In which language would you swear?



Swearing is part of everyday language, whether we like it or not. As linguistics freaks, then, we cannot ignore this fact.

So we started to think about how multilingual people deal with swearing. What the processes in choosing one language instead of another one are. And this is how we stumbled into this blog, which really makes some good points and observations about bilingual and multilingualism profanities.

There is one article, in particular, that really caught our eyes: this one. It takes inspiration from Professor Jean-Marc Dawaele‘s paper: ‘“Christ fucking shit merde!” Language Preferences for Swearing Among Maximally Proficient Multilinguals‘. It is based on a study which investigates language preferences for swearing among two groups of multilinguals. The first group consisted of 386 adult multilinguals who filled in the Bilingualism and Emotion web based questionnaire (BEQ; Author and Pavlenko 2001-2003) and had declared that they were maximally proficient in their L1 and L2 and used both languages constantly. The second group consisted of 20 multilinguals with a similar sociobiographical profile who were interviewed about their language choice for the communication of emotion. A statistical analysis of the quantitative data revealed that despite similar levels of self-perceived proficiency and frequency of use in the L1 and L2, the L1 was used significantly more for swearing and L1 swearwords were perceived to have a stronger emotional resonance. An analysis of the quantitative data from the BEQ and the interview data confirmed the findings of the quantitative analysis while adding rich details about the difficulties in deciding which language to choose for swearing.

A recent study has confirmed what we probably already knew, namely that swearing really has a strong tension release power, and in order to relieve the maximal amount of stress, one has to make sure to use the right expression. And when it comes to bilingual or multilingual people, which language is chosen? Monolingual speakers cannot chose among more than one language, but when it comes to multilingual speakers, here comes the fun. The two languages are mixed, but not without any logic at all: the title of the paper is indeed the answer Canadian writer Nancy Huston gave when asked what she would say if she dropped a hammer on her foot. Mrs Huston used the first words from her first language, then a little pause, and then a word from her second language in which she has been strongly socialised.

When language one and language two are both used everyday, and speakers are maximally proficient in both languages, they know the power and the emotional force of the swearwords used. But when it comes to people who cannot be defined proficient in both languages, something weird may happen: they may not be aware of the emotional resonance that a swearword has in the foreign language, perhaps because the literal translation in someone’s own native language is not that powerful. Or, the other way round, a “translated” curse may not mean anything in the target language, and therefore lack its intended emotional resonance.

Not all languages “curse” the same way: even profanity is cultural: one country’s religious swears won’t map easily onto another’s excretion- or animal-dominated set. There is a nice anecdote about an English-speaking visitor using “Schweinhund” at a German dinner table, assuming it to be mild and never being invited back again. “Schwein” is pig, “Hund” is dog, what’s the harm in saying pigdog? The visitor though, was unwise, as the word had gained notoriety by being used by Hitler, given that Schweinhund sounds like a word whose primary purpose might be to dehumanise people: hence the word proved to be completely inappropriate in a German context, while its literal English translation did not sound that bad.

And what about you, which language do you swear in?

By Silvia Piparo

Freelance Translator

Terminology Trainee at TermCoord

and Sabina Grixoni

Editor and Social Media Specialist

Communication Trainee at TermCoord