Sexual Language Usage in German, Polish and Spanish Swearwords

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2010

18 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents


1 Characteristics of Swearing
1.1 Term definition
1.2 Psychological factors
1.3 Offensiveness/Offendedness
1.4 Awareness of Swearing
1.5 Sexual content in English swearwords

2 Method and Selection criteria
2.1 Gender-specific offensiveness
2.2 Gender-specific offendedness
2.3 Gender identity
2.4 Linguistic proficiency

3 Results






Language is a multifaceted medium and sophisticated system of communication. It has many characteristics and functions - informing, advising, arguing, asking, suggesting or expressing feelings, to name just a few. The last function is, in particular, also the one that is essential and most important here, as the issue of this study is to examine the emotionally charged obscenities, more precisely, anger and aggressiveness that is expressed through the speech. American English1, as any other language, contains a number of words that are used for the purpose of insulting people (Aman, 1972: 161). What character swearing, in other words, the obscene speech has within a certain language depends, however, on the determined sociocultural norms, taboos, cognitions about the world and linguistic conventions of an ethnic group. What offends people is the abuse of their morals and norms, that were ingrained ever since, in the process of enculturation (Jay, 2008: 267). Reinhold Aman, the author of the Bayrisch-österreichisches Schimpfwörterbuch, argues that this is the reason for the unique set of offensive words within each country. Furthermore he says that people with different backgrounds, who live for instance in Germany and other West European countries, including the ones where Romanic languages are spoken, make references to different domains than do the Slavic and other East European speakers while cursing (Aman, 1972: 161). In terms of English, “there are hundreds of taboo words and phrases [used for swearing]; the semantic range of referents that are considered taboo is [however] limited in scope. Taboos in English are placed primarily on sexual references [...]“ (Jay, 2009: 154). Based on these facts, the purpose of this research is to find out whether several European languages, in this case, German, Spanish and Polish - all belonging to distinct language families2, use insults in a sexual manner as well.3

In doing so, this research is based, in general, on the publications of Timothy Jay, an author, who is the precursor in the area of the speech of violence, and who has edited many scientific works on that specific topic. In order to provide information about the essential concepts and to avoid any disambiguations, first of all, some basic terms and aspects, that are relevant for the comprehension and proper treatment of the issue, will be explained. Following, the method, namely, the procedure and selection criteria of the interviewed subjects, will go more into detail, before at last, the analysis and evaluation of the responses will be demonstrated.

1 Characteristics of Swearing

1.1 Term definition

Curse words and swearwords, respectively cursing and swearing are often used synonymously but, in fact, they are not. If you look up those words in the German dictionary Duden, for instance, you will see, that a swearword is explicated as name-calling, offence or slander; and swearing, as the verbal act, namely, offending, insulting and dissing someone (Duden, 1993: 1319). The term curse, in distinction, is illustrated as an oath, the wish to harm and to put an evil eye on someone (Duden, 1993: 520). Hence, the latter seems to be stronger and it does not necessarily need a direct object which is, again, a fundamental requirement in the case of swearwords (Lohmann)4.

Aman distinguishes both terms as well. He explains that there is no definite meaning of a swearword, as it belongs to the speech of emotions, and to specify it precisely is, therefore, a difficult thing to do. Thus, he says: “Jedes Wort, das aggressiv verwendet wird, ist ein Schimpfwort“ (Aman, 1972: 165), which, according to that, refers to all words that are used in a hostile and offensive manner. Cursing is, as he states, only a characteristic feature of swearing that can be preceded by a curse word in order to influence its intensity (Aman, 1972: 180). The German expressions Verflixt and Herrgott, in the metaphoric sense shit and goddamn respectively, are only two of the many curse words he mentions (Aman, 1972: 181).

Also Jay says that insulting someone is “to treat with insolence, indignity, or contempt: to little of someone” (Jay, 1992: 8). To curse, however, “is to invoke harm on another person through the use of certain words and phrases“ (Jay, 1992: 2). Although, both of Jay's monographs, which serve as a basis for this study, contain the terms curse in its titles (Cursing in America, Why we curse), he uses the concepts interchangeably, with the addition of other speech acts. Thus, he says:

Technically speaking, cursing is wishing harm on a person (e.g., eat shit and die). But the term cursing is used comprehensively here to include categories such as: swearing, obscenity, profanity, blasphemy, name calling, insulting, verbal aggression, taboo speech [...] (Jay, 2000: 9).

In order to avoid repetition, these terms will be used here interchangeably as well. Nonetheless, they are supposed to be comprehended in the previous meaning of a swearword, namely, in terms of insulting and contempting other people, with the purpose to offend a person individually, as it is the research topic.

After having presented a short portrayal of the essentials, subsequently the actual cause of the utilization of verbal aggression as well as its underlying factors, will be depicted beneath.

1.2 Psychological factors

There are many different reasons, functions and, consequently factors that make people use swearwords. Its constant and basic constituents are, though, always neurological and psychological ones (Berckmoes/Vingerhoets, 2004: 182). Aman describes swearing as a psychological act of offence that constitutes of a three-step causal chain, namely the frustration over a certain reason, the moment of the enragement which then, eventually, makes the offender curse (Aman, 1972: 153). Jay gives a similar reason. But what is more important is that he also provides an explanation for the actual word choice while verbalizing the assaults: “The speaker must choose a word that fits the ocasion and the target of the insult. Making the target feel offended is the goal of the insult in most cases“ (Jay, 1992: 176). Hence, the main purpose is to express feelings, especially anger and frustration. It expresses the speaker's emotional state and communicates the information to the listener (Jay, 2008: 267-268). If the speaker knows the other person's state of mind, if he knows what annoys or hurts that person, he might misuse his knowledge by adjusting the verbal attack pointedly (Jay, 1992: 160-161).5 Vulgarities, he adds, are conveyed by one's personal connotations with the given insult, as each “is the affective or emotional representation commonly associated with a word's denotative meaning“ (Jay, 2000: 136). The connotation might be, moreover, involved in irony, sarcasm, humor, idiomatic usage or in an over- and understatement (Jay, 1992: 10).

1.3 Offensiveness/Offendedness

When talking about the usage of swearwords and how it affects the potential target, two essential concepts need to be mentioned. The first one is offensiveness. It is the aversive property of the taboo speech and it carries the negative and affronting meaning. The term is used to denote the degree to which the obscene vocabulary possesses the negativity that is used in order to insult someone (Jay, 1992: 160-161). Offendedness, in turn, is the goal and the outcome of the verbal attack. It refers to the reaction of the person that is being insulted. The offended person does, however, not react to the quality of the words as such, but to the mentioned connotation of the words, as offendedness is a person's individual and proper reaction to a stimulus (Jay, 1992: 160).

Thus, it is important to be aware of the reverse and at the same time complementary concepts. On the one hand, we have the offender's actual reason for the specific word choice, and on the other hand, the target's reason for the offendedness caused by that specific vocabulary.

1.4 Awareness of Swearing

Using the obscene speech does not need to be necessarily willing and intentional, as “Our control over swearing ranges from spontaneous forms [...] over which we seem to have little control, to the reflective forms [...] where we take the time to think about what to say" (Jay, 2009: 155). The concepts propositional and nopropositional draw a distinction between intentional and unintentional cursing. Propositional swearing, is the conscious, planned and selective point of an insult. The offender controls the content of the language that is used with the objective to evoke offendedness in the targeted person. The nonpropositional form is, as one could imagine, the unplanned, the unconscious one. It is the automatic and uncontrolled reaction to a sudden burst of emotion like horror, surprise or affright (Jay, 2008: 270), like for example: “Oh, fuck!“ or “You fucking scared me!“. Because propositional swearing is used to attack people deliberately, it is also the type that will be relevant here.

1.5 Sexual content in English swearwords

In order to search if there exists a sexual domain in the swearwords of the other languages as well, it would be recommendable to define and specify at first, what sexual semantics is actually meant by and what is its purpose. Following Jay's comprehension of sexual vocabulary, it refers to words:

[...] that describe sex acts, sexual anatomy, sexually transmitted disease, sexual health practices, sexual appliances, and deviant sexuality [that] have all achieved some degree of offensiveness (Jay, 1992: 164).

The commonly known expressions “Fuck!“, respectively “Fuck you!“, or “Fuck off!“, for instance, are certainly well-understood in many languages, even by people who do not speak English at all. This example demonstrates that taboo speech is not only widespread within the American society. Words expressed through the reference to sex organs {prick, dick, cunt) or words expressed by deviant sexual acts and behaviour {motherfucker, cocksucker, -whore, son of a bitch) are common swearwords in America, where they also belong to the most offensive ones {Jay, 1992: 75-78).

This linguistic occurrence has been additionally strenghtened due to the American society and the government that are highly involved in regulating sex acts and sexuality as such, especially when it comes to minors. There are laws and sanctions that control age, manner, the location and intensity of sexual relations between people. Because sexual speech has not been officially sanctioned by law, according to Jay, it has been therefore forbidden by societal customs, parental consent and religion, which strictly avoid that sensitive topic {Jay, 1992: 164).

The following part will show the procedure of the data collection and the assortment of the foreign-language test persons to find out whether they also use insults in the same manner as the speakers of American English do.


1 In this study the term English is used in terms of American English, and not of different varieties of English, as this study is based primarily on Timothy Jay's papers which examined the language of the United States

2 The languages belong respectively to the Germanic, Romanic and Slavic language family

3 Because of the small number of interviewed subjects, this paper cannot be regarded as a representative study

4 Heinz Lohmann's scientific text Flüche und Schimpfwörter im Deutschen, which is an internet resource, does not contain the page number and the date of production

5 Furthermore, violent speech is often accompanied by the increase of loudness, gesture and facial expression which additionally intensify the manifestation of the emotional outburst. It is frequently used on purpose, as threat or determent ofthevictim(Aman, 1972: 167)

Excerpt out of 18 pages


Sexual Language Usage in German, Polish and Spanish Swearwords
University of Cologne  (Englisches Seminar)
Sex, Sexuality and Language
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Die Seminararbeit habe ich in Kongruenz mit den Korrekturen, Verweisen und Verbesserungsvorschlägen meines Dozenten überarbeitet.
linguistics, swearwords, sexual language
Quote paper
Zaneta Nowak (Author), 2010, Sexual Language Usage in German, Polish and Spanish Swearwords, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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