The received view has it that the language of petitions aims at elevating the addressee and demeaning the author. Recent studies into historical (im)politeness interpret it as epistolary facework, i.e. “politic” rather than “polite” behaviour (Bax 2010). Drawing on evidence of the genre dynamics present in nineteenth-century petitions, this paper proposes that for a number of petitioners the conventionalised expression of deference could not have been their main motivation. Through close study of the structural models and their distribution in two collections of petitions related to British settlement in the Cape Colony (1819–1825), the study proposes an account for changes in users’ preferences in this respect. The discussion employs Luckmann’s (e.g. 2009) theory of “communicative genres” and “projects”, which allows one to reach beyond the textual evidence to the dimension of verbal interaction. The paper also focuses on the materiality of historical genres (cf. Barton and Hall 2000).
2017. Introduction. Journal of Historical Pragmatics 18:2 ► pp. 159 ff.
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