Being Multilingual: Multilingual rudeness
Linguist Madalena Cruz-Ferreira discusses how attempts at 'multilingual rudeness' can go astray without learning the other vital clues associated with language.
Swearing fluently and insulting people where it really hurts isn’t easy in another language. The thing is that you manage to be rude only if someone acknowledges your rudeness. That is, only if someone understands that you’re being rude. You may have intended a compliment instead, or you may have had no intention of being either polite or rude. This is probably what explains the common perception that profanity is the hardest thing to master in a new language.
I agree. I’ve had students quite eager to show off to me their not-so-bad-after-all proficiency in the languages they want me to help them fine-tune, by inserting random expletives all over their speech during my assessment interviews. It sounds horrible, and it is horrible. I’ve also witnessed attempts at verbal abuse by means of word-by-word translations of horrid expressions from one language into another, resulting in either unintelligible gibberish – or unintended flattery. It sounds depressing, when it doesn’t sound hilarious.
Verbal and non-verbal rudeness
'Verbal' is probably the key word here. Keith Allan and Kate Burridge’s book gives an account of Forbidden Words: Taboo and the Censoring of Language, but words are not the whole story. Words aren’t even main characters in the rudeness plot. In fact, we can either insult or compliment someone by calling them a genius or a filthy pig. Whether words will never hurt me, as the saying goes, depends entirely on our other languages, which are necessarily there when we speak: body-eye-hand language, and our prosody, for example, voice inflections and tones. They give the clues to what we mean – and whether we mean to offend or compliment – because rudeness is a cultural covenant, not a lexical one.
The social nature of rudeness
Studies such as José Mateo and Francisco Yus’s, Towards a cross-cultural pragmatic taxonomy of insults, and those collected by Jonathan Culpeper and Dániel Z. Kádár in Historical (Im)politeness highlight the social nature of rudeness. Its verbal and gestural dialects evolve and vary across time and space, much through our uses of metaphor. For example, the label 'idiot' once described a clinically diagnosed condition, and the label 'idiot-savant' still does. In Europe, Nordic rudeness draws on mythical beings and places related to religious beliefs, whereas Mediterranean profanity is at its most flamboyant when invoking bodily functions – as well as close relatives resulting from some of those functions. And is it (more) rude to point with your index finger, your pinkie, or your thumb? Or is it rude to bite your thumb, as in this sample of Shakespearean insults? It all depends on where you live and when.
Being multilingual and (not) wanting to be rude means being aware of these choices. I’m often asked the standard question asked of multilinguals, the one beginning, "In which language do you ...?", about my swearing, too. As if things like stubbing my toe or boiling inside a car in peak hour traffic jams only happened in the settings where I use one of my languages. As if the reasons for swearing and hurling insults, including at myself, came pre-packaged in a single language.
I swear multilingually quite often – like just now when my server broke down for the third time today, and I found myself muttering, "Raio de internet connection!" I also curse monolingually, often because the curses I can express in a particular language are the most satisfying for whatever made me curse – even if the trigger took place in a different language. And sometimes I don’t really care whether anyone understands my insults: it just feels good to let off steam in a way that I know to be very rude.
Learning how to be – or not to be – rude
Having said all this, I am (mostly) a nice, polite person [insert groan here], so when my children were growing up, with me as their only provider of Portuguese, I made a mistake. I thought I was being a good mother by not familiarising my nice, polite little ones with Portuguese profanity. Until, that is, a good friend expressed her bafflement at this striking gap in my children’s Portugueseness: "How can they be Portuguese without knowing how to use Portuguese rude words?", she chided me. She was right, of course. I followed her advice, and the kids soon became fluently rude – like me. I had forgotten that you can’t be polite if you don’t know how not to be rude. I can give one example:
If the gesture featured in this picture makes you cringe, you’re not alone. I, for one, am still working on taking it as a simple gesture, rather than the (very) rude insult I grew up associating with it.
School-language learners who intend to use their new languages, verbal and gestural, might be grateful for some insight about how other users use them, too, rather than about what those languages 'are'. We may unintentionally offend (or fail to offend) by using tones of voice and/or gestures that are instead associated with different meanings in our native language(s). Prosodic false friends, as I call them, are no less than a time bomb, if we’re left in the dark about them. My study, Non-native interpretive strategies for intonational meaning,shows what can (and certainly will) go wrong when we attempt to speak a new language with no clue about its prosody. Prosodic false friends tell us that words do not hold the exclusive on metaphorical meanings.
Madalena Cruz-Ferreira is a freelance linguist who works on debunking myths and misconceptions about multilingualism at home, in school, and in clinic. One of her books, Multilinguals are ...?, is "a breath of fresh air in a field which desperately needs ventilation" (David Crystal), and "should be required reading for those who work closely with groups and individuals who use multiple languages" (Jeff MacSwan). She is Portuguese, married to a Swede, based in Singapore, and the mother of three trilingual children. She runs two blogs, Being Multilingual, on multilingualism, and Lang101 Blog, on linguistics for starters. You can find her on Twitter.
Photo credit: Parenting Fail blog (child hands).
Comment here on the article, or if you have a suggestion to improve this article, please click here.