Saturday 13 July 2013

Multilingual rudeness

Swearing fluently and insulting people where it really hurts isn’t easy. The thing is that you manage to be rude only if someone acknowledges your rudeness. That is, only if someone understands that you’re being rude. You may have intended a compliment instead, or you may have had no intention of being either polite or rude. This is probably what explains the common perception that profanity is the hardest thing to master in a new language.

I agree. I’ve had students quite eager to show off to me their not-so-bad-after-all proficiency in the languages they want me to help them fine-tune, by inserting random expletives all over their speech, during my assessment interviews. It sounds horrible, and it *is* horrible. I’ve also witnessed attempts at verbal abuse by means of word-by-word translations of horrid expressions from one language into another, resulting in either unintelligible gibberish – or flattery. It sounds depressing, when it doesn’t sound hilarious.

“Verbal” is probably the key word here. Keith Allan and Kate Burridge’s book gives an account of Forbidden Words. Taboo and the Censoring of Language, but words are not the whole story. Words aren’t even main characters in the rudeness plot, in fact: we can either insult or compliment someone by calling them a genius or a filthy pig. Whether words will never hurt me, as the saying goes, depends entirely on our other languages, which are necessarily there when we speak: body-eye-hand language, and our prosody. They give the clues to what we mean, because rudeness is a cultural covenant, not a lexical one.

Studies such as José Mateo and Francisco Yus’, Towards a cross-cultural pragmatic taxonomy of insults, and those collected by Jonathan Culpeper and Dániel Z. Kádár in Historical (Im)politeness highlight the social nature of rudeness. Its verbal and gestural dialects evolve and vary across time and space, much through our uses of metaphor – more on which in my next post. The label idiot once described a clinically diagnosed condition, for example, and the label idiot-savant still does. In Europe, Nordic rudeness draws on mythical beings and places related to religious beliefs, whereas Mediterranean profanity is at its most flamboyant when invoking bodily functions – as well as close relatives resulting from some of those functions. And is it (more) rude to point with your index finger, your pinkie, or your thumb? Or is it rude to bite your thumb, as in this sample of Shakespearean insults?

Being multilingual and (not) wanting to be rude means being aware of these choices. I’m often asked the standard question asked of multilinguals, the one beginning In which language do you ...?, about my swearing, too. As if things like stubbing my toe or boiling inside a car in peak hour traffic jams only happened in the settings where I use one of my languages. As if the reasons for swearing and hurling insults, including at myself, came pre-packaged in a single language. I swear multilingually quite often – like just now when my server broke down for the third time today, and I found myself muttering Raio de internet connection!. I also curse monolingually, often because the curses I can express in that language are the most satisfying for whatever made me curse – even if the trigger took place in a different language. And sometimes I don’t really care whether anyone understands my insults: it just feels good to let off steam in a way that I know to be very rude.

Having said all this, I am (mostly) a nice, polite person [insert groan here], so when my children were growing up, with me as their only provider of Portuguese, I made a mistake. I thought I was being a good mother by not familiarising my nice, polite little ones with Portuguese profanity. Until, that is, a good friend expressed her bafflement at this striking gap in my children’s Portugueseness: How can they be Portuguese without knowing how to use Portuguese rude words??, she chided me. She was right, of course. I followed her advice (obrigada, Maria João!), and the kids soon became fluently rude – like me. I had forgotten that you can’t be polite if you don’t know how not to be rude. I can give one example:

Photo ©

If the gesture featured in this picture makes you cringe, you’re not alone. I, for one, am still working on taking it as a gesture, rather than the (very) rude insult I grew up associating with it.

School-language learners who intend to use their new languages, verbal and gestural, might be grateful for some insight about how other users use them, too, rather than about what those languages “are”. We may unintentionally offend (or fail to offend) by using tones of voice and/or gestures that associate with different meanings in our other languages. Prosodic false friends, as I call them, are no less than a time bomb, if we’re left in the dark about them. My study Non-native interpretive strategies for intonational meaning shows what can (and certainly will) go wrong when we attempt to speak a new language with no clue about its prosody.

Prosodic false friends tell us that words do not hold the exclusive on metaphorical meanings. I’ll have some more to say about this next time.

Cruz-Ferreira, M. (1987). Non-native interpretive strategies for intonational meaning: An experimental study In A. James & J. Leather (Eds.), Sound patterns in second language acquisition (pp. 103-120). Berlin: de Gruyter.

Mateo, J., & Yus, F. (2013). Towards a cross-cultural pragmatic taxonomy of insults Journal of Language Aggression and Conflict, 1 (1), 87-114 DOI: 10.1075/jlac.1.1.05mat

© MCF 2013

Next post: Metaphors and multilinguals. Saturday 10th August 2013.


  1. Interesting. What about slamming the door as an expression of displeasure? I think that's quite universally rude.

  2. Deborah, you got me thinking. Slamming doors may indeed be interpreted as rude, as an expression of displeasure, as you say. The “interpreter” must however be aware that some instances of that action mean displeasure, in that people may slam doors for other reasons, too. I don’t wish to push my point too far, but I’m generally quite wary of assigning universal features to what we do and what we mean.
    Thank you for this comment!


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