This post was contributed by Professor Jean-Marc Dewaele, from Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication.
This post contains strong language.
As an applied linguist and a multilingual I have always been interested in the communication of emotion in a person’s multiple languages. It seems that telling jokes in a foreign language, declaring love or promising something in a foreign language does not quite have the same resonance as it typically has in a native language (see also my taster lecture – contains strong language!).
One particularly interesting area is how multilinguals swear. Indeed, swearwords in a foreign language don’t sound quite as bad as the ones in the native language, and students spending some time abroad are eager to pick up some of these words that their teachers did not want to teach them. However, these enthusiasts abroad quickly realize that the people around them do not necessarily approve of the liberal use of swearwords. What sounds like “funny” words to the foreign-language user can in fact be deeply upsetting words to the native language-users.
I remember how Livia, my trilingual daughter (English, Dutch, French as first languages), aged 7, playing with a Belgian bilingual boy (Dutch, French as first languages), who, when he heard she also had English as a first language, exclaimed that he knew English too, after which he uttered Fuck you!, which made my daughter jump and switch to English: But you can’t say this! The boy looked surprised at her emotional reaction. He had clearly no idea that this funny expression would upset his friend.
What matters when swearing is to know how to do it “appropriately”, in other words, know the context in which certain swearwords and expressions may be tolerated or appreciated. For foreign language-users it may take years, and even then they typically avoid them because the reactions they elicit may differ from native users using the same words in the same situation. I think that it is because swearing is an indication of “in-group” membership. However, if you have a foreign accent you clearly don’t belong to the “in-group”, and you’re expected not to use these words, and not make fun of the head of state or queen/king.
In 2010, I published a paper: ‘Christ fucking shit merde!’ Language preferences for swearing among maximally proficient multilinguals. Sociolinguistic Studies, 4 (3), 595-614. (doi : 10.1558/sols.v4i3.595). I investigated language preferences for swearing among multilinguals using an on-line questionnaire. They consisted of 386 adult multilinguals who had declared that they were maximally proficient in their first and second languages and used both languages constantly.
I discovered that despite similar levels of self-perceived proficiency and frequency of use in the first language and second language, the first language was used significantly more for swearing and first language swearwords were perceived to have a stronger emotional resonance. An analysis of additional interview data confirmed the findings of the quantitative analysis, also highlighting cultural issues in swearing.
The working title of the paper was Language preferences for swearing among maximally proficient multilinguals until I heard an Anglo-Canadian author, Nancy Huston, who has lived in Paris for many years, being interviewed on France Inter about her swearing behaviour. She explained that when she needs to express a strong emotion, like sudden anxiety, or when dropping a hammer on her foot, she swears in English. The journalist then asked her Vous dites quoi? ‘What do you say’? Nancy answers: Je dis Christ fucking shit merde! ‘I say Christ fucking shit merde!’ (“merde” meaning ‘shit’, is a high-frequency French swearword). She’s surprised at the presence of the French swearword and adds: Ah je peux ajouter merde! ‘Ah, I can add merde!’.
I thought this quote would be the perfect illustration of my paper, namely that while multilinguals generally prefer swearing in their first language, some second language swearwords may creep into their core emotional vocabulary as a result of years of affective socialization in the culture of the second language.
I had to argue with the guest editor and the general editor Sociolinguistic Studies to keep the swearwords uncensored in the title. I explained that it would make no sense to censor them, as the code-switching would become invisible, and that it was exactly the phenomenon I was interested in. They agreed in the end.
A few days ago, to my amused surprise, I won the award for “for most obscene title of a peer-reviewed scientific article”. Merde alors!