units never get intonational prominence and, while expressing subjective attitude, reduce the assurance a blank statement would otherwise have. Although they differ literally, the meaning of concrete words in them is levelled, so that these parenthetic units mean only personal attitude and function like fillers-in.

There are also catch words and phrases, such as kind of, sort of, in fact, as a matter of fact and a few others which also function like fillers-in in English social conversation. But these are often parasitic fillers, which do not mean involvement, merely a gain of time on the part of the speaker or his familiarity. For example: I sort of knew he would somehow... Well, I kind of had to. In fact... Stephen doesn’t like some of the clothes I buy.

Fillers-in may be a personal feature in conversation. Some Englishmen admit that they prefer to keep silent when looking for a word or a topic. Others invariably fill in pauses. Except for the parasitic fillers, other fillers-in make English social conversation smooth and co-operative. Because of their frequency, the listener is mentioned again and again and his involvement is emphasised by fillers-in, while the first person fillers reduce the speaker to merely one person whose subjective expression keeps calling forth the listener’s participation. Thus, fillers-in create continuity in, add encouragement and involvement to English social conversation.

This contextually conditioned and psychologically motivated explanation of the verbal features of English social conversation is a sufficient description for a student of communication. Seeking insight into the meaning and making of such utterances a more rigorous analysis is required.

The Problem of Tentative Utterances in English Conversation

In the traditional description of the syntax in English conversation given above, I tended to treat personal clauses, I think, I suppose, I believe and others like fillers-in because I have focused on their parenthetic functions. These clauses in complex sentences (I think I quite like her ways. I thought we might note all the guests. I am afraid I must be going… I believe that you are really a very good husband.) form typical utterances recurrent in English conversation, which have been discussed considerably in scholarly literature while questioning their truth value. The problem is that these clauses happen to be treated as absolutely optional and neglected in translation. I have encountered this treatment of the English language and thought it exigent to investigate it. I have studied personal utterances of this type as an instance of vague language and called them tentative utterances. Their analysis presented below was carried out by the method devised in pragmatics with the aim to study their structure and meaning in rigorous analysis.

The term ‘vague language’ has been borrowed from the known book by Joanna Channell (Channell, 1994). For the purposes of her book, Doctor Channell has defined an expression or word to be vague if “it can be contrasted with another word or expression which appears to render the same proposition, if it is ‘purposefully and unabashedly vague’ and if its meaning arises from the ‘intrinsic uncertainty’”, which means “indeterminate habits of the language” of the speaker (Channell, 1994, 20, 7). The focus here is on the word or expression, which is also the focus in her book. It specifies the object of her investigation, which is basically types of approximation by numerical quantities and by non-numerical quantifiers, as well as vagueness created by vague reference and placeholder words.

I have investigated a different area of language and have taken a different approach to what can be qualified as vague language. My view was from language and the focus was on the utterance and sentence as the major units of meaning. I studied the phatic use of English and small talk in particular, initially in 1967-1970 and analysed the syntax of English in conversations of this kind. I invariably analysed and described formally complex utterances (like: I suppose she could go on giving dinner parties all her life (SBC,157). I suppose you associated with all those beatniks (SBC,15). I think a lot of nonsense is talked about drink (SBC, 36). I should think that perhaps it means that he would like you to go (SBC, 79). I must say I wondered (SBC, 164), and utterances with equivalent parentheses (like: I’ll be seeing you some day, I suppose (SBC, 46). He’s at the Duchess, I think (SBC, 160). She impressed me, I think (PE – H, 13)). Results of this initial analysis have been presented in the previous section in this Chapter.

My initial observation, which was in line with the literature of the day, was that utterances of this kind recur in English conversation, stimulate it and maintain verbal contact by their subjective stance and redundancy. Resuming their study in thirty years, I have taken a different view. When their complex structure is taken to pieces, they remind one of propositional function, i.e. of propositions with a variable, in Bertrand Russell’s terms. Therefore, while accepting the definition of vague language given by Joanna Channell, I assume that vague language also includes tentative statements, which can be defined as the statements the logic of which has been impaired because of the presence of a variable in them. The variable encompasses a long list of items, such as personal clauses, modals, semi modals, modal phrases, degree words, verbs, such as: to believe, to think, to feel, to be sure, to be afraid, etc, and different approximations.

The tentative statements analysed in this paper have been drawn from fiction after an analysis of a considerable part (about 100 pages) of the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, in which the life of higher society is represented, and of its parallel translation into Lithuanian (2001) by Lilija Vanagiene. I have found that the typical tentativeness of the English statements was gone from the Lithuanian translation. Although the reasons of the plain L2 may have been the Editor’s options, the omissions at points indicated that the translator took liberties with tentative statements and ignored their variable parts as inessential. A question, consequently, was at issue whether what we know as stylistic aspects of meaning have any substantial integrity in discourse and should be retained or may be ignored without a major loss. And further: Can pragmatics explain the substance of tentative meaning and the making of the idiom of language?

Whatever the character of vague language overall, most of my material represented utterances based on the concepts of believing, desiring, doubting, which have been known as propositional attitudes (Russell, 1965, 62, 159-160, 181ff; Mathews, 2007; Vanderveken, 2008). As propositional attitudes have been an object of analysis in the philosophy of mind for decades, it seemed that this field of scholarship could resolve the problem raised in this paper. Joanna Channell had also been aware of the question of propositional attitudes, which relate to vague language, but she relegated them to the sphere of truth-conditional semantics where tests “operated with three truth values: true, false and lacking a truth value” (Channell, 1994, 10) and put them out of her focus.

I had intended to resolve my question on tentative utterances with resort to the philosophy of mind which, in this respect, questions the truth-value of the statement (also relationship between meaning and truth, and logical truth in particular (Predelli, 2008, 77, 89), as well as reference (Predelli, 2008, 31) and seeks type-oriented resolution (Predelli, 2008, 84,88). These questions seemed to me inappropriate to the analysis of tentative statements.

The question of truth-value has been irrelevant to my tentative statements as I have not encountered cases in which the truth of such statements would have been challenged for four decades of my study. Tentative statements are perceived without questioning their vagueness in conversation and are handy therefore to keep the ball rolling. When small talk turns to business and the truth of a statement matters, an extra precise question may regulate the answer to the utterance which had had the form of a propositional attitude. I have witnessed one single case of such questioning for the truth of the statement, in forty years50. This means that truth condition is largely irrelevant to tentative utterances in social conversation in English, and when it is, it can and sometimes is accessed with point-blank questions.

The question of the logical structure of propositional attitudes probes into the two propositions that make their structure. It was yet Bertrand Russell who noticed that, in propositional attitudes, one proposition is logical while the other concerns attitudes, and thus logicians “become involved in an analysis of belief and other propositional attitudes in (their) attempt to decide what looks like a purely logical question” (Russell, 1965, 160).

This point is only partly relevant to my tentative utterances and to my analysis: 1) speakers do not analyse the logical structure of tentative utterances in conversation; 2) they produce and perceive them wholly as fixed expressions. This may have earned the assessment that “human agents are not perfectly but only minimally rational” (Vanderveken, 2008, 2) when this author reflected on the necessity “to consider subjective as well as objective possibilities in the logic of attitudes and action” with the view to explain the logic of propositional attitudes. The following review reflects what my present analysis has shown of tentative statements, which at least partly identify with propositional attitudes.

Many of the personal tentative statements appear in longer entrances from one speaker where there is no space to respond to them at all. E.g.:

“/…/ The merely visible presence of this lad – for he seems to me little more than a lad, though he is really over twenty – his merely visible presence – ah! I wonder can you realize all that that means?Unconsciously he defines for me the lines of a fresh school... “(O.W.,29)

(1) I think you are wrong, Basil, but I won’t argue with you. It is only intellectually lost who ever argue. Tell me, is Dorian Gray very fond of you?”

The painter considered for a few moments. “He likes me,” he answered after a pause; “I know he likes me. Of course I flatter him dreadfully. /…/” (O.W., 31)

When a tentative utterance appears at the turn of another speaker, it usually receives a comment and, when it does, its subject is the topic of the proposition, as a rule, not of the personal clause in the sentence. E.g.:

(2) “How extraordinary! I thought you would never care for anything but your art.”

“He is all my art to me now,” said the painter, gravely. (O.W., 29)

(3) “Well, Harry,” said the old gentleman, “what brings you so early? I thought you dandies never got up till two, and were not visible till five.”

“Pure family affection, I assure you, Uncle George. I want to get something out of you.”

“Money, I suppose,” said Lord Fermor, making a wry face. (O.W., 53)

(4) “Really! And where do bad Americans go to when they die?” inquired the Duchess.

“They go to America,” murmured Lord Henry.

Sir Thomas frowned. “I am afraid that your nephew is prejudiced against that great country,” he said to Lady Agatha. “I have travelled all over it, … I assure you that it is an education to visit it.”

“But must we really see Chicago in order to be educated?” asked Mr.Erskine, plaintively. “I don’t feel up to the journey.” (O.W., 60)

Tentative utterances may be ignored (cf.: (4) above) or they may be brushed off by changing the topic entirely. E.g.:

(5) “My dear fellow, I am not quite serious. But I can’t help detesting my relations. I suppose it

comes from the fact that none of us can stand other people having the same faults as ourselves. I quite sympathise with the rage of the English democracy… /…/ And yet I don’t suppose that ten per cent of the proletariat live correctly.”

I don’t agree with a single word that you have said, and, what is more, Harry, I feel sure you don’t either.”

/…/ “How English you are, Basil! That is the second time you have made that observation.

If one puts forward an idea to a true Englishman - always a rash thing to do – he never dreams of considering whether the idea is right or wrong. /…/” (O.W., 28)

In some cases when the focus is on the proposition in the tentative statement, the personal clause in it may receive a response while balancing or playfully matching it with the personal clause in the previous utterance. E.g.:

(6) “How horribly unjust of you!” cried Lord Henry, … “Yes; horribly unjust of you. I make a great difference between people. I choose my friends for their good looks, my acquaintances for their good characters, and my enemies for their good intellects. /…/ They are all men of some intellectual power, and consequently they all appreciate me. Is that very vain of me? I think it is rather vain.”

“I should think it was, Harry. But according to your category I must be merely an acquaintance.” (O.W., 27)

(7) “We are talking about poor Dartmoor, Lord Henry,” cried the Duchess, … “Do you think he will marry this fascinating young person?”

I believe she has made up her mind to propose to him, Duchess.” (O.W., 59)

At this stage, it is possible to generalise by saying that the personal clause in tentative utterances is almost always ignored, except in the cases (cf.: 7, above) when it attracts attention to a kind of word play while harmonizing it somewhat with the analogous component in the previous utterance or when it elicits a direct point blank question. But this is extremely rare (cf.: 6, above). Therefore neither the meaning nor the function of the personal clause in tentative utterances should be emphasised beyond measure.

However, responses in (3,4,5 above) indicate that the sense of tentative utterances is treated wholly including the personal clause. This might be a proof that the personal clause in tentative utterances is not additional; it is intrinsic in the pattern.

If an analyst were to interpret this psychologically, he could very well say that the proposition in the tentative sentence is usually discussed, while the personal clause in it (I suppose, I think, I must say, I’m afraid, I believe, etc.) is largely ignored as redundant, serves as a judgment-absorber, is, therefore, involving and stimulates conversation. As is known, the function of redundancy is to reduce entropy in communication. This is what the personal clause in tentative utterances does in a majority of cases: it increases predictability and simplifies understanding and, while being personal, sounds involving rather than forbidding. Tentative utterances psychologically and verbally facilitate conversation. The pleasure experienced by foreigners in their first encounters with English conversationalists witnesses the psychological effect of tentative utterances.

Finally, the point of type-orientated resolution sought in the philosophy of mind has no place in the analysis of real(istic) conversations in English and in that of tentative sentences. Where logicians and philosophers analyse the meaning of a de-contextualised sentence while specifying the meaning of ‘I’, ‘now’ and ‘here’ in it (Predelli, 2008, 50ff, 54-55, 57), every tentative sentence is perceived in a concrete context by participants and likewise read by the analyst in functional language study, and such atomic questions simply do not crop up. Sentence-types do not feature in empirical linguistic analysis at all. I have mentioned the relevance of the context, which is decisive in understanding in actual communication (Halliday, Hasan, 1990) and in the analysis of an empirical linguist. The significance of the context has been acknowledged even in the philosophy of mind (Predelli, 2008, 80ff; 161ff).

I resorted to the context in my analysis of tentative utterances seeking an answer of the significance of their subjective and propositional components. I have been guided by conversational implicature and by maxims of conversation, although some of the maxims happen to be disobeyed in social, as opposed to business conversation in English. I have also assessed the status of tentative sentences under analysis in terms of speech acts.

Tentative utterances do not represent any one single speech act (in assertives, directives, commissives, expressives, declarations). They rather represent mixed speech acts. This classificatory merge of speech acts has been noted by Jef Verschueren in his Introduction to pragmatics (Verschueren, 1999, 24). Tentative utterances ((8) I don’t think I am likely to marry, Harry. p.69 (9)I am afraid I must be going, Basil. p.23 (10) I am afraid that I have shown in it the secret of my soul. p.24 (11) I am afraid you will hardly understand it. p.24 (12) I am quite sure I shall understand it. p.24 (13) Lord Henry … wondered what was coming. p.24 (14) I believe some picture of mine had made a great success at the time…p.26 (15) I believe that the world would gain such a fresh impulse of joy that we would forget all the maladies of medievalism…p.38) realise at least two speech acts – expressives and assertives in every concrete instance. Their subjective clause (I am afraid, I am quite sure, Lord Henry … wondered, I believe, etc.) is expressive and their propositional component (…that I have shown in it the secret of my soul. …some picture of mine had made a great success at the time, etc) is assertive, which complies with rather than contradicts the logician’s concept in the philosophy of mind. This condition of mixed speech act quality explains why tentative utterances can be conducive to conversation.

This view does not apply so straight to the propositional clause in tentative utterances, which are based on some future action/intention. It is an accepted truth in English grammar that the statement in a declarative sentence is conveyed by the present or the past tense, while the future tense shifts the credibility of a statement (cf.: Carter, McCarthy, 2007, 533: 291b). Nevertheless, even if plain assertion is not contained in the propositional clause in tentative utterances based on the future tense (… I must be going. …you will hardly understand it. …I shall understand it. …what was coming), their intentionality makes them different from the expressive components in subjective clauses; the term ‘primary performatives’ has been adopted for them (Verschueren, 1999, 25).

This note of mixed speech acts contained in one tentative utterance is in line with Bertrand Russell’s findings of two propositions in propositional attitudes – of a basic factual sentence/proposition and of statements operating by means of apparent variables (Russell, 1965, 214,210), which make propositional attitudes logically fallible. It is also in line with another concept of Bertrand Russell, which claims that “sentences ‘express’ a present state of the speaker and ‘indicate’ a fact or fail to do so” (Russell, 1965, 201,203). This dual concept of the content of the sentence is also confirmed by the functional theory of language, which claims that ideation (reference/experience and logic) and interpersonality (the personal component) are major categories of meaning in language and are both present in every utterance (Halliday, 1976, 20-21,24).


The maxims of conversation (H.P.Grice/Verschueren, 1999, 32) have been referred to explain the structure of conversation and assess the sense of the utterance. The maxim of quantity, which requires that the speaker’s contribution were “as informative as required for the current purpose of the exchange and not more informative than is required”, has been found true in business talk and descriptions, but only relatively so in small talk, from which much of my material has been drawn. If we focus is on “as much as is required”, so in small talk information is not required but its amount may be measured by “as much as is required”. But if we focus on being informative, so being informative is not required in small talk.

The maxim of quality, which requires “to make one’s contribution one that is true” again applies to business talk but hardly so to small talk, and the criterion of politeness forewarns against any attempt to check its truth value, except stealthily or through intelligence. Small talk opens up the possibility to drop untrue utterances to keep the ball rolling. And most importantly, to play with language and make use of fancy and untrue utterances, which are possible because of the nature of meaning in language. In verbal encounters in conversation, words with referential meaning lose their referential power. No ‘object word’, to use Bertrand Russell’s term, can expose the falsehood of the speaker until the object is not exposed. It is only the verbal units the meaning of which is made of the constituents of context, such as forms of address, formulae and response utterances that can witness against the speaker immediately and unforgivably (Drazdauskiene, 1990b). Small talk is rooted both in the potential of language and in the social custom, and the maxim of quality is relative with respect to small talk.

The maxim of relation requires to be relevant in talk, and this seems to apply to talk in English overall. But again, this may be variously manipulated in small talk, except that it would be a breach of etiquette to vary the topic irresponsibly or make irrelevant remarks. A digression from the maxim of relation can be managed in small talk only by expert conversationalists. Finally, the maxim of manner, which requires “to avoid obscurity of expression and ambiguity, to be brief and orderly” has been found to apply to business talk but not strictly so to small talk, except while adhering to politeness and style. Moreover, in small talk, obscurity and vagueness, in my terms, is simply a norm, while ambiguity may be read for play in the most simple utterances, which the utterer may perceive only after made fun of.


The overall principle of the analysis probing into the meaning of tentative utterances was conversational implicature. The analysis was based on reference to the context throughout, but initially, it served as a basis to resolve the question of the meaning of concrete units. The class of words was differentiated in the analysis and the methodological criteria for lexical action verbs were borrowed: conditions (C) of the act (A) described or of the describing (D) act, conditions and properties attached to the utterers (Ua and Ud) and interpreters (Ia and Id), their “beliefs, desires, intentions, as well as aspects of the physical and social worlds, in particular social relationships” were sought as contextual features in interpreting meaning (Verschueren, 1999, 210). Although aware that the meaning of utterances is not limited to the meaning of the words in them (Blakemore, 1992, 46) and although conscious that “it is impossible for a language user to provide labels for all distinguishable aspects of ‘reality’” (Verschueren, 1999, 122), word meaning was taken into consideration on the level of concrete items, on the level of the sense of the utterance, and on the level of “negotiation of meaning in interaction” (Verschueren, 1999, 123-124). I have fixed the following lines in the method of analysis: extralinguistic conditions (C), linguistic conditions (C), the effect/purport of the utterance, (contextual) logic of the utterance.

Analysing my material, I focused on tentative utterances of three kinds:

1) tentative utterances which identify with propositional attitudes;

2) utterances with a variable modal component;

3) utterances with approximations as a variable component.

I shall briefly review these types of tentative utterances focusing on their meaning, on the responses they elicit and on an assessment of their functional characteristics. Tentative utterances have been considered in pragmatics in relation to reflexive (or metapragmatic) awareness (Verschueren, 1999, 67, 182, 188, 190-193), which is conscious verbal choices of the user as choices from a range of options in language. Appreciating the significance of this factor, I could not really analyse it productively as my material has been drawn from fiction. Doctor Verschueren also mentions that he will merely touch upon tentative utterances, but that “a more systematic and integrated look at these phenomena would be highly desirable” (Verschueren, 1999, 189).

Tentative utterances which identify with propositional attitudes include utterances with personal clauses I am afraid, I believe, I think, I suppose and a few others. E.g.:

(16) I am afraid I must be going, Basil,” …”and before I go, I insist on your answering a question I put to you some time ago.” (O.W., 23)

(17) “Oh, there is very little to tell, Harry,” answered the painter, “and I am afraid you will hardly understand it. Perhaps you will hardly believe it.”

/…/ “I am quite sure I shall understand it,” he replied, /…/, “and as for believing, I can believe anything, provided that it is quite incredible.” (O.W., 24)

(18) “My aunt has often spoken to me about you. You are one of her favourites, and, I am afraid, one of her victims also.” (O.W., 34)


Extralinguistic C

Lord H. is to leave (reason unknown). He is quietly involved in conversation after a pause.

The expression is usual. He does not linger on his remark. No pause for a response.

Linguistic C

The words are common and usual. Effect: Lord H’s words are natural, the remark passes unnoticed.

The logic of the utterance

The personal clause (= the propositional f.); the words in their indirect sense (=politeness).

The propositional clause (= apparent proposition) because of the meaning of the future tense.

Conclusion: The proposition = the message; the personal clause = the necessity of the message, which may be an assumed truth. The purport of the utterance: a remark in the guise of a polite reminder/ announcement; both parts of the utterance are equally important.


Extralinguistic C

Lord H. and Basil H. continue in conversation in the studio. The question is why Basil H. will not exhibit Dorian’s portrait. The talk is intelligent and thought provoking.

Linguistic C

Basil’s (U) words are common, the utterance is polite.

Lord H’s (RU) is elaborate, expressing the sophistication of the speaker.

Effect: B.H. is a polite common man. Lord H. is a sophisticated gentleman who shows off his experience and enjoys his own wit. The conversation has an artistic guise.

The logic of the utterance

Basil H.: the personal clause (=propositional f.) gets the focus; the propositional clause = an apparent proposition. Result: politeness in expressing reluctance to tell something.

Lord H (1st): the personal clause (=the propositional f.) expresses certainty; the propositional clause is an apparent proposition. Result: positive assurance.

Lord H (2nd): discourse marker (= logic, intelligence); a proposition states his ability to believe + an explanation of a paradoxical reason (in a formal conditional clause)

Conclusion: The personal clause affects the statements in the tentative utterances of both speakers (= polite supposition & positive certainty). The purport of the utterance: an exchange of remarks between two intelligent men, which imply they are inequals socially.

As these quotations indicate, I am afraid is not used in the meaning of being frightened that something bad might happen to a particular person or thing51. This clause is rather used as a polite expression softening the sense of the following proposition or limiting its directness and expressing the speaker’s uncertainty. This polite sense is especially obvious in (16) and (17). However, even in conversation, I am afraid may have a stronger sense and imply something in between a hushed assumption and fear. E.g.:

(19) “Harry,” said Basil Hallward, looking him straight in the face, “every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter. /…/ The reason I will not exhibit this picture is that I am afraid that I have shown in it the secret of my own soul.”

Lord Henry laughed. “And what is that?” he asked.

“I will tell you,” said Hallward; but an expression of perplexity came over his face.(O.W., 24)

(17) includes a rare detailed response. While the primary performative is simply reiterated to confirm it, the subjective clause I am afraid is countered with I am quite sure for emphasis. This response indicates that, although often ignored in responses, the subjective clause, I am afraid, in tentative utterances is a significant phrase in which the degree of certainty varies. Consequently, this suggests that the subjective clause based on the verb of fearing alone is different in every case and cannot be stereotyped nor be given a generalised account. The expression of tentativeness involves the speaker’s conscious or semiconscious options from the system of language.

A few examples of tentative utterances, which include a personal clause, I am afraid, also show that, although polite, this clause is stronger in sense in the function of a personal clause and is much less significant when I am afraid functions as a parenthetic phrase (or a stance marker) reduced to a comment, as in (18): “My aunt has often spoken to me about you. You are one of her favourites and, I am afraid, one of her victims also.” (O.W., 34)

Tentative utterances based on the clause I believe make a group of utterances as frequent as those with the verb phrase I am afraid. Tentative utterances with a personal clause, I believe, are less flexible than the previous and appear in utterances in longer entrances of one speaker. E.g.:

(20) “I hate the way you talk about your married life, Harry,” said Basil Hallward, … . “I believe that you are really a very good husband, but that you are thoroughly ashamed of your own virtues. You are an extraordinary fellow. /…/” (O.W., 23)

(21) “I could not get rid of her. She brought be up to Royalties, and people with Stars and Garters, and elderly ladies with gigantic tiaras and parrot noses. She spoke of me as her dearest friend. /…/ I believe some picture of mine had made a great success at the time, at least had been chattered about in the penny newspapers, which is the nineteenth-century standard of immortality. /…/” (O.W., 26)

(22) I believe that if one man were to live out his life fully and completely, were to give form to every feeling, expression to every thought, … the world would gain…” (O.W., 37-38)

(23) “/...? If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture was to grow old! /…/ I would give my soul for that!”

“You would hardly care for such an arrangement, Basil,” cried Lord Henry, laughing. /…/

“I sould object very strongly, Harry,” said Hallward.

Dorian Gray turned and looked at him. “I believe you would, Basil. You like your art better than your friends. /…/” (O.W., 46)

(24) “I promised to go to a club in Whitechapel with her last Tuesday, and really forgot all about it. We were to have played a duet together – three duets, I believe. I don’t know…” (O.W., 34-35)

Tentative utterances with the personal clause, I believe, are spoken exceptionally in the first person. I have no testimony of a response to these utterances in my material. Their parenthetic use in the function of stance markers is also rare (cf., though: (24); cf.: PPE, I believe. (M.Drabble)). These utterances express the certainty of the statement or an opinion contained in the propositional clause. I believe is integrated in tentative utterances as an introductory part of a statement and make part of its content.

The sense and logic of utterances which include personal clauses, I think and I suppose, are more difficult to pinpoint. E.g.:

(25) “/…/ A man cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies. I have not got one who is a fool. They are all men of some intellectual power, and consequently all appreciate me. Is that very vain of me? I think it is rather vain.”

I should think it was, Harry. But according to your category I must be merely an acquaintance.” (O.W., 27)

(26) “Oh, I will make your peace with my aunt. She is quite devoted to you. And I don’t think it really matters about your not being there. The audience probably thought it was a duet. When Aunt Agatha sits down to the piano she makes quite enough noise for two people.” (O.W., 35)

(27) “Harry, I want to finish this picture to-day. Would you think it awfully rude of me if I asked you to go away?” (O.W., 35)


Extralinguistic C

Lord Henry continues in conversation with Basil Hallward. The topic has turned to acquaintances, friends and enemies.

Linguistic C

The words are common and usual, yet they are the words of an intellectual. Lord H’s closing utterances are conversational. Basil H’s response is likewise conversational and includes a response to Lord H’s description. The effect: the men are engaged in an intelligent conversation rather than in small talk. The men are equals verbally and intellectually.

The logic of the utterance: Lord H.: the personal clause = a turn of thought; the propositional clause = a fact; the result is a moderate judgment of the speaker. Basil H.: the personal clause = an opinion expressed correctly and politely; the propositional clause = a confirmation of the fact; the result is a polite exchange between men. As this summary indicates, the utterances which include the clause, I think/ I should think, are very usual so that these personal clauses are idiomatic in speech; they are part of message structure because, combined with the brief statements, they express an opinion and a polite confirmation. The utterances would change radically if these personal clauses were omitted, which is unthinkable in English. The personal clause, I think, does not express assertion and is frequent as an introductory clause. But it rarely functions parenthetically as a stance marker.

As the meaning of the verbs think (= to have an idea or opinion about something, to believe something) and suppose (= to think or believe that something is true or possible) indicate, tentative utterances with the personal clause, I suppose, as their component must be as vague as the tentative utterances with I think as their personal component and less strong than those with I believe as their personal component. E.g.:

(28) “My dear old Basil, you are much more than an acquaintance.”

“And much less than a friend. A sort of brother, I suppose.”

“Oh, brothers! I don’t care for brothers. My elder brother won’t die, and my younger brothers seem never to do anything else.” (O.W., 27)

(29) “Basil, I am tired of standing,” cried Dorian Gray, suddenly. “I must go out and sit in the garden. The air is stifling here.”

“My dear fellow, I am so sorry. When I am painting, I can’t think of anything else. But you never sat better. You were perfectly still. And I have caught the effect I wanted -… . I don’t know what Harry has been saying to you, but he has certainly made you have the most wonderful expression. I suppose he has been paying you compliments. You mustn’t believe a word that he says.”

“He has certainly not been paying me compliments. Perhaps that is the reason that I don’t believe anything he has told me.”

“You know you believe it all,” said Lord Henry, looking at him… (O.W., 40)

(30)The painter stared in amazement. It was so unlike Dorian to speak like that. What has happened? He seemed quite angry. His face was flushed and his cheeks burning.

“Yes,” he continued. “I am less to you than your ivory Hermes or your silver Faun. You will like them always. How long will you like me? Till I have my first wrinkle, I suppose. I know, now, that when one loses one’s good looks, whatever they may be, one loses everything. /…/” (O.W., 47)

(29) illustrates the standard use of the personal clause I suppose, which is not weaker than I think.

Extralinguistic C

The painter Basil H. is in conversation with Dorian Gray as his model. Dorian is tired and impatient. The conversation focuses on how Lord Henry has improved Dorian’s mood.

Linguistic C

Basil H’s words are selected to appease Dorian. The effect: Basil H. gets him talking.

In the tentative utterance: the personal clause = an idea; the propositional clause = a statement of fact; the effectt: a provocative utterance. The personal clause in the tentative utterance also serves as a discourse marker while changing the topic.

The logic of the statement: a supposition about an action.

(28) and (30) are identical functionally; the first comes from Basil and the second from Dorian.

Extralinguistic C

Basil, somewhat disappointed, remarks with slight irony using a phrase instead of a clause.

Dorian, upset and reproachful, makes a guess of time and changes, using a phrase instead of a clause.

Linguistic C

The utterances (the propositional part) are curtailed; the words are simple; the effect =impatience.

The personal clause in both cases is added as an afterthought; the effect = a reproach

The logic of the utterance

Utterances (28 & 30) do not have the structure of a regular tentative utterance nor do they have the strength of statements. What remains of the propositional part of the utterance are only remarks, while the personal clauses express a reproach like an afterthought. Used parenthetically, I suppose is additional to message structure and is very frequent in this function.

What has been said of the meaning of personal utterances I am afraid, I believe, I think and I suppose shows that the personal component modifies the propositional component in tentative utterances and that the latter would not be the same without the former. This is true of the personal clause in the function of the main clause and as a parenthetic.

Responses to tentative utterances are structured so as to match the sense without bypassing idiomatic variation in accord with the initial tentative statements. This means that the subjective clause in tentative utterances is part of message structure.

The communicative potential of tentative utterances which identify with propositional attitudes depends on the subjective clause. It is so bound up with the propositional clause that the structure of tentative utterances is idiomatic in English. Thus, the meaning of the personal clause and its communicative effectiveness become fixed in the complex syntax of tentative utterances until the structure becomes indispensable in the English language.

The idiomatic character of I am afraid, I believe, I think and I suppose clauses is most obvious when these clauses are removed. This happens in the speech of foreigners. Where a native speaker says in the classroom, I wonder if anyone is absent today? or I believe he is eating, while addressing a class and introducing an exercise, a foreigner in the same classroom says routinely, Who is absent? and Is he eating?, and this makes all the difference.

The truth value of tentative utterances has not arisen in this analysis. On the contrary, where truth condition might be doubted in the context (as in 23 above), no question appears in accord with the rules of politeness. But any part of the tentative utterance – whether the personal or the propositional clause – can elicit a response within the contextual meaning of the tentative utterance. Verbal responses to the propositional clause tend to be more matter-of-fact, while those to the personal clause more idiomatic. The sense of tentative utterances can be interpreted relatively accurately in the context, and this satisfies communication in English and an empirical researcher. The implicature of tentative utterances remains limited to social and cultural aspects of meaning, thus setting pragmatic analysis apart from the philosophy of mind.

Utterances with a variable modal component is my second group of tentative utterances. Modality52 is a feature engrained in English speech. However, as the quoted definition shows, modality refers only to interpersonality in language and it is not every modal component that creates modality. As my focus has been on the modal component in the utterance rather than on modality, I have analysed both cases – that of modality (the meaning of probabilities) and that of modulation (the meaning of conditions of the process) or ‘quasi modalities’ (Halliday, 1976, 204-205). This concept of modality has been accepted by major contemporary authors (cf.: Cruse, 2011, 307-310, Carter, McCarthy, 2007, 638-639: 379).

Utterances with the modal component seem are positively strong (… it seems to bring a great deal of romance into one’s life. You seem to forget that I am married… He seemed to think it a distinction). The sense of the proposition dominates in them over the modal meaning, which promotes of some aspect of the proposition and softens its factual account. The meaning of concrete statements depends on their structural and lexical components. This kind of tentativeness is encouraging in conversation. As the accent on some aspect of the proposition is positive and quite definite, utterances with seem to do not raise questions of the truth of the statement. These utterances indicate a modified fact and their meaning is the sum of the modal equivalent and of the lexical verb. The verb seem is not a mechanical addition, it is part of message structure and cannot be removed without altering the content of the statement of this kind.

Utterances with the modal verb must as a modal component make a second group in frequency. In most of the cases, utterances with must express obligation or necessity of an action, even though mock necessity it may be. (“Basil, this is extraordinary! I must see Dorian Gray.”(O.W., 20) I must confess that most of them are extremely pretty. (O.W., 60) And now I must bid good-bye to your excellent aunt. (O.W., 65))

The modal verb must expresses necessity of different shades and creates modulation. In all cases the meaning of this modal verb is bound up with the meaning of the lexical verb. It is not only implicature that takes in the meaning of both verbs; the definition of the meaning of must in The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary is significantly based on the meaning of the lexical verb.

But the integrity of the meaning of the modal must makes it part of message structure. The sense of these sentences would change radically if the modal verb must were removed. That is why the modal verb is part of message structure and not a simple addition in these statements. The first person statements, which most of my examples are, carry an additional shade of subjective attitude in judging necessity, which makes them conversational.

Utterances with should have two distinct senses: 1)an aspect of ‘ought’ or a sense of an obligation to do what is seen as right (“You should have gone away when I asked you.” (O.W., 48) I should have objected very strongly this morning. (O.W., 49)) and 2)a statement of other than that what is certain, which is an indirect sense of desirability and is expressed by the subjunctive (“I should like to come to the theatre with you…” (O.W., 50) “I should like that awfully.” (O.W., 50) I should think ‘The Idiot Boy…’ (O.W., 72)). When strong probability or warning are expressed by should, the propositional sense dominates. When uncertainty and desirability are expressed, tentativeness and preferences are highlighted politely. The communicative effect is stronger in the latter case. These two sense respectively determine the integrity of should in the statement, which is greater in the second case.

Modality is a rarer component of meaning in Oscar Wilde’s English (… whatever was my motive – and it may have been pride,… (O.W., 25) You have known nearly everybody in your time, so you might have known her. (O.W., 54)) These are typical cases of modality of stronger and weaker sense in the English sentence in which the modal is integrated structurally and probability is its additional sense in the utterance. Truth is aspectual in these utterances and its value is not a debatable question.

My analysis of utterances with the modal component has shown that the modal component is always definite, and this determines the truth value and character of the utterance. It has been noted in research that “’when someone makes a modal statement, he has some evidence for the truth of its related non-modal’” (Lightfoot, 1976, 327). As my examples have shown, cases of modulation and modality are equally definite. Utterances with the modal component are statements rather than vague utterances. The modal element determines the volition or probability aspect of the utterance and is integrated in message structure. Any changes in the modal component would alter the content and character of the utterance. Utterances with the modal component develop the idiom of language and challenge the speaker by their variable component.

Utterances or approximations with an evaluative component are not made up of approximate numbers, vague quantities, vague reference to categories or place holder words as in Joanna Channell’s material (Channell, 1994, 42-164). I have included utterances with words of subjective evaluation into this group of utterances. E.g.:

(1) “I hate the way you talk about your married life, Harry,”… (O.W., 23)

(2) “…I adore it, but I am afraid of it. …” (O.W., 68)

(3) “I am charmed, my love, quite charmed,” said Lord Henry… (O.W., 68)

(4) “I shall be charmed. A visit to Treadley would be a great privilege. It has a perfect host and a perfect library.” (O.W., 65)

(5) “And when one has them on, they are so horrid.” (O.W., 49)

(6) A delightful theory!” she exclaimed. (O.W., 63)

(7) How wonderful, Basil!” (O.W., 50)

(8) How extraordinary! I thought you would never care for anything… (O.W.,


The extralinguistic conditions (C) in this case are obvious. Except for utterance (2), which is a remark within one speaker’s words, and (5), which finishes one speaker’s (Basil Hallward’s) words, the other utterances (1,3,4,6-8) are response tokens. As units in communication, these utterances have no function. Only three of them (4, 5 & 6) receive comprehensible answers – an ironic comment to (4), a positive response to (5) and an objecting remark to (6). The others are either remarks in the middle of the same speaker’s words (1, 2, 3, 8) or they receive no comment (7).

The linguistic conditions (C) are quite uniform. Although of contrary transitivity patterns, ‘adore’ (=to like something very much) and ‘charmed’ (=to be pleased or attracted) are similar in meaning and both express a high degree of positive emotions. ‘Hate’ (=to dislike something very much) is an antonym of the same degree. Although slightly different in meaning, (7) ‘wonderful’ (=something that you enjoy very much, that gives you a lot of pleasure and is very good) & (8) ‘extraordinary’ (=unexpected, surprising or strange), receive no comment or leave no space for it. (6) ‘delightful’ (=very pleasant, charming) & (7) ‘wonderful’, are very close in meaning, but (6) receives a contrary response, while (7) remains a response which receives no further comment. Some of the responses to these utterances (3-7) are motivated in the fictitious story, and (3 & 4) come from the same speaker, who is Lord Henry. In natural conversation today, ‘charmed’ is quite strong by today’s standard. It is quite likely that it would be changed for ‘pleased’ or ‘delighted’

As the meaning of the highlighted words and extralinguistic conditions suggest, these and similar evaluative words are not treated analytically, discussed or amplified on. In conversation, they sooner appear in antonymic usage, like the few examples here confirm. Their principal function is positive emotions and the boosting of talk. Therefore I have treated them as utterances with approximations. Similar utterances in contemporary conversation (Wonderful/ That would be lovely. That sounds like a very good idea. How enchanting to see you! How very kind of you to come! etc.) confirm that utterances of this kind all have a similar sense and function.

A more detailed analysis is required to show how the meaning of the emotive component is leveled and why utterances with the emotive component as a variable are approximations. E.g.:

(9) “Margaret Devereux was one of the loveliest creatures I ever saw, Harry. /…/ She was romantic, though. All the women of that family were. The men were a poor lot, but, egad! The women were wonderful. (O.W., 55)

(10) “To get back one’s youth, one has merely to repeat one’s follies.”

A delightful theory!” she exclaimed. “I must put it into practice.” (O.W., 63)

(11) “Do you think he will really marry this fascinating young person?” (O.W., 59)

(12) “/…/ The Americans are an extremely interesting people. They are absolutely reasonable./…/” (O.W., 61)

I have chosen these examples to show what words very close in meaning are used in conversations on different subjects. Taken in isolation as a list of uses, they seem to reflect a variety of word choice: loveliest, wonderful and delightful appear in typical standard collocations of people and abstract notions, whereas fascinating and interesting only of people. More rigorous pragmatic analysis shows that this impression is partial.

(9/1/) Extralinguistic C

These are the words that Lord Fermor uses to describe Dorian Gray’s mother when Lord Henry asked him of Dorian’s family. It was a plain question and this was a plain answer in a talk between two aristocrats.

Linguistic C

The adjective lovely occurs in the superlative in a collocation with a complimentary abstract noun, creatures. This is a standard form of praise of a woman’s attractiveness and beauty.

The logic of the statement

The nominal sense of this collocation in the superlative emphasises how very admirable the woman in question was. The structure of the proposition brings out the exceptional beauty and delight of the woman. The result: whole-hearted praise.

(9/2/) Extralinguistic C

This second statement continues about the women of the family of Dorian’s mother.

Linguistic C

The adjective wonderful occurs as a generalizing praiseworthy word of the women of the family in a general statement, conversational and natural.

The logic of the statement

The praiseworthy word wonderful is the centre of the proposition of the women of the family. It is, in fact, part of the predicate. The result: rather neutral praise, the praise a little subdued compared with the previous.

(10) Extralinguistic C

This is a spontaneous response of the Duchess to Lord Henry’s suggestion that one should repeat one’s follies to get back one’s youth.

Linguistic C

The adjective delightful occurs in a free collocation with the abstract noun ‘theory’ which is contextually relevant.

The logic of the statement

The utterance in question is not a statement. It is an emotive utterance, and the emotive charge motivates the evaluative collocation. The result: the expression of the admiration of the listener.

As this summary analysis indicates, the three adjectives loveliest, wonderful and delightful, the meaning of which is very close, are used to praise and to emotively express admiration of a subject or object. The adjectives are not used to highlight the specific aspects (extremely good, giving great pleasure and very attractive) of the person or thing in question. On the contrary, they are used in their most general sense of very enjoyable and pleasing amounting to praise and admiration. Consequently, these adjectives are not used to differentiate the sense of the utterances, rather to make them positive in a higher or lower degree. The utterances in which these adjectives occur can be treated as vague and conversational.

The material drawn from the novel under analysis does not provide more examples to confirm the indiscriminate and interchangeable use of the adjectives fascinating and interesting, as in (11 & 12, above). These two instances confirm a variation in word and meaning in accord with the contexts, but these words also tend to replace each other in small talk.

The general sense of the evaluative component in approximations is especially obvious in the English of the turn of the twenty-first century when the same evaluative word modifies numerous subjects and objects (a nice/lovely day, lovely weather, a lovely wife; jolly fine weather, pretty marvelous really, an absolutely wonderful man, etc.).

Unlike utterances with a modal component, approximations of this kind are vague. A general positive or negative appreciation is a clear component in their sense. The detailed meaning of the evaluative component is not significant nor does it receive prominence in conversation. It is only the degree of emotion that matters. They are emotive overstatements but they develop the idiom of language. Their collocations are not free and this is challenging. Foreigners often deceive themselves and use evaluative words of this kind indiscriminately53. They thus sound funny, especially if they talk too energetically while messing these words up.

My analysis has shown that tentative and the related utterances are wholly idiomatic utterances in English. Subjective clauses, modals or evaluative words are not additional in them. Whether through their semantic and structural integrity or through their fixed recurrence in a context, personal clauses, modal elements and elements of subjective evaluation are part of the idiom of the English language. At present they are integrated parts of the utterance and their omission would alter the statement and damage the idiom of language. Pragmatic analysis has explained the sense of such utterances and the meaning of their constituent components. It has also shown their communicative value, which is the development of conversation.

Fixed Major Units of Meaning in English Conversation

In English social conversation, i.e. in conversation in the phatic use of English, the frequency of fixed major units attracts attention. Fixed major units are idiomatic and non-idiomatic syntactical units which include from one to four variable components (qualifying and intensifying words, personal nominal and pronominal reference, modality and suprasegmental features) and vary in length from collocations of two words to an utterance. In social conversation, these units include forms of address, formulae, verbal stereotypes, response tokens and clichés.

Forms of address as words and collocations used to name the persons to whom speech is addressed are very important units of meaning in conversation. Minding the British social structure, forms of address in English make up a complicated system which includes conventional prefixes to the name and historically developed honorifics used to address people of rank and position. All the forms of address have their function in English, but they, especially honorifics, perform their function only when used correctly. It is objectionable in good society to abuse Your Lordship/His Lordship or even Your Excellency/His Excellency in conversation. One has to consider the following instances of usage. However high a person’s status, when the second person has to be referred to repeatedly in conversation, the second person pronoun is used. But in introductions and at the beginning of conversation the relevant forms of address are strictly applicable. The use of the person’s name, especially of the Christian name, becomes very significant in this context.

It has to be stated at the start that the British abhor the use of family names without any prefix and too early use of Christian names. They find it terribly familiar to use somebody’s Christian name at once. If it happens that Christian names are used in introductions, English people often give rebuff to it with silence, for how else such a faux pas can be endured. Although my references in the above statements are polite usage from communication and literature (cf.: Mitford, 1959, 38), the British do seem to feel aversion to too great or too sudden familiarity in social conversation. Unlike the Americans whose choice in this case lies only between the first name and the title Mr, Mrs and Miss with the family name and who give preference to the first name address (cf.: Brown, Ford, 1964), the British are quite particular about the use of these titles even with the names of the untitled, to say nothing of more elaborate forms of address. As the British themselves assess, the practice of using Christian names has been changing in Britain and more familiarity in this respect is tolerated at present.

This may not be true about young British speakers, students and even civil servants, who find address by Christian names quite a convenient practice. Elder people and aristocrats, however, are reluctant to permit too great and too sudden familiarity. The use of the Christian name of the third person with the title of a baronet Sir, i.e. Sir James, for example, which is a standard form of address among acquaintances, may be too familiar among people meeting for the first time. Such usage may even imply a showing off of one’s contacts. Among the untitled strangers, the British use the surname with a prefix, Mr, Mrs or Miss, and observe it in all circumstances.

But the explicit form of address is not very frequent in general conversation. Except for introductions, the explicit form of address is used when a re-establishment of contact is required. This may happen after a pause, especially when the person is engaged in conversation with someone else. In such circumstances, the form of address Mr Brown, Mrs Brown or Miss Brown, for example, is accented and pronounced with a slight rise to get the person’s attention. Then the intended message follows. The British are very precise and courteous in their use of the forms of address, and this shows how well brought up and language conscious they are.

Finally, it has to be mentioned that forms of address are dangerous units of speech to foreigners. Unlike even single lexical words, forms of address are units the meaning of which consists of the components of the context of situation. A wrongly used word may be ignored both by the speaker and the listener because both may take its literal value for granted if it is not specified. This is not so with forms of address. If the speaker chooses the form of address inappropriately in one of its components, for example, in its contextual or social aspect, he misses the whole unit. Moreover, this is obvious to the listener and the speaker’s blunder cannot be denied or ignored. Too bold foreigners thus confirm their sociocultural ignorance to the native speakers, but even modest foreigners may suffer because forms of address are very sensitive units of meaning.

Formulae, which are fixed idiomatic units of meaning characterised by definite intonation contours and functioning as units of verbal etiquette, are situationally conditioned and their frequency depends on the stage of the speech act. Such formulae as those of greeting, parting and introduction are quite frequent at the beginning and the end of speech acts, while apologies can appear at any stage of the speech act. Formulae do not significantly determine the development of conversation but are essential in the smooth development of the situational exchange. Some formulae are idiomatic in the sense that their meaning may be a generalised concept which may be very significant even in typical contexts. For example, formula How do you do is not only a formal question signifying politeness on meeting but is a regular sign that further conversation is to be slight if it is to materialise at all. On the contrary, the sense and function of some formulae, such as How are you? or comments like Nice to meet you signify that the speaker is friendly and that conversation is likely to follow.

Most other formulae are signs in the phatic use of English, exactly like Ogden and Richards assessed it (Ogden, Richards, 1923/1960, 234). But in conversation which develops in the phatic use of English formulae may be neutral and emotive signs. Formulae are neutral signs of politeness only then when they are used strictly in accord with the context of situation and intoned neutrally. Examples of formulae as neutral signs may be the exchange of greetings on the first meeting or of farewells on parting. When an impulsive speaker does not find it necessary to conceal his emotions, he may affect the context of situation emotionally, and formulae used by him may be emotionally coloured. This happens in situations in which people unexpectedly meet one another after a long time and when at least one of them is impulsive. Even regular greetings are emphatically intoned in such situations and formulae are uttered in tones of brimming emotions. The issue is joy at the meeting, smiles and embraces, with formulae reiterated very emotionally. It is true, such and similar expression of emotions by formulae and kinesics is socially marked rather than a universally practised manner among English speaking people. Young people and people representing middle classes would tend to express themselves thus in circumstances as described. Representatives of high classes, whether by birth or social position, are definitely much less emotional and express even their surprise or pleasure in much more subdued tones.

The situations as described are quite specific in the sense that formulae, which are fixed units of limited expressiveness, function as the principal verbal means. Furthermore, it is not all the potential of the formulae that is exploited in such situations. In accord with the polite tone of conversation in the phatic use of English, only positive emotions are implied. One may assume that so spontaneous formulae in conversation in the phatic use of English become “emotional signs” (Ogden, Richards, 1923, 234), but they are a source only of friendly attitude and positive emotions. Irony, warning or reproaches usually have no place as the senses of the formulae in such situations, but I am familiar with instances of greetings, for example, in which a teacher or a professor expresses irony or contempt to the student or a junior colleague.

Verbal stereotypes, which are fixed non-idiomatic phrases and clauses, including from one to four variable components of meaning (qualifying and intensifying words, nominal and pronominal reference, modality and intonation) and expressing a contracted or extended statement, are frequent units in polite conversation. Polite conversation as a form of the phatic use of English does not stimulate rational commitment of the speakers. Mainly because such conversation only superficially touches upon the subjects, it has to be smooth and spontaneous. Any speaker who would ponder on his utterances would distract the participants from the playful manner of such conversation. That is why verbal stereotypes come to rescue as the units which ensure smooth and immediate exchange, convey certain meaning and do not distract the participants.

Verbal stereotypes contribute to the courteous and playful manner of polite social conversation for one more reason: most of the verbal stereotypes are polite or complimentary phrases which delight the listeners. One can only consider the function and meaning of such verbal stereotypes as: It’s been months/years/ages since I last saw you. I hope you don’t mind if I... If you don’t mind of course. I think it looks really nice/ lovely/ divine. I have never seen anything more beautiful/lovelier. I’m so glad you like it. I wanted you to be the first to know. That’s very kind of you, and numerous others. The participants never analyse such and similar utterances for their origin and frequency. They rather respond to the pleasing sense of the verbal stereotypes and to their inviting and enveloping function in polite conversation. People who, in international contexts, participate in English polite conversation for the first time experience surprise at the readiness of the speakers with so kind words, which impress still more when they are uttered spontaneously and pleasingly. Such is the function and the result of the currency of verbal stereotypes in English polite conversation.

Response tokens, which are fixed idiomatic and non-idiomatic units of meaning characterised by typical intonation contours, appear in turn-taking. They express agreement or disagreement by way of reiterating or emphasising the subject or predicate of the preceding utterance and function as a comment or response. Response utterances make another group of fixed macro units which are essential in the smooth development of conversation. The smooth development of polite conversation may be at risk for the imprecise use of response utterances, which never happens with native speakers although response utterances are very subtle and usually idiomatic. The use merely of Yes covers a wide range of meanings. Frequent Yes pronounced with the non-final falling tone means that the listener is participating and following. The emotively emphatic Oh yes, of course. That was very friendly on her part implies that conversation is to follow, while Yes, it is stops conversation.

Emphasis in response utterances needs not be very verbose when it is idiomatic. For example, Yes, certainly. Of course happens to be substituted for by Yes, by all means in its various situational uses, as in: By all means do. By all means come and visit us when you can.54 Although By all means adds formality to the tone, it is fairly frequent. Understatement forms a singular group of response tokens which always have more power than the direct meaning of plain words. For example: I wouldn’t say no to a brandy.

Since response tokens are brief units, intonation is essential in them, and curt tones may be disastrous. For example, much explanation is not required to show that Have we? pronounced with the low rise as a response to We have met, uttered in lively tone by a person superior in social position, causes embarrassment and a pause which is difficult to overcome.

Response tokens which are actually stereotypes are less idiomatic but their tone is very encouraging as a rule. For example: That would be lovely. That sounds like a very good idea. Some response tokens are idiomatic, like You don’t say so! or By all means do, while the meaning of others is context-bound. It has been known from The Cambridge Language Survey, for instance, that Fine “typically occurs in making arrangements and reaching decisions”, Certainly “in replies to a request for a service or favour”, while Definitely, although close in meaning to the latter, is stronger and “would be inappropriate in the restaurant context” (Carter, McCarthy, 2007, 189: 95a). Therefore response tokens are the units which test the speaker’s verbal proficiency. Otherwise stated, response tokens betray foreigners when they miss these idiomatic units or are clumsy in their words and tones. Native speakers’ responses in polite conversation are always very pleasant and encouraging over and above their idiomatic meaning. Foreigners, on the contrary, may be funny and rude in their responses and in emotively coloured utterances, so that this happens to be exposed even in fiction55.

By virtue of the definition, clichés, which are said to be overused and hackneyed or distasteful phrases, are unlikely to be used in speech. But clichés happen to appear in conversation for want of a better word or for fun. Such expression as We’re none of us perfect. Long time no see. when I want to put my feet up, or you won’t feel the benefit, It was a blessing in disguise and others are identified as clichés by the native speakers. Nevertheless they keep appearing in native speakers’ conversation with humour implied and their idiomatic meaning exploited. Even obviously evaluative and therefore heavier clichés, such as the cup that cheers, your word is my command, I stand corrected. That’s life and similar ones happen to be used. But unlike in writing, in conversation clichés may be reborn because conversation provides a moment to reconsider their idiomatic or humorous sense and to respond respectively. A heavy cliché in conversation requires a context and usually arrests attention inviting comment or an explanation. That is why clichés are not entirely shunned in conversation, provided the participants have a shared understanding of them.

Except for the emotively coloured words, the vocabulary of polite conversation is mostly neutral. Depending on the topic of conversation, words appear in thematic sets and their principal socialising sense is retained in the lightness of tone and in a superficial treatment of the topic. In polite conversation, there seems to be a tacit agreement as to the transferred sense of the words or as to the levelling of their semantic content. The participants exchange utterances in which neutral referential vocabulary is treated so lightly that talking for the sake of talking goes on with pleasing involvement. In such circumstances, the levelling of the semantic content of the neutral words is a norm. Nobody claims or implies commitment by the words uttered. It is only the pleasure of sharing by words that is meant. The levelled meaning of the neutral referential vocabulary in social conversation approximates metaphor and reveals language’s hidden potentialities to conceal, not only to expose one’s meaning.

The levelling of the neutral vocabulary becomes most significant when one of the participants intends to turn or turns to a serious talk. The neutral referential words then suddenly acquire significance, and the participants have to consent to the serious talk. If it continues by mutual agreement, the transition to the serious talk is smooth. But if at least one participant does not wish or cannot commit himself to the serious talk, he signals remonstrance in unambiguous words. The resistance to carry on a serious conversation may be expressed merely by an abrupt pause or by some kinesic means. But talkative people may and often do state some objection which terminates the serious talk at once. Another participant has to turn back to the socialising conversation and to the light treatment of the general subject matter or explain his intentions some way. If he merely wishes to pass on a message, he does so even to the participant who had protested. But this has to be brief not to upset or reject the person who, for some reasons, does not wish to commit himself to a serious talk. In such cases, the tone has to be altered, and the levelling of the neutral vocabulary on a neutral topic takes place.

What has been said shows that conversation in the phatic use of English is not merely a thoughtless exchange of words. Polite social conversation requires intelligent activity of the participants so that they can please one another without appearing absent minded or too obviously trivial. Again, the participants have to mind what they are saying, especially when an opening for a serious talk appears. Polite social conversation as a form of the phatic use of English is a very delicate kind of talk. It is most skilfully conducted by people who are conscious of their role to please the participants and who can intelligently accept or reject transition to a serious talk.

The topics of polite social conversation may be restricted but may also be infinite. Yet recent research confirms that topics in social conversation are rarely extraordinary, if at all. The beaten topics of the weather and health may be too obviously boring but they do recur as do other usual topics, such as books, trips, theatre and concerts, hobbies and engagements, the immediate environment and the places visited, friends, family and relations, and other topics equally neutral and safe. The important thing is to put a question on any of these topics so that it relates to the participants and does not challenge their wits. It is intellectual quickness, mentioned by Professor Mahaffy, that comes to rescue to the speakers on most trivial topics and it distinctly shows in ladies’ talk. Relations among the participants and the occasion also decide the choice of the topic. Since the topics56 themselves have already been listed and mentioned (see: p.44; 126-7, 130, above), these remarks on verbal features of polite social conversation may be considered exhausted.

The integrity of the phatic use of English in communication and its significance shows especially impressively when such use of language is cut abruptly. This is well disclosed in drama and fiction. (Drazdauskiene, 1997). With the tradition of social conversation so essential and developed in Anglo-Saxon culture, a breach of small talk is a major faux pas and is always shocking. If it happens out of the foreigner’s ignorance, it may shock less, but otherwise, when it is intentional, it is mortifying and challenging beyond words. It may mean impatience (as Cleopatra’s Ram thy fruitful tidings in mine ears, / That long time have been barren. Ant & Cleop, II.5; or I do not like “but yet”, it does allay / The good precèdence. Fie upon “but yet!” Ant & Cleop, II.5, or Antony’s Grates me, the sum. Ant & Cleop, I.1) But it may be contemptuous and threatening from monarchs (as Cleopatra’s I have a mind to strike thee ere thou speak’st. / Yet, if thou say Antony lives, is well,… Ant & Cleop, II.5, or Macbeth’s Thou com’st to use they tongue: thy story quickly! Macb, V.5, or King Henry’s You were ever good at sudden commendations,

Bishop of Winchester. But know, I come not

To hear such flattery now, and in my presence;

They are too thin and bare to hide offences.

To me you cannot reach: … King Henry VIII, V.2)

Shakespeare, who represented life in the royal court, gained much dramatic tension from such scenes, as he did from the variable use of formulae at the beginning and end of the scenes. But a breach of the phatic use of language is an especially apt device to the dramatist because of its inherent presence in actual communication. Taking away what is refined and usual creates a void. When it is filled with words of contrary meaning, its dramatic sense is striking by the brimming tension.

The spread of the phatic use of English also shows in modern fiction and plays. It is a young girl of noble birth who is surprisingly reluctant to engage in small talk with a distant relative in the novel, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, which confuses the young man no end. When she begins speaking, she speaks in French, to which the young man finds no less ironic comment than a cry, It speaks! But lower classes have been given rougher words by modern authors when they are reluctant to engage in the phatic use of English: Oh go to hell, you and your fizzing husband! Keep to your own garden, you like it so much.

And a little further: I says go to hell. You’re not wanted here. (John Arden. Live Like Pigs). One can conclude therefore that the phatic use of English is a sensitive use of language because its sense draws on refinement, contextual appropriateness and social sentiment, because it is traditional and integrated in communication in Anglo-Saxon culture and because verbal communication permits the slightest variations of sense at the slightest turn of the phrase, to say nothing of a refusal to respond. English social conversation is a pleasant and intellectually involving activity, which is implied even in this analysis of its verbal features.

The Impact of Social Conversation on the Mind

Although one happens to notice remarks that English conversation tends to deteriorate in modern times (cf.: Burke, 1993, 89), my personal impressions are that it is superb. At least the English people whom I met excelled in conversation, making it recreation in the true sense of the word. It would be no excess to state that English conversationalists observe all the conditions prescribed to good conversation in the Western tradition. First, they are very good listeners and experts in the probing into the interests of the participants. Thus, naturally, the first condition to understand one’s company in good conversation, prescribed yet by Castiglione, is satisfied. This leads to the pleasing involvement of the participants in conversation, as is recommended by all the authors reviewed above. The interest in the interlocutor ensures politeness in the French concept (Campbell, 1903, 36), as “acts of attention and thoughtfulness... at the same time ennoble the doer, and provoke a sweet return of kindly feeling and good-will” (Campbell, 1903, 13). It fully satisfies the conditions to include strangers in conversation, prescribed by Professor Mahaffy - it makes one feel at home, it turns the mind to some common thought and establishes an agreeable social spirit. But what is most remarkable is that, contrary to Professor Mahaffy’s note on the effort required in such cases, English conversationalists do it without any obvious effort.

The above described approach to the participant makes him feel as an equal, too. But this aspect deserves special mentioning. Equality of the participants is always established in the company of English people, exactly as it is demanded by Professor Mahaffy (Mahaffy, 1888, 126). Irrespective of the actual social position of the people, all members who make up the party are treated as equals and feel so, however dignified the company, however grand the occasion. This is another sort of pleasure for the participants because equality is established in no showy way, just politely and naturally. One would find sympathy and tact manifested to advantage in the circumstances.

It becomes self-evident that English speakers never monopolise the conversation. They participate so skilfully in conversation that always remain in the background. But they are not silent any embarrassing length of time: they manage to accompany the one who speaks pleasantly and tactfully, encouragingly and sociably. In such conditions, the mind of the participant is relaxed and he enjoys the pleasure of talking. The only question that may worry him is not to talk too long or too much, i.e. not to bore the listening host. The pleasure secured to the one talking is so great that the term monopolise does not come to his mind. He simply considers the volume of his own speech. The first thing he may turn to is a question to the listener. But if he is aware of the rule that “questioning is not the mode of conversation among gentlemen” (Samuel Johnson), he usually takes care that the question is not too pointed, too blunt or too specific. Even if the speaker is a woman, she is likely to come up with some general question merely to step aside and let the listener speak.

When it is their turn to speak, English speakers must be noted for the pleasant manner of talk. English speakers are good conversationalists because, whether a professional in the field or not, they talk agreeably, without too much technicalities and certainly without affectation, undesirable tricks or style shifting to a lower key or slang. When listening, the former speaker can relax because an occasional comment is all that is required from him. On hearing an intelligent and fluent speaker, the listener’s mind is satisfied with the interesting subject that is offered. Although conversation is, above all, recreation (Mahaffy, 1888, 111, 166), the interesting facts and information that the speaker may volunteer is not without significance, either. In conversation one can learn too, if not so much in the line of facts, definitely in the line of people and their ways. The interesting subjects make the participation of the listener lively and himself alert57.

English speakers are excellent conversationalists for one more reason. They never assert their opinion unconditionally even in professional talk so that there is never a danger of the clash of opinions. In no conversation I remember there has ever been a need to change the topic because of the difference of opinions. The subjects, too, are selected with taste and reason, and the so-called taboo topics are never practised. Fit manners accompany their conversation, exactly as recommended yet by Castiglione. In short, participants in English conversation experience real pleasure which is all the greater because English speakers never let one get bored. Their sense for a spontaneous remark or a change of the topic is so keen that the listener has merely to follow with appreciation. In conditions as described, the mind of the participant is influenced so pleasurably and so greatly that polite social conversation becomes as good as an intelligent conversation. If the participant is tactful, simple and unselfish, he can also enjoy certain periods of relaxed state and rest, because English speakers never hasten on with their talk. They are fairly slow to enjoy it, and the interlocutor can enjoy the slow pace in his turn, as advised by Emily Post. With the best qualities of the Western tradition incarnated in their talk, English speakers never fail to delight the interlocutor. As my description reveals, the best and most important recommendations known through the ages in Europe are made their own by English speakers in conversation. That is why the impression and the influence of such conversation on the mind is great indeed - it is pleasing, giving recreation and education.

I am also familiar with conversation held by a leading person of high status who talks to numerous people in turn. It was an English lady who conducted it and who deserved no less praise than that from Professor Mahaffy on her skill, tact, subtlety and intelligence in the undertaking. The lady was very attentive to the interests and the likes of the participants and chose the topics of talk accordingly. She so delighted the company by her quiet participation that even the participants of lower status, who feared they might be de trop, enjoyed the sociable talk beyond measure. The acclaim was unanimous, and satisfaction shone in the eyes of all the participants. The single lady managed to please a motley company of characters, made them feel relaxed and enjoy themselves. The influence of the pleasant talk on the minds so different was obvious - it delighted all, made them feel human and interested, satisfied and joyful. It was a company of persons lost in petty problems of their work and home, rarely if ever enjoying parties. Whatever else the talk of the leading lady did, it made the participants feel human: they were happy to experience the pleasure of attention and a pleasant tone of voice, the pleasure to express themselves to the interested and communicate in general.

The lady in question was a superb conversationalist. Her very ability to take up what others say in easy comment could not be surpassed. It seemed she merely touched your words and mind and let them go, and the touch was gratifying beyond measure because it was so light and subtle. Another point one could only envy this English lady was her intellectual quickness. She managed to respond to any turn of talk with apt and relevant comment as if she had known the interlocutor for years. Her conversation was so relaxing to the mind buried in intellectual work that the following day seemed to be a Sunday, although it was an ordinary working day.

The impressions as described leave no doubt that the impact of conversation on the mind is great indeed. First, a good conversationalist makes one feel relaxed and turns conversation into recreation. But it is not slovenly relaxation. It is mixed with interest and keeps the mind alert. That is why it can make a whole audience feel human. In company with such a person, the mind is at peace with itself and thus it can enjoy the company so much. Another rare ability of the conversationalist is brought to the fore. It is the ability to make a stranger feel at home and sharing in the subjects discussed.

But what is most important is the influence of conversation on the whole nervous system of the participant so that it can alter his view of the world at least temporarily. The mind also receives intelligent satisfaction because it returns again and again to the experience and the wonder the conversation worked. One marvels at what made conversation such an influence indeed. Although one may not remember all the concrete words said for the lightness of the comment in which they had occurred, the subtlety and mystery of such a conversation lingers in one’s mind for years.

People who socialise regularly may not feel the impact of social conversation as acutely, but they will never deny the pleasure received. Regular social events create conditions for friendly atmosphere, and the company participates in conversation with liveliness and ease. The impact of conversation nevertheless is great even on the mind which had acquired the readiness of reaction and the subtlety of appreciation. If, in Francis Bacon’s terms, “conference (maketh) a ready man”, conversation makes a subtly sensitive and responsive man. Provided that socialising does not turn into routine, the ideas expressed in conversation may arrest the mind for some time the way light fiction does. The person may relive his experience in the company as his mind wonders at the different nuances of meaning.

People who do not socialise regularly may find social conversation a certain strain, especially if their company is not of the greatest intellectual quickness or is taciturn. In fiction as in reality, one can hear opinions that smiling and pleasantries that are required at social events may tire the participant. This happens with socially inexperienced people who are themselves on the side of the dull. Although, as has been mentioned, participation in social conversation is not entirely a restful activity, the pleasure may be denied only by those who are adverse to gregariousness and jovial participation.

The open, delicate and sympathetic mind is eager to participate in social conversation and experiences its gratifying impact in various forms. It finds enjoyment in taking and giving in conversation and excels in recreation that conversation offers. Since intellectual relaxation is never merely laziness, the slight challenge to the mind required in social conversation is pleasing to a lively nature. The impact that social conversation gives is gratifying to the alert mind because it is a new form of involvement compared with reading, routine communication or intellectual work. This new form of involvement is refreshing because the subtlest overtones of meaning in speech allow one to learn much about the participants. This is an intelligent process in itself. Since conversation in the phatic use of English is carried in the transferred sense as it were, the process of discoveries about the human nature and character is similar to that in light fiction. In social conversation, the mind is involved in the subtle process of reasoning and by its reaction can enhance the pleasure that conversation renders. The gratifying impact of social conversation on the mind is commensurate with the alertness of the mind itself and with its inclination to receive and generate pleasure gregariously.

The phatic use of English in conversation is more than gratification. It challenges and trains intellect, one’s verbal skills, and perfects the functioning and development of the language. I have already mentioned that English small talk is not a thoughtless exchange of words. It challenges a speaker, a foreigner in the first instance, intellectually and verbally for obvious reasons: one has to be prompt with his responses, use colloquial idioms and be pleasant. But there are a few verbal features in the phatic use of English, which make this kind of talk especially challenging and intellectually training. It is the transferred sense of the words and the use of socioculturally marked units of meaning, such as titles and forms of address, formulae and response tokens. The transferred sense of speech in the phatic use of English makes it difficult to trace irony with certainty in the words of native speakers. English social conversation may leave a foreigner curious for quite a time (cf.: Drazdauskiene, 2012). But native speakers, too, find irony in the phatic use of English or in phatic communion a hard nut to crack. There is no denying that English social conversation is a pleasure, an art and a challenge.

47 Verbal features of contemporary social conversation in Britain to be reviewed in the present chapter have been discovered in a study of the phatic use of English. The study has been based on research into realistic English conversation, but mostly into conversation from realistic English fiction. Fictitious conversation from the novels by Margaret Drabble, Stan Barstow, Richard Gordon, E.F.Benson, William Somerset Maugham, Sir Compton Mackenzie and other authors has been studied. Realistic English conversation has been observed in the communication of middle and higher classes of British society. For reviews of the study of concrete features of the language of conversation, which are missing in the present paper, the reader is asked to refer to respective dissertations (Drazdauskiene, 1970; 1990)

48 I have left out the strongest type of overstatement which is or verges on the hyperbole because of its figurative character. For example:’It’s her funeral, isn’t it?’ ‘You have been an eternity ‘ ‘It would be like talking to a corpse.’ ‘No thank you, really, I’d rather have some white wine, I hate Scotch.’ Because of the superlative degree of the overstatement and its figurative character, this kind of overstatement or hyperbole does not actually occur in polite social conversation, in which, to be polite, the tone should be milder.

49 There are authors who find that overstatement in conversation represents upper class usage (‘Strix’, 1959, 84).

50 The conversation in question concerned the career of a woman. The question had been if she can wait:

‘I think I can.’ (was the answer)

‘Do you think or can you?’ (was a plain challenge demanding a point blank answer)

‘I can.’ (was the final response)

51 Cf.: the plain referential meaning of afraid in the following quotation from the same novel: “But he felt afraid of him and ashamed of being afraid” (p.41). In the referential meaning, the adjective afraid takes complements whereas in tentative statements it forms clauses.

52 Modality is the speaker’s assessment of probability and predictability. It is external to the content, being a part of the attitude taken up by the speaker… It is thus… within the interpersonal component; but … it is oriented towards the ideational…” (She can be disagreeable.). “Modulation, on the other hand, is part of the ideational content of the clause;

it is a characterization of the relation of the participant to the process…” (He can swim.) (Halliday, 1976, 211)

53 Cf. a comment from fiction: see footnote 55 on p. 158 below.

54 I owe this example to the Oxford Word and Language Service - OWLS, who kindly answered my queries in 1992.

55 Cf.: “The Commander had talked at length to Norman about Amerigo, in a crackling British accent, using the words actually, tremendous, and fantastic in much the same way Lester Atlas employed obscenities.” (H.Wouk. Don’t Stop the Carnival. – Fontana Books, 1972, 399).

56 Recurrent topics of polite English social conversation include health, weather, friends and acquaintances, hobbies and interests, sports, books, films and theatre, holidays, trips and social events, objects within reach and others. Taboo topics are money, social status, education, religion and politics (see: Drazdauskiene, 1990b, 124-125). Some sources indicate that this inventory and division of topics in polite social conversation is also found in France.

57 It has been several years already that the bold and over energetic manner of social conversation has been found typical of the socialisation of the new rich. Cf.: “An American millionaire likes to talk about how low he started, how little he learnt at school, and how so-and-so many millions he owns at present. The French millionaire will say nothing of his millions, yet will gladly talk of literature, painting and sports. A talk about money and income is still being treated as inappropriate in France. A too swift career and acquisition of wealth are not approved; even a new derogatory word has come into being for cases like this – nouveau riche, which means a rude and vulgar mogul. It was not wealth itself that used to be the ideal; it was rather the opportunity to enjoy life, which wealth permits.” (Smirnov, 1988, 139) (the English translation by MLD).