The pragmatics of swearing

Timothy Jay and Kristin Janschewitz

Abstract

The main purpose of swearing is to express emotions, especially anger and frustration. Swear words are well suited to express emotion as their primary meanings are connotative. The emotional impact of swearing depends on one's experience with a culture and its language conventions. A cognitive psychological framework is used to account for swearing in a variety of contexts and provide a link to impoliteness research. In support of this framework, native and non-native English-speaking college students rated the offensiveness and likelihood of hypothetical scenarios involving taboo words. The ratings demonstrated that appropriateness of swearing is highly contextually variable, dependent on speaker-listener relationship, social-physical context, and particular word used. Additionally, offensiveness ratings were shown to depend on gender (for native speakers) and English experience (for non-native speakers). Collectively these data support the idea that it takes time for speakers to learn where, when, and with whom swearing is appropriate.

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The Journal of Politeness Research broadens and sharpens the understanding of the nature of politeness by providing a much-needed forum for synergies to develop between researchers approaching politeness from different disciplinary angles. The journal also strengthens and widens the existing cross-cultural and intercultural body of politeness research by encouraging new contributions from lesser-studied cultures and languages.

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