Cursing is easier in a foreign language



University of Warsaw researchers have found people who speak foreign languages find it easier to swear when not using their first language.

A study asked Polish speakers who also speak fluent English to translate expletives between the two languages. It found that when they translated to English they tended to pick strong curses but when they translated to Polish they tended to use milder variants.

According to the Emotion-Related Language Choice theory, they find their second language an easier medium of conveying content which evokes strong emotions. The first language carries too much emotional power, which can be threatening for the speaker… the effect was only observed for ethnophaulisms, i.e. expletives directed at social groups. It turns out that the main factor triggering the language choice in bilinguals is not necessarily the different emotional power of both languages, but social and cultural norms.


(Image credit: Scott Harris via Creative Commons)

2 Responses to Cursing is easier in a foreign language

  1. So don’t be offended if non english speakers use the word “fuck” more deliberately than you might expect. We are stunned by the impact it can have on native speakers. TV misseducated us there…

  2. Actually, I find that the trickiest bit would be to objectively measure the offensiveness of swearwords. But they worked around that:

    “In the next stage, the subjects were given a list of the swear words which had appeared in the source text. They were asked to mark the level of their offensiveness on a five-point Likert scale, ranging from 1 (“not offensive at all”) to 5 (“very offensive”). Once all the questionnaires were analysed by the experimenter, a list of all the translated words was created and sent to the participants via Internet, as an online survey. Their task was to rate the translated words on the same Likert-scale, ranging from 1 (“not offensive at all”) to 5 (“very offensive”). Each participant got the list with all translations, which included their translations ‘hidden’ among the translations of the others. In this way, each participant evaluated their own translation of the original words. Thus, the comparison of the level of offensiveness between the source and the target words was made by the participants themselves, which gave more insightful data than would a subjective judgment of the experimenters.”