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Sociolinguistics Symposium 19: Language and the City

Sociolinguistics Symposium 19

Freie Universität Berlin | August 21-24, 2012

Programme: accepted abstracts

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Abstract ID: 102

Thematic Session (Papers belonging to this Thematic Session)

Swearing and linguistic impoliteness in social interaction

Authors: Norrick, Neal R; Fägersten, Kristy Beers
Submitted by: Norrick, Neal R (saarland university, Germany)

Both swearing and linguistic impoliteness more generally have attracted much attention in recent sociolinguistic research. Swearing is an apparent universal in language communities with wide-ranging significance for traditional sociolinguistic concerns such as individual and group identity, variation, power and solidarity, (im)politeness, second language acquisition, and discourse analysis. Recent publications reflect a growing trend towards investigating sociolinguistic aspects of swearing, including the social history of swearing (McEnery, 2006), variation in swearing (Murphy, 2009; Ljung, 2011), effects of interlocutor variables and context on swearing and subsequent offensiveness (Beers Fägersten, 2007), and pragmatic issues facing research on swearing (Stapleton, 2010). These and related sources reveal context-specific patterns in swear word usage and specific attitudes toward various types of swearing and swear word users. Swearing has been shown to fulfill a range of social and communicative functions, in part becauseof its taboo (impolite, blasphemous, dirty etc.) nature, but also because swearing expresses strong emotions. Due to its sacrilegious, sexual, scatological implications, swearing serves to signal attitudes, allegiances and group membership, to break the ice in various social settings, or to adumbrate potentially transgressive topics. Its association with emotion links swearing with humor, exclamative constructions, and certain prosodic features like increased volume and tempo. At the same time, swearing can vent frustration, justify relating a personal experience, or express evaluations. Contrary to the view of swearing as a purely negatively evaluated activity, studies show that it often provides a powerful means of establishing and modulating relations and presenting socially approved identities (Baruch and Jenkins, 2006; Stapleton, 2003). Swear words may function as pragmatic markers (Norrick, 2009) and formulaic listening practices, particularly useful during conversational narrative performance (Norrick, 2008).  Research has also shown that the social meanings attributed to swearing are both context-dependent and linked to expectations about social categories like age, gender, socioeconomic class and ethnicity (e.g. Bayard and Krishnayya, 2001; Beers Fägersten, forthcoming; Jay and Janschewitz, 2008; McEnery and Xiao, 2004). Speakers who deploy linguistic units recognized and sanctioned by some or all of their audience must receive some substantial payoff in covert prestige, personal satisfaction at a certain kind of identity display, or at least emotional release.  

We invite papers that explore the relationship between swearing and impoliteness, particularly studies on languages other than English as well as swearing in second language contexts.


 Baruch, Y. & Jenkins, S. 2006. Swearing at work and permissive leadership culture: When anti-social becomes social and incivility is acceptable. Leadership & Organization Development Journal 28, 492-507.

Beers Fägersten, K. 2007. A sociolinguistic analysis of swearword offensiveness. Saarland Working Papers in Linguistics (SWPL) 1, 14-37.

Jay, T. & Janschewitz, K. 2008. The pragmatics of swearing. Journal of Politeness Research 4, 267-288.

Ljung, M. 2011. Swearing: A Cross-Cultural Linguistic Study. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

McEnery, T. 2006. Swearing in English: Bad language, purity and power from 1586 to the present. London: Routledge.

Norrick, N. R. 2009. Interjections as pragmatic markers. Journal of Pragmatics41, 866-891.

Stapleton, K. 2010. Swearing. In M. Locher and S.L. Graham (Eds.), The Handbook of Pragmatics, Vol. 9 (Interpersonal Pragmatics), pp. 289-306. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

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