Verbal dynamite: how swearing differs between first and foreign language users

Professor Jean-Marc Dewaele from the Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication recalls his experience of learning the strength of swear words after moving to the UK, and his research on how the use and perceived offensiveness of words differs between first and foreign users of English. 

When I arrived in the French department at Birkbeck in October 1994, after having finished my PhD on French interlanguage at the Free University of Brussels, I was well aware of a number of aspects of the English language that I was still struggling with: prepositions, the pronunciation of certain words, some verbal constructions… I was unaware of gaps in my knowledge of taboo words, appropriate communication of emotion, the distance between British speakers (one arm length, rather than half an arm’s length like on the continent) and general avoidance of physical contact with interlocutors. I picked up most of these things gradually, through the observation of my colleagues and students.  My neighbour, a librarian at Senate House, was kind enough to proofread my papers until I became more sure-footed in academic English. I realised that I would never get rid of my French-Dutch accent in English and decided that I could live with that – even if it involves answering the regular and rather tedious question ‘where are you from?’ to which I invariably answer ‘London’ and then add ‘from Belgium originally’.  My English vocabulary grew, with the exception of words that were bleeped out on radio and television or censured in the newspapers.  I had no idea what was meant with b****, b******, c***, d***, though I guessed that f*** meant ‘fuck’.

My colleagues, students and friends were too well educated to use such words in conversation, the words were unprintable and they did not figure in the English word lists at my secondary school in Bruges.  How then, I wondered, was I, a foreign language user, supposed to learn these vibrant dark words? I asked a colleague in the Applied Linguistics department, Dr Macolm Edwards, what he considered to be the worst English taboo word.  He looked at me quizzically and remained silent. I encouraged him, telling him that we were applied linguists after all and that we could deal with the dark linguistic stuff.  He straightened his back, looked at me and said: ‘I couldn’t possibly tell you but I can spell it out: c – u – n- t’.  ‘Cunt?!’ I repeated.  He jumped back as stung by a wasp. ‘Wow,’ I thought, ‘mighty word indeed’.

I told him that French and Dutch have cognates ‘con’ and ‘kont’ that are not nearly as powerful and wondered why some words that share the same origin become taboo whereas others don’t quite manage to join that league.  This conversation happened in the mid-2000s when I was busy working on how multilinguals used their different languages to express particular emotions. One of the striking findings was that languages learnt later in life typically felt disembodied and that emotion words in these languages lacked the emotional force of equivalent words in multilinguals’ first language(s).

I decided then to focus on specific negative emotion-laden words in one language, English, and to invite first (L1) and foreign language (LX) users to rate their offensiveness and frequency of use. The aim was to have a wide range in offensiveness, from relatively mild words such as ‘fruitcake’ and ‘idiot’ to really taboo words and expressions such as ‘fucking hell’ and ‘cunt’. There are also questions about general frequency of swearing in English with various categories of interlocutor.  More than two thousand English L1 and LX users participated in the study. English LX users reported swearing significantly less in English than L1 users, possibly because of a lack of emotional resonance of the LX or because they had other languages to swear in. High levels of Psychoticism, Extraversion and Neuroticism were linked with more swearing in English among both L1 and LX users. The level of English proficiency, the frequency of use, early onset and context of the acquisition were linked to swearing among LX users.

The analysis of differences between L1 and LX users for the 30 words and expressions yielded some unexpected findings. As expected, L1 users reported more frequent use of the highly offensive words.  However, rather than underestimating offensiveness, LX users significantly overestimated the offensiveness of 29 out of the 30 words.  The only word they underestimated was ‘cunt’ – the most offensive word in the list. I have argued that the word is so offensive that it is invisible in the press and used quite rarely by L1 users which means that LX users have few opportunities to acquire a complete semantic and conceptual representation of the word. They may therefore wrongly believe that ‘cunt’ is just another swear word, not perceiving the second red flag known to all L1 users. Use of the word was found to be linked to personality with participants scoring high on Extraversion, Neuroticism and Psychoticism reporting more frequent use of the word.

To conclude, the dark side of English is a bit like the dark side of the moon to those who are not astronauts: full of fascinating, mysterious and potentially dangerous features.

Dewaele’s most recent research into swearing – “Cunt: On the perception and handling of verbal dynamite by L1 and LX users of English” is published by Multilingua. 

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Discover Our Research: Meet the academics

As part of Birkbeck’s Discover our research activity, Dr Heike Bauer of the Department of English and Humanities writes about her current research activity.

Dr Heike Bauer

Dr Heike Bauer

What is your current topic of research?

I’m working on an AHRC-funded book, The Hirschfeld Archives: Violence, Death, and Modern Queer Culture. It examines how attack and persecution shaped the development of a collective sense of same-sex identity in the first half of the twentieth-century

Why did you choose this topic?

The book addresses a gap in the scholarship: the realization that, while we know of many lives which have ended tragically as a result of legal persecution, violent attack or the inability to cope with heteronormative social and emotional pressures, we know surprisingly little about the traumatic impact of these deaths on the shaping of modern queer culture.

I have come to this realization via a chance encounter in the archive. In my previous book, English Literary Sexology, I explored the emergence a modern vocabulary of sex – words such as homosexuality and heterosexuality – and how the new ideas were transmitted from German science into English literary culture.

It was during the completion of this project that I first came across the work of Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935), a hugely influential Jewish doctor and reformer. He is best known today for his homosexual rights activism, foundational studies of transvestism and opening of the world’s first Institute of Sexual Sciences in Berlin in 1919. I found, however, that Hirschfeld was also a chronicler of hate and violence against people who were figured to be, in his words, ‘different from the others’ because of their gender or sexual desire.

He wrote, for instance, about the trial and death of Oscar Wilde, and how it affected the men who identified with Wilde; and he collected the first statistical figures on female and male homosexual suicide, arguing that persecution and social denial played a significant role in why (some of these) people felt their lives were unliveable. The realisation that these writings have yet to be explored was the starting point for The Hirschfeld Archives.

What excites you about this topic?

This is the first study to examine narratives about queer death, suicide and injury for the insights they provide into how such suffering was understood at the time. There is a thrill – as well as a sense of responsibility – in working with texts and images that have been overlooked or forgotten.

What is challenging about the research?

Arguing that negative experiences, as much as affirmative politics and subculture formation, shaped modern queer culture, the book addresses a critical paradox: that despite political gains and related social transformations, queer lives all too often remain precarious, subject to attack and rejection, because they do not fit real and imagined norms about what it means to live in a certain time and place, and in a body whose gender and desires challenge powerful but often difficult-to-bring-into-view social norms. The challenge in presenting this research is to make sure that it cannot be misconstrued: just because there is violence in queer history does not mean that queerness equates misery. You might be surprised about how important it is even today to be clear about this point.

What is your favourite thing about your work?

The history of sexuality is today a thriving academic field. I come to it from a feminist perspective and a background in literary and culture studies. I enjoy being able to test and develop my ideas in dialogue with colleagues from other disciplines. My most recent book, for example, a collection of essays entitled Sexology and Translation: Cultural and Scientific Encounters Across the Modern World, brings together literary scholars, historians, translation scholars and experts in gender studies who work on sexual cultures in Europe, Peru, Asia, and the Middle East. It is a real privilege to be part of such collaborations. I similarly enjoy working with my PhD students, and supporting the development of projects that can make a real intervention in existing scholarship.

What are the potential impacts of your research on everyday life?

The humanities are vital to making sense of the world, laying bare the often hidden norms that govern society, and critically and creatively expanding not only what (we think) we know, but also how we know it, and to what the effect. In terms of my own project, there are obvious benefits to developing a better understanding of LGBTIQ history. As part of the AHRC Fellowship, for instance, I discussed my research with health professionals in a workshop on violence in queer and trans lives. But as the research comes to a close, I think it’s fitting to turn around the question and also consider the impact of everyday life on my research. Discussing work-in-progress with non-academic audiences has been a vital part of the development of this project, challenging me to be clearer about the claims I made, and reminding me that the sorrows and joys of queer history are very much alive today.

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