"Now take out the trash you pasty peasant". How Texan High School Students Realize Counter-Insults

Scientific Study, 2018

30 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Theoretical Background
2.1. Defining Insults
2.2. Realizing insults

3. Methodology
3.1. Instrument
3.2. Informants
3.3. Data Collection Procedure
3.4. Coding Scheme

4. Results
4.1. Frequency of Counter-Insult Strategies
4.2. Counter-Insult Strategies and their Targets

5. Discussion

6. Conclusion


Appendix 1: Texas Academic Performance Report

Appendix 2: Questionnaire

Appendix 3: Collected Questionnaire Set

1. Introduction

To express the strongest human emotions such as anger, people often choose to use hurtful language and expressions. The words chosen in this context can be extremely powerful and possess the power to hurt and inflict very strong emotional responses followed by violent disagreement (cf. Bergen 2016: 1). It is insults and their responses among other speech acts that include such hurtful language and expressions.

Although strong emotions that could cause people to be detrimental are part of our daily life, so far little has been done to investigate how humans use language to cause offense and be impolite. While it has been research on politeness that mainly attracted researchers’ interest, it is questionable whether these theories are even complete without the same amount of research on impoliteness. Not only have the impolite parts of language been vastly neglected in the past, but there is also barely any research on how humans respond to it. The field of insults and counter- insults are extreme examples of being impolite and have scarcely received any academic attention. Only few literature on how people realize counter-insults as responses to initial insults can be found in the shelfs of libraries which makes it even more worth investigating.

This study investigates how teenagers realize insults as responses to initial insults within different situations with a special focus on gender differences. Who uses more counter-insults throughout and within different situations where social distance is varied? Which realization strategies are used by whom? It will be further inspected whether the target’s gender to which the counter-insult is presented, has any effect on the participants’ counter-insult behavior. I claim that female and male students will use different amounts of counter-insults and strategies depending on the situation in which they are initially insulted and who insults them in terms of social distance. Depending on the gender of the insulter, the frequency of counter-insults and strategies will vary between female and male teenagers.

To investigate on this field a Discourse Completion Task has been designed to elicit counter-insults within four different situations in which social distance and the insulter’s gender was varied. The informants were 126 students visiting a public high school in Amarillo, Texas, with an average age of 15 years. Within the situations students are being insulted by another person, an insulter. The insulted students, which are thus insultees, are asked to respond to the insult. In the course of the situations students may be insulters as well if they decide to respond to a counter-insult.

The paper will start with a comprehensive overview of different impoliteness theories to provide a basis for definitions for insults and how they can be realized. Afterwards, the methodology of this study will be described including information on the instrument, informant, data collection procedure and coding scheme. The paper will then present most important findings which are relevant to answer the research questions posted. In a short discussion the results will be discussed in the light of previous findings. At last, the paper will summarize all noteworthy results and limitations of the study and will then give an outlook for further related research.

2. Theoretical Background

2.1. Defining Insults

The act of insulting, whether verbal or non-verbal, not only plays a significant role in our lives as interactional human beings, but also reveals how we deal with impoliteness and how we manage conflicts. Before insults as speech acts can be properly defined and understood, a detour must be made to impoliteness theories. Although equally important, in the past many researchers have mainly focused their work on the good part of language - politeness (e.g. Brown and Levinson, 1987; Lakoff 1973, Leech 1987 among others)- and have rather neglected the equally important notion of impoliteness - our bad language. Although, “any adequate account of the dynamics of interpersonal communication (e.g. a model of politeness) should consider hostile as well as cooperative communication” (Locher and Bousfield 2008: 2), the amount of studies focusing on impoliteness cannot compete with those on politeness. Nevertheless, during the last years there seems to be a growing interest in the withered concept of impoliteness.

What exactly is impoliteness? Bousfield (2008: 72) takes

impoliteness to be the broad opposite of politeness, in that, rather than seeking to mitigate face-threatening acts (FTAs), impoliteness constitutes the communication of intentionally gratuitous and conflictive verbal face-threatening acts (FTAs) which are purposefully delivered:

i. Unmitigated, in contexts where mitigation is required, and/or,
ii. With deliberate aggression, that is, with the face threat exacerbated, ‘boosted’, or maximised in some way to heighten the face damage inflicted.

He further emphasizes, in order for impoliteness to be considered as impolite, the intention of the person being impolite must be understood by the receiver (Bousfield 2008: 72). This means, that in order to successfully be impolite, a receiver/hearer is needed to understand e.g. an utterance as impolite and thus understand the intention of the speaker. Otherwise, the attempt to be impolite will fail. The central points of Bousfield’s (2008) definition is that of face, intention and aggression. Other researchers as Locher and Bousfield (2008: 3) also describe impoliteness as “behavior that is face-aggravating in a particular context”. Two questions arise from both definitions: First, how can hearers detect the true intention of a speaker’s utterance, as they have no access to internal states and motivations of other interlocutors? Second, is impolite behavior only impolite if it was intentionally produced? Throughout his research on impoliteness, Culpeper (2011: 254) came up with an adapted definition and claims that “situated behaviours are viewed negatively - considered ‘impolite’ - when they conflict with how one expects them to be […]”. Further, it is not always one’s face that is at stake when confronted with impoliteness. Culpeper (2013: 6) suggests the distinction between “face-related impoliteness [which] involves ‘hurt’, whereas rights-related impoliteness […] involve[s] anger”.

What must be emphasized here is that context plays a crucial role in the judgement of impoliteness. Some researchers (e.g. Leech 1981) have, however, argued that there are utterances that are intrinsically impolite, e.g. insults. Tracy and Tracy (1998: 231) give reasons for and against language intrinsic impoliteness and speak of “context-spanning” and “context-tied” impoliteness, the former meaning blatant strategies and the latter subtle strategies. This dualism is rather questionable, when we think of situations, where we might call our friend a stupid bitch to illustrate closeness, or call a driver who stole our right of way in traffic a stupid bitch. Mills (2005: 265) also discusses whether impoliteness is inherent in language and critically questions if “any act is necessarily impolite, since even the most offensive insults can be used by close friends to signal camaraderie”. The lines on this matter are obviously blurry and whilst in some cultures ritual insults would never appear, in others they might be daily business. Yet emphasizing context over linguistic form would be a premature judgement. Thus, Culpeper (cf. 2010: 113) underlines the need to investigate conventionality in connection to impoliteness. Culpeper (2010: 3243) defines conventionalized impoliteness formula as “a form of language in which context-specific impoliteness effects are conventionalised”. He makes a case that in certain contexts, certain linguistic patterns occur which are consistent and can be combined with each other throughout different contexts to achieve different kinds of impoliteness (e.g. sarcasm and banter) (cf. Culpeper 2010: 3244). Mills (2005: 270) states that it is crucial to always analyze impoliteness in its context “as it is a negotiation or a testing out of what are perceived to be Community of Practice norms”.

Do certain contexts make it easier for people to be impolite? Brown and Levinson (1987: 61) claim that people are generally cooperative and want to maintain each others face in interaction. Culpeper (1996: 354) points out that there are nonetheless situations in which “motivation to cooperate is reduced”. Culpeper (cf. 1996: 354) says that the more powerful participants are, the more freedom they have to be impolite. Impoliteness in equal relationships is however different. Although it seems absurd that the closer people are, more impoliteness is employed, it is exactly what has been found in happy marriages for instance (cf. Culpeper 1996: 354). Not only is impoliteness more employed in close relationships, it seems that there is also a tendency for impoliteness to escalate which is why a verbally aggressive strategy is often met on an equal level. (cf. Culpeper 1996: 354).

An extreme and important aspect of impoliteness is the use of insults. Jay (1992) gives a comprehensive overview of different kinds of what he calls dirty words, in which he also includes using insults. He differentiates between cursing, profanity, blasphemy, taboo, obscenity, vulgarity, slang, epithets, insults and slurs and lastly scatology (cf. Jay 1992: 1-8). He describes to insult somebody is “to treat with insolence, indignity, or contempt: to make little of” (Jay 1992: 8). He claims that “these words are spoken to harm the other person by the word alone […] and is intended to hurt the listener” (Jay 1992: 8, my emphasis). The online Oxford Learner’s Dictionary further defines insult as a noun as “a remark or an action that is said or done in order to offend someone” and as a verb “[…] to say or do something that offends somebody”. All definitions again include the previously mentioned core characteristic of impoliteness: intention. On this matter, Jay (1992: 98-100) claims that “the more intentional the act appears to the speaker, the greater the justification for an angry response”. When people are strongly offended by others, it seems that they will at least offend them on the same level they have been offended. This stands in line with the reciprocity social norm (Gouldner 1960), meaning that “behaviour, prosocial, antisocial or of some other kind, should be matched” Culpeper (2011: 37). This implies that if people are being insulted, it is not a far fetched thought they will also use an insult to make a come back as it has an emotional impact.

2.2. Realizing insults

Culpeper’s (2011: 113-152) comprehensive investigation on impoliteness suggests a conventionalized formulaic structure of impoliteness. Although Leech (1983: 105) argues that impoliteness is “rather marginal to human linguistic behaviour in normal circumstances”, Culpeper (cf. 2003: 1545-1545) claims that there are discourses in which impoliteness takes a central place like in army trainings, courtroom discourse, family discourse, adolescent discourse, everyday conversations, among others. By analyzing video recordings, written texts, informant reports, and different corpora, Culpeper (cf. 2011: 135) comes up with the following conventional impoliteness categories (see table 1). He emphasizes that these categories are not exhaustive and are limited to his data.

Table 1. Culpeper’s (2011) Conventionalized Impoliteness Formula

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Granting that these categories give a broad overview of syntactic patterns and lexical structures, they do not give insights into the semantic level. The basic grammar related structures are outlined for each category, but we do not get more information on the specific words that are used to cause offense.

The lexical choice of an insulter can tell us a lot about what Leech (1981) calls affective meaning. Affective meaning concerns “how language reflects the personal feelings of the speaker” (Leech 1981: 15) which also includes the attitude towards the target. Due to their emotional impact, insults have the ability to give the hearer very explicit information on how an insulter feels about an insultee. Culpeper (cf. 2011: 143) underlines that such negatively affective words very often appear within insults. When taking a closer look at the different realization strategies above to produce impoliteness, it will become clear that these kinds of words are a common feature incorporated in insults. Allan and Burridge (2006: 79) state that insults are thus “intrinsically dysphemistic […] [and] typically pick on a person’s physical appearance, mental ability, character, behaviour, beliefs and/or familial and social relations”. To convey how insulters feel about insultees, they can use a broad variety of lexical terms to talk them down. It is not uncommon that to do this, hearers may use obscene, vulgar or taboo language because they possess “the greatest capacity to inflict emotional pain and incite violent disagreement” (Bergen 2016: 1). Although it seems to be an essential element of language, research on taboo language and the kind, has been vastly neglected in the past.

As already mentioned above, the syntactic structures of insults seem to follow rules which people adhere to. Although insults can surely be very creative, it appears that they are rather conventionally used. What are the lexical items used “that are attributed a low value within a particular culture” (Culpeper 2011: 143)? In America it is generally agreed that adults’ bad language includes taboos, or rather offensive language, stemming from terms for “body parts, body products, body processes, religious, animal, and ethnic terms, as well as social deviations and ancestral allusions” (Jay 1992: 169). Children on the other hand use terms which are derived from “physical, mental, and visible differences in their early insulting and name- calling rituals” (Jay 1992: 169). By conducting studies in New Zealand, Great Britain and North America, Bergen (2016: 16) found that people use insults which seem to be taken from certain word categories. Out of several small and large studies on word offensiveness and appropriateness, Bergen (2016: 16) deduced four word categories which he found in all his data sets and claims that they are cross-culturally applicable and comparable (see table 2). Bergen (2016: 16) calls these categories the “Holy, Fucking, Shit, Nigger Principle”1.

Table 2. Word categories (HFSN-Principle) by Bergen (2016)

Table 2. Word categories (HFSN-Principle) by Bergen (2016)

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Clearly, Bergen’s (2016) categories are rather limited, because they only include very profane words. After all people may also insult each other by using for example animal names like pig or dog. Further, Bergen (2016: 19) explains that these categories were not evenly found throughout different cultures and that different cultures have certain preferences for certain categories. He has found his principle to be applicable for English varieties, Cantonese, Russian, Finnish, German, among others. It seems that there are still local exceptions which cannot be sorted into the four categories. Nevertheless, Bergen (2016: 16) emphasizes that the semantics of insulting lexical items seem to be conventional as well and thus concludes that “at least across the Anglophone world, central tendencies capture the types of words that people find offensive, unacceptable, or profane” and claims that profanity is not random. Bergen (2016) states that how people use bad language can tell us a lot about their language, their brains and identity.

Do men and women use bad language differently or is their use conventional, too? Jay (1992) discusses how the usage of bad language varies across gender. By investigating court room talk, Jay (cf. 1992: 207) claims that males are more likely to use bad language, or how he calls it dirty language, and use far more offensive words than women do. His data also indicated that men seem to have more experience hearing bad language in public compared to women. Additionally, Jay (cf. 1992: 169) reports that several word rating studies of offensiveness come to the conclusion that men use more offensive language than women do, they use more and different lexical terms compared to women and both men and women use more bad language around members of the same sex. These findings point into the direction of social norms which highly depend on different communities of practice (cf. Mills 2005). How do people feel about using bad language in public? Is it more acceptable for men to speak badly in public than it is for women? We certainly all have beliefs and certain feelings towards these questions, whether conscious or unconscious. Throughout her research on impoliteness and gender, Mills (2005: 270) suggests that “beliefs about gender obviously play a role in an assessment of [social] norms”, i.e. what is considered okay for whom to say in different situations. Needless to say, views on norms which define how men and especially women should or should not talk are ubiquitous in our society and certainly have an impact on how people use language. Although, rules and norms for certain behavior permanently change, it would be foolish to believe that now outdated and traditional views on gender have no impact on our linguistic behavior today.

3. Methodology

3.1. Instrument

A mixed-task online questionnaire was selected to gather relevant demographic information of the informants and further elicit counter-insults by using Discourse Completion Tasks (DCTs). The platform used to create the questionnaire was QuestionPro. The questionnaire started by asking for basic information for which informants had to indicate their age, gender and native language. To indicate their age informants were able to freely type in their age in an open text box. To indicate their gender a multiple choice item was selected in which informants were able to pick one out of three pre-defined options: male, female or other. When the third option was selected, informants had to give further specifications. A third option was given to also cover transgender or intersexual informants. To indicate their native language informants were again able to select from a pre-defined list of multiple choice items: English, Spanish or other. Informants were able to select more than one native language. However, if more than one language was selected, QuestionPro did not register which language was selected first. As English and Spanish are the main languages spoken in Texas, these options were pre-defined by the researcher. The third option was given to enable informants to indicate any other native language. In order to be able to check for homogeneity, questions asking for informants’ age, gender and native languages are important and necessary.


1 From now on abbreviated with HFSN-Principle

Excerpt out of 30 pages


"Now take out the trash you pasty peasant". How Texan High School Students Realize Counter-Insults
University of Bonn  (IAAK)
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texan, high, school, students, realize, counter-insults
Quote paper
Katja Grasberger (Author), 2018, "Now take out the trash you pasty peasant". How Texan High School Students Realize Counter-Insults, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/497954


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