Damn!: the perception of swearing in different languages

June 14, 2017 1:05 pm

In most languages there are taboo words or expressions which, though considered to be inappropriate in many situations, are omnipresent and used by all groups in a society. Swearing is very fascinating for all who are interested in linguistics and society, and because it is so little understood, it is still a social taboo. Used as simple expressions, or with the function of acting as a relief valve, or even to “clarify” some concepts, swearing is part of everyday language. This phenomenon is often underestimated, yet it constitutes a form of language with dignity and strong meaning which, is actually deeply rooted in linguistic and cultural heritage.

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How old is swearing? Actually, a better question would be; how old is language?! According to some studies, some of the first sounds emitted by our ancestors had the form and the function of our bad words, and they were produced as a reaction to different situations of shock or surprise, danger or pain. According to this theory, the first words derive from shouts which, for animals and for primitive men, had the function of anger, fear, threat, pain and delight. Thus, those sounds would have an emotional origin. We don’t know if this is true or not, however the idea that a bad word – the emotional word par excellence – could have been the first word pronounced by a human being is very striking!

While such a theory has its attractions, we have no proof of it. What is certain though is that many ancient populations used to swear.

There are records of swearing among the Egyptians of antiquity. That the Jews of old were swearers is evident from the number of the prohibitions referring to this practice. Though the swearing of the Greeks was a very light and innocuous kind, they were a swearing people. Like the Greeks, the Romans swore by their gods.

swearingSwearing now includes many forms: we swear by some higher force or person, we swear that something is so, we swear to do something, we swear at something or somebody, and we swear simply out of rage, disappointment, or frustration. But what is actually taboo about it? Is it the use of gods’ names in vain or the use of words considered obscene? It depends on the country and on the language. One of the most interesting elements of this topic concerns the different approaches to swearing and blasphemy in different populations and languages. In general, we can say that in the West we swear more than in the East. Actually, according to a number of authorities, several speech communities, including the American Indians, the Japanese, the Malayans, and most Polynesians do not swear.

Even in the same language there can be many differences, depending on the area where that language is spoken. Regarding English speaking people, we know that in the UK and in the United States swearing is considered very rude. In Ireland, however, swearing is not considered as strong. Of all global varieties of English, Australian English is most noted for the liberal use of swearing and profane language.

As for Italian, my own language, swearing is now somewhat socially tolerated. Some words, which 50 years ago were considered as a prerogative of “male society”, have become common in oral language in all levels, and not only among young people. Even on television and the radio, or in some newspapers, it is not uncommon to find bad words that some years ago were considered unutterable. In Italian there are three types of swearing: first of all, the so-called “bestemmia“, which means blasphemy. It is an offence against God and the Virgin Mary. These are extremely strong and rude expressions which are never said on television or in cinema. In some regions, however, such as Tuscany and Veneto, these expressions are used so often that they are perceived as less offensive, common curse words.

There is also the so-called “parolaccia“, which means bad word. It is used to insult somebody. However, frequent use has reduced the shock factor of these words. Some of them have even lost their original meaning; for example words like “casino” or “bordello” which once meant “brothel” and were very offensive, are now used daily to mean “mess” or “chaos”. And thirdly, we have the so-called “imprecazione“, which means cursing. These are bad words used only to express one’s disapproval, anger, surprise, shock, happiness, or used as an expression without the intention of offending anyone. The most commonly used one refers to the male sex organ.

Even though some of these words could be perceived as vulgar and rude, the criterion of “unutterability” in Italy is influenced more by the context than the word itself.


Written by Claudia Deidda, former Translation and Terminology Trainee in TermCoord (originally published on the 18th November, 2013).

Post edited by Doris Fernandes del Pozo – Journalist, Translator-Interpreter and Communication Trainee at the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament. She is pursuing a PhD as part of the Communication and Contemporary Information Programme of the University of Santiago de Compostela (Spain).

Sources:

  • Beers Fägersten, Kristy; (2007) Swear words and offensiveness. Saarland Working Papers on Linguistics 1. 14-37. Available at: http://bit.ly/2srKsM7 (Accessed 14 June 2017)
  • Hughes, Geoffrey (2006) An Encyclopedia of Swearing: The Social History of Oaths, Profanity, Foul. New York: ME Sharpe. Available at: http://bit.ly/2s04A6B (Accessed 14 June 2017)
  • Montagu, Ashley (1967) The Anatomy of Swearing. Philadelphia: The MacMillan Company Available at: http://bit.ly/2s9P1aQ (Accessed 14 June 2017)
  • Mohr, Melissa (20139 Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing. New York: Oxford University Press. Available at: http://bit.ly/2t1D7QG (Accessed 14 June 2017)
  • Wiecha, Karin (2009) Swearing and Dialect. Grin VERLAG. Available at: http://bit.ly/2rgxDAd (Accessed 14 June 2017)
  • SULL’ORIGINE DEL TURPILOQUIO E DELLA BESTEMMIA. Available at: http://bit.ly/2rv92GX (Accessed 14 June 2017)

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