“Christ fucking shit merde!” On the variable power of multilingual swearing

In my mid-teens I spent a few summer weeks in beautiful Brittany on a school exchange. With our French peers my classmates and I eagerly exchanged more than just grammar lessons, swearwords being among the most popular items of cross-cultural education. I tried out all the new swears I learned (and did the same when I learned German), but my awareness of their social nuances remained crude. The internet hadn’t happened yet.

As the years passed and my fluency in these languages declined with disuse, I seldom resorted to their swears – the emotional gratification was limited, and I didn’t feel authentic enough. I had im-fucking-postor syndrome. But I never forgot the feeling of swearing in a foreign tongue, the impish appeal of going native with these exotic and tantalising taboos. The phenomenon is especially interesting because swearing, linguistically speaking, is neurologically unusual.

Which brings us to multilingualism.

Professor Jean-Marc Dewaele is a professor in applied linguistics and multilingualism at Birkbeck University of London. He has a strong interest in how multilingual people express emotion in their different languages, with swearing a striking form of this expression.

A few years ago Dewaele wrote a paper titled ‘“Christ fucking shit merde!” Language preferences for swearing among maximally proficient multilinguals’ (Sociolinguistic Studies, 4(3), 2010), which won a tongue-in-cheek obscenity award from io9. The magnificent phrase in its title is from multilingual writer Nancy Huston, who used it in an interview when asked what she would say if she dropped a hammer on her foot. As Dewaele observes,

She uses first words from her first language, and then a little pause, and a word from her second language in which she has been strongly socialised.

And not only that, but it seems to come as a surprise to Huston herself. After answering the interviewer’s question she remarks, “Le merde a dû faire le voyage!”: The shit must have made the journey! That is, merde has moved across to her core vocabulary.

In a classroom presentation from 2011 (see video below), Dewaele looks at swearing in social contexts – its uses, effects, and variety – with particular focus on swearing among multilinguals. He’s a cheerful and enthusiastic speaker, and the subject matter is constantly engaging. Here’s a sample slide:

Jean-Marc Dewaele - power of swearwords lecture - emotions, multilingualism variables

Dewaele discusses the emotional force of L1 swearwords and the lack of this resonance in swears foreign to the speaker, even when they know intellectually how offensive those are. There’s also their cultural specificity: one country’s religious swears won’t map easily onto another’s excretion- or animal-dominated set. Translating profanity can be complicated, as Gretchen McCulloch showed here recently. And what happens if you stop using your first language as a young adult?

There are all sorts of interesting variables here, and Dewaele’s own research and the studies he describes go some way towards teasing out the details. For instance, he found that older Dutch speakers tend to use godverdomme (‘God damn it’), while younger Dutch speakers favour English swearwords or native ones with sexual connotations.

The talk lasts about 27 minutes, and there’s a short discussion with the class afterwards.

13 thoughts on ““Christ fucking shit merde!” On the variable power of multilingual swearing

  1. Adrian Morgan January 2, 2015 / 3:07 am

    At 14:15, he asks people if they have ever learned a swear word from the teacher of a foreign language class.

    I have, but only in the context where the swear word is pronouced only slightly differently from another word in the language, as a caution to pronounce the latter correctly.

    It’s very odd that at 17:05, “breast” is listed as a taboo word on par with “asshole”.

    At 21:35 he discusses animal-themed swear words in German. I know an anecdote about an English-speaking visitor using “schweinhund” at a German dinner table, assuming it to be mild and never being invited back again. When I heard this I felt the visitor had been unwise, as it’s reasonable to assume the word might have gained notoriety by being used by Hitler in relation to people he wished to dehumanise, in which case it’s hardly surprising that present-day Germans would take a dim view of it.

    But I didn’t know there was a wider context of animal-based swearing in German culture.

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    • Stan Carey January 2, 2015 / 8:33 am

      Adrian: I think it’s generally best to play it safe when it comes to foreign swearwords, unless you’ve done your research well, or don’t mind committing social faux-pas or offending people. So yes, it was perhaps unwise on the visitor’s part to use Schweinhund in polite company. Maybe he had seen it used previously in humorous contexts (e.g., war comics) and underestimated its effect in a different situation.

      I don’t see how breast is a “mild to moderate” taboo word either.

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    • j0egreen January 4, 2015 / 4:39 am

      These were bilingual Turks. Perhaps “breast” is quite taboo in Turkey/Turkish. These things vary a lot across cultures, and body parts with sexual connotation are generally potentially taboo. Think how prudish the U.S. is about vagina for example.

      Meanwhile I don’t think it’s at all reasonable to associate schweinhund with Hitler. It’s certainly not something I was aware of. I might easily have made the same mistake as the visitor, thinking it almsot entirely innocuous.

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      • Stan Carey January 4, 2015 / 8:52 am

        You’re probably right, Joe. The research being discussed (Harris et al., 2003: ‘Taboo words and reprimands elicit greater autonomic reactivity in a first language than in a second language’) is available here (PDF). Its full list of taboo words is: asshole, bitch, breast, oral sex, shit, raped, pee, vagina, whore. (The paper includes the Turkish words and notes that the translations are not all equivalent.)

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      • Adrian Morgan January 5, 2015 / 3:18 am

        I understand that was his reasoning: “Pig-dog. How bad can it be?”. However, given (a) that Schweinhund sounds like a word whose primary purpose might be to dehumanise people, and (b) that Hitler was fond of dehumanising people, it stands to reason that Hitler might have played a role in giving the word its current emotive force. I don’t know if that hypothesis is true, but in my opinion the possibility should occur to someone who makes an effort to think it through. I’m not saying it’s an unforgivable error if it doesn’t, but it is an error.

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      • j0egreen January 5, 2015 / 12:28 pm

        But that’s the point, that the original offender (and I) don’t see it as having that much emotive force. hence the (apparently inappropriate to Germans) use and accidental giving of offence.

        The world is full of dehumanising insults, in many languages. I’m not sure why its being a German word makes it *that* much worse. I wonder whether the same applies to other linguistically-grouped sufferers. Russian? Chinese? Etc.

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  2. ferniglab January 2, 2015 / 6:32 pm

    On discovering that the British member of a French thesis jury was a fluent french speaker, one of my fellow (French) jury members asked “When you hit your finger with a hammer, do you swear in english or french?”. I had never considered the question. The answer was in this instance in French, but that the language of swearing depended on the context.

    If the activity that generated the need to swear was learned in french, then I would tend to swear in french (using a hammer being an example of this).

    The type of swearing needed – swearing in english and in french is not the same, each language provides different emotional release.

    Who is in earshot.

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    • Stan Carey January 3, 2015 / 9:14 am

      ferniglab: Social context does seem to be a major factor both in whether and how we swear. The choices in either case are interesting in their own ways. There can be a performative element to social swearing, since it can be communicative and allow for running jokes, competitive play, etc., in a way that private swearing, which is generally a more automatic variety, tends not to.

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  3. j0egreen January 4, 2015 / 12:53 pm

    Stan’s post has no reply link so I’m having to start a new thread… “pee”? Wow. That was merely “naughty schoolboy slang” in the UK decades ago (e.g. Flanders and Swann’s “Pee Po Belly Bum Drawers”).

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  4. Leslie April 26, 2015 / 11:50 pm

    Late to the game on this, but I have a few stories to tell:

    1. I had a British friend with whom I studied in the Netherlands. She dated a Dutch guy for a few years, and so spent some time with his family. The first time she met his grandparents was at some sort of holiday dinner, where at one point she dropped her fork, and sheepishly said ‘godverdomme’, much to her boyfriend’s embarrassment and his grandparents’ horror! She thought it was something like ‘damnit!’, but, as the boyfriend whispered in her ear, it’s more akin to ‘motherfucker!’, strength wise.

    The boyfriend’s mother was apparently stifling laughter at the situation!

    2. I teach German in high school, and all of the kids know the word ‘Scheisse’ and think it’s funny to try to use it. It’s difficult to explain to them that (a) it’s not as strong as English ‘shit’, but (b) they still shouldn’t use it in school, because everyone knows it and THINKS it’s the same as ‘shit’.

    3. I do tend to use foreign swear words (Dutch and Czech mostly) because I got into the habit of using them living in those countries, and they’re easier to get past the ‘censors’ at work. 🙂 in
    I’ve even been known to use UK swear words when I know people aren’t likely to understand the full extent of their connotation. That’s getting harder and harder to do now, though, in the age of BBC America.

    I found it interesting a few years ago when the show ‘Lie to Me’ was on. Tim Roth got away with saying some quite racy things…

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    • Stan Carey April 27, 2015 / 8:06 am

      Leslie: I love the anecdote about godverdomme. The perils of direct translation! Some foreign swears have retained their appeal for me since I learned them in my teens, and Scheisse is one I still occasionally resort to. Its similarity to shite (which I say rather a lot) is probably one reason. That’s an interesting note on transatlantic effect – I’ll listen out for it if I ever watch ‘Lie to Me’.

      Like

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