Limitations of the Leech and Grice Principles in Achebe’s Arrow of God

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The cooperative principles describe how best effective communication is to be achieved between participants. It is believed to play a regulative role in communication. Politeness principles emphasize a consideration of the relationship between self and other in communication.  However, this study shows that the cooperative principle and the politeness maxims cannot be applied in a universal sense to all languages and this is as a result of cultural differences. This study therefore is an investigation of the limitations of the cooperative and politeness maxims in Igbo culture using Achebe’s Arrow of God as a case study.  To achieve this, instances were selected from the novel and an identification of the types of maxims violated such as the maxims of quality, quantity, manner and relation was also noted. The method adopted in this study is a descriptive qualitative analysis. The data consists of instances of violations of the Leech and Grice maxims randomly selected from the novel. The study shows that in Igbo culture, these maxims are not sufficient to account for politeness and cooperative conversation and cannot be sufficiently used in a universal sense as they propose since the Igbo culture is a high context culture and rely not only on words but on other paralinguistic features for meaning realization.


Key words: Maxims, implicature, flout, infringement, violation, cooperative, politeness.




An underlying assumption in most conversational exchanges seems to be that the participants involved are cooperating with each other. The cooperative principles also called the Gricean maxims was developed by Herbert Paul Grice a British philosopher of language in his work on “logic and conversation” (1975). He also came up with the idea of implicature (speaker meaning). Grice argues that when a maxim is flouted, it is done for the purpose of an implicit meaning (implicature). Implicature is an implicit meaning shared by both participants in a conversation. Thomas (1995, p. 58) said of implicature “…to imply is to hint, suggest or convey some meaning indirectly by means of language.”

Bloor & Bloor (2007, p. 23) defined implicature as “reading between the lines or dropping a heavy hint”

The cooperative principles describe how effective communication in conversation is achieved in common social contexts. To achieve this, he divided the cooperative principle into four maxims:

Maxims of quantity: Information

Maxim of quality:            Truth

Maxim of relation: Relevance

Maxim of manner : Clarity (be perspicuous)

These principles are simply intended as a description of how people normally behave in conversation.

Jeffries and McIntyre described Grice’s maxims as “encapsulating the assumptions that we prototypically hold when we engage in conversation”

(Cooperative principles, Wikipedia)

However, Bloor & Bloor (2007, p. 24) said of the Gricean maxims “…but people do not actually always observe these guidelines in practice; people lie, waffle, digress and so on”

Thus, Grice’s maxims can be violated through flout, opting out, infringement or suspending a maxim.

Infringement occurs when a speaker fails to observe a maxim and has no intention of generating an implicature and no intention of deceiving. A speaker opts out of observing a maxim by indicating unwillingness to cooperate in the way the maxim requires.

The politeness principles of Geoffrey Leech in his book Principles of pragmatics (1983) are in conversant with Paul Grice’s cooperative principles. Leech also came up with six maxims of politeness. They are:

The tact maxim

The generosity maxim

The approbation maxim

The modesty maxim

The agreement maxim

The sympathy maxim.

These maxims show a relation a relationship between self and other in communication. Leech advocates that for a conversation to be polite the speaker has to take into cognizance the feeling of the hearer and therefore use words in such a way as to encourage polite conversation among interlocutors.

However, both the cooperative and politeness principles have come under criticism because of the question of the universality of these maxims. According to some critics “Grice’s” framework cannot directly explain why people are often indirect in conveying what they mean.

Also Keenan opines that “achieving politeness through conversation principles is not observed in all cultures”. This work therefore would examine the Igbo culture and the short comings of Grice and Leech’s politeness and cooperative principles and why they cannot be used in a universal sense because of cultural and language differences. Hence an analysis of Achebe’s Arrow of God is done using the Leech and Grice’s Politeness and Cooperative Principles as the theoretical framework. The aim of this study is to show instances of violations of the politeness and cooperative principles and why it cannot be universally applied.


The cooperative principles introduced by Grice in 1975 suggest an order which should be followed by participants in a speech event or conversation.

According to Nordquist (2016) “the cooperative principle is the assumption that participants in a conversation normally attempt to be informative, truthful, relevant and clear”. Grice believes that conversations should not be done randomly and anyhow. He believes that participants should be conscious of the manner in which to follow a conversation in order for it to be successful.

He states:

Make your contribution such as it is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged.

(Grice, 1989, p.26)

To this end, Grice came up with the four cooperative maxims:

Maxim of quantity: information

Make your contribution as is required for the current purpose of the exchange.

Do not make your contribution more informative than required

Maxim of quality: truth

Do not say what you believe to be false

Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence

Maxim of relation: relevance

Be relevant

Maxim of manner: clarity (be perspicuous)

Avoid obscurity of expression

Avoid ambiguity

Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity)

Be orderly

(Adapted from Grice, 1975, p.41)


Grice believes that any flouting of the maxim is done so intentionally as to lead to conversational implicature. Conversational implicatures are made possible according to Grice, by the fact that the participants in a conversation always assume each other to behave according to the maxims. Hence, when a speaker says what is false or uninformative or irrelevant or ambiguous, he does so in a way that is obvious to both speaker and hearer to get their implication across.




The politeness principles formulated by Geoffrey Leech in his book Principles of Pragmatics (1983) is in synchrony with Grice’s cooperative principles. Its major concern is the relationship and agreement between self and other in conversation. Leech as a politeness advocate believes that for a conversation to be polite the speaker must consider the feelings of the other (hearer) and use words in such a way that the hearer’s needs and feeling are not hurt.

To this end, Leech came up with the six politeness maxims which are:

The tact maxim:

This states: “minimize the expression of beliefs which imply cost to other, maximize the expression of beliefs which imply benefit to other.

The generosity maxim:

This states: “minimize the expression of beliefs that express or imply benefit to self, maximize the expression of beliefs that express or imply benefit to self, maximize the expression of beliefs that express or imply cost to self”

The approbation maxim:

This states: minimize the expression of beliefs which express dispraise of other, maximize the expression of beliefs which express approval of other”

The modesty maxim:

This states: “minimize the expression of praise of self, maximize the expression of dispraise of self”

The agreement Maxim:

This state: “minimize the expression of disagreement between self and other; maximize the expression of agreement between self and other”

The sympathy maxim:

This state: “minimize antipathy between self and other; maximize sympathy between self and other; this includes a small group of speech acts such as congratulation, commiseration and expressing condolence.

Politeness is a principle and process that has grown in the history of humanity. As a socialization process, competent adult members in every society learn how to behave politely linguistically and otherwise. Hence, politeness has not been born as an instinctive mankind property but it’s a phenomenon which has been constructed through socio cultural and historical process.

(American journal of linguistics, 2013)


Other politeness theorists are Lackoff and Brown and Levinson whose principles are somewhat in line with Leech’s politeness principles. Such as Brown and Levinsons:

Negative politeness strategy

Positive politeness strategy

face-saving view etc

Lackoff’s rules of politeness:


Be clear and be polite

Sub rules:

Don’t impose

Give options

Make a feel good- be friendly etc




The politeness principle of Geoffrey Leech and the cooperative principles of Grice are not without its short comings. This is as a result of their claim that this maxim can be used universally in communication.

According to Grice, the cooperative principle is a norm governing all cooperative interactions among humans. However, this is not so because interactions among humans take unique forms. For instance “a dialogue”. “A dialogue is an argument or a conversation between two or more persons. There is not a strict code governing it. The human language cannot be separated from the culture in which it is used. Hence as different cultures have different ways of communicating different thoughts and emotions and sharing respect; Grice and Leech’s principle cannot be applied in a universal sense.

Also Grice’s theory is often disputed in the argument that cooperative conversations, as with most social behaviour is culturally determined and therefore Gricean maxims cannot be universal due to intercultural differences.

Another criticism is that Gricean maxims can easily be misinterpreted to be guideline for etiquette- instructing speakers on how to be moral polite conversationalist.

Most politeness theorists argue and maintain that politeness cannot be identified out of context. Hence, the interpretation of polite and impolite behavior is different from culture to culture. It depends on social and contextual variables.

Hence this work is an investigation of the short comings of the universal usage of the politeness and cooperative principles using the Igbo culture and context as a case study.



The Igbo culture is a high context culture and is very homogenous. This means that participants in a speech event in Igbo culture are aware of their environment and as such do not rely only on verbal communication alone but on other paralinguistic features like eye contact, stress, intonation and implicature for their primary information.

For instance, the role of “proverbs” in Igbo culture and communication. According to Achebe “Proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten”. The use of proverbs in Igbo communication violates most of the Gricean maxims because most proverbs are in themselves ambiguous and there is nothing polite about using proverbs on a person who is anxious for answers. These limitations result in violations of these maxims.



The maxim of quantity:

Nwaka (speaker): …” The white man is Ezeulu’s friend and has sent for him. What is so strange about that? He did not send for me. He did not send for Udeozo; he did not send for the priest of Idemili; he did not send for the priest of Eni; he did not send for the priest of Udo nor did he ask the priest of Ogwugwu to come and see him. He has asked Ezeulu, why? Because they are friends. Or does Ezeulu think that their friendship should stop short of entering each other’s houses? Does he want the white man to be his friend only by word of mouth? Did not our elders tell us that as soon as we shake hands with a leper he will want an embrace? It seems to me that Ezeulu has shaken hands with a man of white body.”

(Achebe, 1974, p. 143)


Clearly from the instance above one can say that the speaker has flouted the maxim of quantity, which states that your contribution should not be more informative than is required. This flout leads to an implicature which is shared meaning between the participants. One would wonder why all the comparisons and mentioning of those who were not invited and what comparing a leper to a white man has to do with the important question which the chief priest Ezeulu has asked and the speaker is not a stranger, he knows very well that the chief priest does not leave his town except on rare occasions. The Igbo community being homogenous, one can easily understand that this thread of response to a serious issue is given out of malice, hence not a violation in Igbo culture but a violation of Grice’s maxim.

The Maxim of Quality:

Nwaka (speaker) in response to Ezeulu’s advice not to go to war: “my father did not tell me that before Umuaro went to war it took leave from the priest of Ulu. The man who carries a deity is not a king. He is there to perform his god’s ritual and to carry sacrifice to him. But I have been watching this Ezeulu for many years. He is a man of ambition; he wants to be king, priest, diviner, all. His father, they said, was like that too. But Umuaro showed him that Igbo people knew no kings.”

(Achebe, 1974, p. 27)

The conversation clearly violates the maxim of quality which states that you must be truthful and you should not say anything you cannot prove to be true. Here, the writer puts the clause “they said” in parenthesis to prove that it cannot be backed up by any evidence since it points to nobody in particular. The speaker Nwaka uses the “they said” tactics to lie about the intentions of Ezeulu the chief priest in order to convince the people to go to war.


The Maxim of Relation: this states “be relevant, that is your contribution should be relevant to what is being said. The maxim is however flouted in Igbo culture through providing irrelevant information.

For instance:

Speaker    A        (Akueke)…Is your wife, Ezinma, well?

Speaker B (Onwuzuligbo) She is well today. Tomorrow is what we do not                              know.

Speaker A:       And her children?

Speaker B:       We have no trouble except hunger.


The maxim of relation is violated but it’s a conversational style in Igbo culture.

The Maxim of Manner: This states “be clear”, avoid obscurity of expression, avoid ambiguity, be brief and orderly. This maxim is always flouted in Igbo culture and context through the use of proverbs and ambiguous expression.

This is as a result of the Igbo preference in the use of indirect language and implicit meaning in communications.

For Instance:

Speaker A (Ozumba): Ezeulu, it is me Ozumba

Speaker B (Ezeulu): Ozumba

Speaker A (Ozumba): Eh

Speaker B (Ezeulu): what brings you out at this time?

Speaker A (Ozumba): An abomination has overtaken us. Goat has eaten palm leaves from off my head.

(Achebe,  p. 227)

From the above conversation, we understand that Speaker A is not clear or even brief not to mention the fact that most proverbs are ambiguous. A stranger listening to the above conversation might actually think that the abomination Speaker A refers to is a goat eating leaves from off his head. However this trend of conversation in Igbo culture is deemed important because of the use of proverbs which is essential in communication. Speaker B hearing that proverb will understand immediately that something which shouldn’t happen has happened.


Leech’s politeness maxims cannot be analyzed out of context. One cannot say if an expression is polite or not out of context because what is polite in a particular context might be rude in another, in Igbo culture and context, words alone do not account for politeness. The tone of an utterance is very important. In Igbo culture participants in a speech event, talk not just with words but with facial expressions, eyes, nose, teeth, tongue and mouth including hand gestures. These paralinguistic features play a crucial role in deciding what is polite and what is not.

Paralinguistics is the study of vocal (and sometimes non vocal) signals beyond the basic verbal message or speech. According to Shirley Weitz “paralinguistic sets great store on how something is said, not on what is said”

(Non verbal communication, 1974)

For instance; A person apologizing to you and at the same time shrugging his or her shoulders is not being polite neither is the apology a sincere one.


THE APPROBATION MAXIM: This states “minimize dispraise of other and maximize praise of other” this simply means to avoid saying anything unpleasant to the other person in a conversation. This maxim is violated in Igbo culture because when a speaker is annoyed, he says what he thinks the way it is.

For instance:

Speaker A (Ofoedu): …All I say is that Unachukwu should answer the questions I have asked, and after that he may go and take with him all his knowledge of the white man’s ways. We have all heard stories of how he came by this knowledge. We have heard that when he left Umuaro he went to cook like a woman in the white man’s kitchen and lick his plates…

(Achebe,  p.83)

This is of course an unpleasant thing to say to a cook. He failed to consider the other participants feelings. The speaker does this in order to embarrass Unachukwu who had hitherto provoked him before his age grade.

THE MODESTY MAXIM: This states: “minimize the expression of praise of self; maximize the praise of other”. This simply means to avoid indulging in self praise instead praise the other. This maxim is of course violated in Igbo culture. A culture that values pride and titles. The Igbo culture especially the men hail themselves a lot and take pride in indulging in self exultation.

For instance:

In Arrow of God we see Ezeulu, the chief priest, indulging in self praise.

(Ezeulu): “Take away that word dare,… yes I say take it away. No man in all Umuaro can stand up and say that I dare not. The woman who will bear the man who will say it has not been born yet”

This praise of oneself violates the maxim of modesty.

THE TACT MAXIM: This state: “minimize the expression of beliefs which imply cost to other; maximize the expression of beliefs which imply benefit to another”. This simply means to say what is of benefit to the other not cost. This maxim however is always violated whenever there is a disagreement between participants in a speech event. A good example is the messenger’s response to Obika, Ezeulu’s son. His response implies cost to Obika by indirectly referring to him as a boy and not a man whose words are words of drunkeness.

For instance:

(Ezeulu): “… I shall now answer you, I am that Ezeulu you spoke of. Are you satisfied?

(Messenger): “Thank you. We are all men here but when we open our mouths we know the men from the boys. We have spoken many words already; some were words of profit, some were not; …


Sometimes in Igbo tradition people disagree for the sake of the conversation. The exchanges are never really polite. It takes place in all manner of places. People even disagree with a preacher preaching in the bus, a newspaper vendor, watching football matches, deciding who the best player is etc.

Also, we see paralinguistic meaning at play in Achebe’s Arrow of God.

For Instance:

(Akueke): what do you think was Matefi’s annoyance this morning?

(Ugoye): I should ask you; is she not your father’s wife?

(Akueke) : her face was as big as mortar. Did she ask if you were ready to go?

(Ugoye): She did; but it went no deeper than the lips.

From the conversation above, the expression, “it went no deeper than the lips” is a direct transliteration of surface greeting in Igbo culture; when a polite act is not done out of sincerity or from one’s heart. This type of meaning says more than verbal words. Paralinguistic expressions communicate more in Igbo culture and to a large extent determine when a conversation is polite and when it’s not.



This work is an analysis of the violations of the cooperative and politeness principles which gives an account of how participants should behave and govern themselves in a conversation. However these principles cannot be applied in a universal sense as a result of cultural differences and the Igbo culture is not an exception. This work has studied these maxims alongside the Igbo culture using Achebe’s Arrow of God as a case study and has found out that most of the maxims of quantity, quality, relevance and manner were violated because the Igbo culture is a high context culture and has its unique way of communication such as the use of proverbs and other facial expressions, gestures and implicit meaning. Igbo community is a homogenous community; hence they rely not just on words but also on paralinguistic features for meaning realization in their conversations.



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Bloor, M & Bloor, T. (2007). The practice of critical discourse analysis. An introduction. London: Saffron house.

Brown, P. & Levinson, S. (1987). Politeness: Some universals in language use. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Grice, H.P. (1975). Logic and conversation. In Peter, C. and Jerry, M. (eds.) Syntax and Semantics Vol.3: Speech acts. New York: Academic Press. (pp. 41-102)

Hall, E.T. (1976). Beyond culture. New York: Anchor Press.

Hall, E.T. & Hall, M.R (1990). Understanding Cultural differences: German, French and Americans. Yarmouth, ME: International Press.

Leech, G. (1983). Principles of pragmatics. London: Longman.

Levinson, S.C. (1983). Pragmatics. Cambridge. CUP.

Odebunmi, A. (2016). Pragmatics. In Kamalu, I. & Tamunobelema, I. (eds), Issues in the study of language and literature: theory and practice. Ibadan: Kraft books limited. (pp. 196-121)

Okoh. N. (2010). Dissertation skills: A guide to research and writing (2nd Ed.) Port Harcourt: Lamison Publisher.

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