Swearing In Another Language

By Tomia, original image  via Wikimedia Commons

By Tomia, original image via Wikimedia Commons

We’ve all done it (well at least most of us). Something happens that is out of our control and we let loose with a profanity. Or two. And maybe we throw in an Italian swear word that we heard from a movie, or a Cambodian expletive we learned on vacation. We decide to use them instead of one from our native tongue so it doesn’t seem so offensive. Interestingly, why do we feel cursing in another language to be less vulgar than in our own?

First we have to ask, if they are only words, why is profanity considered ‘bad’ to begin with? By common definition, profanity is a group of words, phrases and gestures that are considered vulgar or obscene. Sometimes these words may be insulting, racist, or desecrating. Historically, many included oaths that were viewed as unholy, irreligious, and irreverent.

However usage all depends on the society and individual. An individual’s tolerance of vulgarity will vary within the context in which it is used and from person to person. This margin may be shared with groups of like-minded others, or may be rejected. One’s society typically determines which words are obscene or impolite, although this too, could change over time.

When researchers analyzed the frequency of swear words in our daily conversations, they found that that approximately 80-90 spoken words (or 0.5% – 0.7%) are profanity, with a variance between 0% to those of us who never cuss up to 3.4% for those of us who do. Compare that to first person pronouns (I, we, our, us) that make up 1% of daily speech. According to some experts, swear words have been found in some of the earliest forms of human writing, so they have been around for a long time. To find out more, Katy Steinmeitz for Time.com elaborates on more obscure facts about swearing and Emily Sohn of Discovery.com discusses the history of the F-bomb.

So then, why do we feel it is okay to swear in another language other than our own? Perhaps it’s a matter of comprehension. In our native tongue, we understand many of the meanings, connotations, and correct usage of our countryman’s vulgarities and the societal taboos associated with them. In a foreign language, although we may learn the meanings behind the swear words, there is a comfortable degree of separation.

The unfamiliar phonetic sounds may also sound less threatening, angry, abusive, or profane, especially if we have not heard them used often or in the correct context. For example, “Umri!” may not sound like much of an oath, that is unless you are speaking Bulgarian and then it can be translated to “Die!” YouSwear.com features a growing collection of swear words from different languages where the readers not only learn new ones from other cultures, but can also vote on the accuracy of the ones they are familiar with.

Annalee Newitz reported for io9.com that researchers at the University of Warsaw found that people are more emotionally connected to their own native language. Thus they are unattached to foreign words and find them less upsetting. This gives the speaker more freedom of use than with words from their own culture. In fact, the researchers found that the intensity of the insults increased when test subjects used a language other than their own. They attribute this to strong social norms and taboos tied to culture.

While academic volumes have been written on the subject of cursing, on the lighter side, Tracy V. Wilson for howstuffworks.com outlines How Swearing Works, including the effects of its usage on the brain. WikiHow also offers twelve steps of instruction to How to Start Cursing. However, before you fire off a swear word in a language other than your own, it would be wise to completely understand its meaning and the context in which it should be used. More importantly, understand your audience.

How many languages do you swear in?


Written by Marlene Martzke for English Classes by Skype