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PETER TRUDGILL: Where does ‘banter’ come from?

Peter Trudgill says A difference between cultures might explain why misunderstandings can occur in our multi-ethnic English Premier League. Picture: PA - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

PETER TRUDGILL explains the language rules that guide how we banter and who we should do it with.

We have heard quite a lot about banter in recent times on the sports pages of newspapers. A footballer may complain that an opponent has said something insulting to them. The opponent’s defence is that what was said was not intended as an insult – that it was ‘just banter’.

Probably all cultures employ banter, but it seems that some utilise it more than others. Banter is certainly very common in British and Irish society, and some commentators claim that it is more usual amongst men than amongst women. A difference between cultures might explain why misunderstandings can occur in our multi-ethnic English Premier League, even in the absence of any language difficulties as such.

In social interactions involving language, a number of principles are understood by everybody to be in operation, such as the Turn-Taking Principle: only one person is supposed to speak at a time, and everybody has a right to speak. That is in theory, of course – we can all think of ‘conversations’ where things did not quite work out like that. But the principle is real enough – it might be reported of two people A and B that they were having a conversation when suddenly A remained silent. In fact neither of them were saying anything, but it was A who ‘remained silent’ because it was his or her turn.

The late Geoffrey Leech, professor of English linguistics at Lancaster University, pointed out that one of the more interesting of these conversational principles is the ‘Banter Principle’; and he provided some important insights into the nature of this. Banter is essentially mock-impoliteness. You pretend to be rude to somebody as a way of stressing and reinforcing group solidarity. The Banter Principle is based on the following idea: ‘We are good friends so we don’t need to be polite to one another. If I insult you, you will understand that it’s a joke, 
which will prove what good friends we are.’

But the principle can be taken further than that. Because the only people you can be rude to without giving offence are people who you know and like and respect, then by extension you might also be rude to someone you do not know very well in order to show that you like and respect them… On the surface, banter is offensive, but deep down it signals friendship.

This extension generally works well here in the British Isles, where the Banter Principle is for the most part well understood. But there are plenty of reports from other parts of the world, including from some areas of the USA, that one has to be rather careful about employing banter in situations that are not too familiar to you. People do not necessarily ‘get it’, and they may believe that banter is simply straightforward rudeness: they may not detect the ‘mock’ aspect of mock impoliteness, even if the speaker is smiling.

Another of professor Leech’s insights was to point out a further important conversational concept which he called the Irony Principle. Irony is the opposite of banter – if banter is mock impoliteness, then irony is mock politeness. The Irony Principle enables speakers to be impolite while seeming to be polite. If someone tells you that they have broken your favourite vase, you might reply using the polite formula ‘Oh, thank you very much!’, but of course you would really be expressing the reverse sentiment. On the surface, irony is polite, but deep down it is intended to offer negative criticism, or even to offend.

We might say, ironically, to someone who is supposed to be working but isn’t: ‘That’s right, you have a nice well-deserved rest!’. The Banter Principle counterpart of that would be to say to someone who has just told you they have been working flat-out for the last 16 hours: ‘Been taking things a bit easy today then, have you?’