Swearing and the English Corpus Linguistics

To what extent do social features influence the English speakers‘ disposition to swear?

Term Paper, 2015

15 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1.1 A Brief History of Swearing
1.2 Aim of this Thesis

2. Main part
2.1 Swearing and Context
2.2 Working with The BNCweb Corpus: A Selection of Swearwords
2.2 Swearwords and Status
2.3 Swearwords and Gender
2.4 Swearwords and Age

3. Conclusion

4. Works Cited

5. Appendix

1. Introduction

1.1 A Brief History of Swearing

“spoken language began … when a cry of pain, formerly wrung out by real suffering, and seen to be understood and sympathized with, was repeated in imitation, no longer as a mere instinctive utterance, but for the purpose of imitating to another, “I am (was, shall be) suffering”; when an angry growl, formerly the direct expression of passion, was reproduced to signify disapprobation and threatening, and the like. This was enough to serve as a foundation for all that should be built upon it.”1

Cursing appears to be as old as language itself. But still it has been a long way until it finally was accepted as a proper linguistic topic. The theories of when and how swearing (which is used interchangeably with the term cursing in this essay) developed are diverse, but the general assumption, that it must have established closely connected to the first attempts of communication between human beings, is widely concurring. Hence, to find an appropriate definition of swearing one has to consider that the term had different meanings during the periods of time.

Researchers such as William Dwight Whitney and Ashley Montagu describe the way swearing was uttered upon the first settlers as an unconscious sound expressed when feeling strong emotions such as anger, fear, pain excitement etc.. This exclamation was neither inherited nor instinctive, but “physically determined” and even today these utterances (like ah, oh, uh, ew) are still universal for all humans, no matter what language they speak.2

Later on, when language had already developed to a certain primitive degree, cursing served as a coping strategy to vent one's anger. Settler tribes that were living together were still restricted in the number of men and women and so it could have had fatal consequences if a member of the tribe was killed. Thus, to feel a relief for pent-up emotions men created images of the hated person and destroyed or maltreated it, which was further associated with supernatural powers, that were believed to do harm to the real person.3

Over the centuries the concept of cursing was either enhanced or prohibited by the church or other influential institutions until it slightly lost its supernatural connotation.4 Its main purpose became to express an extreme degree of emotions, which nowadays does no longer exclusively refer to negative feelings but also positive exclamations.5

1.2 Aim of This Thesis

This thesis aims to examine today's representation of common curse words in a linguistic approach. I will have a look at five frequently used swearwords in the English language and evaluate those due to social features of the speaker and the addressee by using data from the BNCweb corpus.

In addition to that I will either prove or disprove some of the following assumptions made by Timothy Jay and Kristin Janschewitz for the circuit of the BNCweb corpus:

“ Swearing is influenced by pragmatic (contextual) variables such as the conversational topic, the speaker-listener relationship, including gender, occupation, and status, and the social-physical setting of the communication with respect to whether the swearing takes place in a public or private location, one’s jurisdiction over the location, and the level of formality of the occasion .6

To narrow this down I will categorize my research in four classes: context, status, gender and additionally age. Finally, I will conclude whether the above-mentioned social features influence a native English speaker's disposition to swear.

2. Main Part

2.1 Swearing and Context

During the last 25 years of linguistic research on cursing linguists have constantly outlined one of – if not- the most important factor, that influences how, when and how often we swear, namely the contextual setting.

In his book Why We Curse: a neuro-psycho-social theory of speech Timothy Jay confirms that cursing is practised by all social classes and ethnic racial groups.7 Further it is commonly applied in non-formal settings using a rather informal register.8 The appropriateness of swearing is closely linked to the speaker-listener relationship (see chapter 2.3), so that in some settings the use of offensive language is highly unsuitable, whereas in other situations it might even be preferable to create intimacy or trust between the colloquists. Therefore it is absolutely necessary to evaluate a situation correctly, for using the wrong register might lead to crucial consequences. “Cursing at an inappropriate time will reduce a speaker's credibility, persuasiveness, and perceived professionalism”.9

Negatively connoted forms of swearing are for example name calling, insulting and sexual harassment and simply using expletives in formal discussions, while telling obscene jokes or offering sexual enticement are generally considered as having a positive impact (in the appropriate social environment certainly).10

It is also important to make a clear distinction between swearing and impoliteness since researchers, such as Jay, claim that politeness/impoliteness is not simply dependent on the word used but also on the context and the purpose it serves. Hence, if a swearword is used in a positive context or to express strong empathy towards the listener it is not considered as impolite.11

But how does a speaker know if it is appropriate to make use of offensive language in a specific situation or not? As it is apparently harder for children and non-native speaker to judge what register is appropriate in certain conversations Jay claims that we learn to classify situations by experience.

“ We believe that language experience influences likelihood and offensiveness judgments about swearing. Fluent speakers, relative to those who are less familiar with a language, should have a broader and more flexible knowledge of the ways in which swearing can be construed as polite or impolite. ”12

In conclusion, the contextual setting does influence if swear words are appropriate or not. People are likely to judge the suitability of expletives due to the speaker-listener relationship, age, politeness/impoliteness, whether the colloquist is a native-speaker and other factors.

2.2 Working with the BNCweb corpus: A Selection of Swearwords

In order to reduce my own data research on an appropriate extent, I will concentrate on five common curse words of the English language, namely fuck, shit, hell, bitch and bastard and all related forms of the lexemes. Those five words are more or less randomly chosen, though they fulfil certain criteria. First there is only a small risk of confusing the chosen term with other words that partly consist of the same letters (which might be the case with terms like ass). Second, all five words refer to different subcategories of swearwords; while fuck and shit are popular exclamations, hell is initially related to religious curses and bitch and bastard are insults related to gender.

The following table gives a general overview of the frequency of the five chosen words in the BNCweb corpus:

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Table 2.1 shows the frequency/and relative frequency (after a corpus frequency test); further information: see Appendix

2.2 Swearing and Status

The linkage between swearing and the speaker-listener relationship is always strongly related to social status and power. Power depends on factors such as age, wealth, occupation, gender and race and can be inherited to a certain degree, whereas social status rather refers to personal achievements due to education, occupation and income. A person can gain or lose his/her personal status. This is, where swearing behaviour becomes important.

Timothy Jay claims, that speakers who have power can curse relatively freely, because they do not need to fear any social consequences from the hierarchically lower recipients. There is just one restriction to that, namely the fact, that authorities or people of higher social groups are expected to have a higher linguistic register, as they are considered less professional otherwise.13 At the same time speakers of the low working class can use offensive language frequently, because they have no higher social status that they might lose. This automatically implies that the social middle class is the most aware of cursing. They must avoid offensive language when there is a risk of offending more powerful listeners, because -as swearing is highly connected with low social status- this might threaten their social face14

Yet, the motivations for and the form of cursing are differing from each social class. While insults, sexual harassment and obscene joking mostly seem to appear top-down, insults and jokes based on the “putting down” (the motivation to joke about superiors to make them feel small) principle only work bottom-up.15

Based on the established social grades AB, C1, C2 and DE16 Table 2.2a provides an overview of the frequency per million words of our five example words for each social class.


1 William Dwight Whitney quoted in Aschley Montagu: The Anatomy of Swearing. 2. Aufl. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia. 2001. p. 5.

2 Cp. Montagu, p.6ff.

3 Cp. Montagu, p.57ff.

4 Geoffrey Hughes: Swearing. A social history of foul language, oaths and profanity in English. Blackwell Publishers, Oxford. 1992. p.8.

5 Timothy Jay, Kristin Janschewitz: The Pragmatics of Swearing. In: Journal of Politeness Research. Language, Behaviour, Culture. Edition 2, August 2008, p. 267

6 Cp. Jay & Janschewitz, p. 272

7 Timothy Jay: Why We Curse: a neuro-psycho-social theory of speech. Benjamins Publishing. Amsterdam. 2000. p.9

8 Cp. Jay. p.158

9 (ibid.)

10 Cp. Jay. p.10

11 Cp. Jay & Janschewitz. p.268

12 Cp. Jay & Janschewitz.. p.268

13 Cp. Jay. p.163

14 Cp. Jay. p. 158ff

15 Cp. Jay. p. 161ff

16 Definitions taken from www.ukgeographics.co.uk/blog/social-grade-a-b-c1-c2-d-e

Excerpt out of 15 pages


Swearing and the English Corpus Linguistics
To what extent do social features influence the English speakers‘ disposition to swear?
University of Dusseldorf "Heinrich Heine"
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
corpus lingustics, linguistics, english, sprachwissenschaften, swearing, cursing, BNCweb corpus
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Elena Mertel (Author), 2015, Swearing and the English Corpus Linguistics, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/464320


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