'Taboo or not taboo?': swearing and profane language use in speken Irish English

Fiona Farr

University of Limerick, Ireland (Republic of)

TP143: Pragmatic variation: the interplay of micro-social and macro-social factors

Taboo language has traditionally been associated with impure, crude, illegitimate, and unacceptable usage. The title afforded to a recent volume on the subject, Forbidden Words (Allan and Burridge 2006), aptly captures social, and indeed political, attitudes and reactions to the employment of bad language words and phrases, and to their perpetrators, which have developed through the years since the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. And therein lies the true intrigue of this phenomenon. It is primarily a social creation rather than a linguistic one, as noted by McEnery (2005) when he alludes to the innocuous nature of swear words in terms of linguistic form. They are neither syntactically or phonologically remarkable nor displeasing. Yet their use automatically prompts inferences about the social class, psychological or emotional state, education, or religion of the user. Ironically then, thought not surprisingly, such cultivated disdain seems neither to have thwarted nor frustrated the use of offensive language, as it is still pervasive in contemporary spoken language, despite the lingering moral and ethical objections. In this paper, data will be explored in the form of a corpus-based analysis of a computerised database of contemporary spoken Irish-English, The Limerick Corpus of Irish English (L-CIE) (Farr, Murphy, and O'Keeffe 2004).

The one-million word corpus, containing transcribed spoken language collected within the last five years, predominantly casual conversation in genre, provides ample illustrative evidence of how swearing and profanity are far from ephemeral in nature and seem to be strongly rooted in this variety of English. Using both quantitative methods (frequency and keyword analyses), and qualitative exploration in the form of concordance lists and discourse approaches, taboo language will firstly be considered in relation to the macro-social factors of age and gender. Such analysis builds on previous and on-going socio-linguistically and pragmatically focussed studies of other varieties of English (for example, Selnow 1985, McEnery and Xiao 2004, Sapolsky and Kaye 2005, Stenström 2006). Secondly, a preliminary account of the influence of micro-social factors, such as context of use, personal relationships, and power differentials will be offered.

Allan, K., and K. Burridge, 2006. Forbidden Words. Taboo and the Censoring of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Farr, F., B. Murphy, and A. O'Keeffe, 2004. The Limerick Corpus of Irish English: design, description and application. In: F. Farr, and A. O'Keeffe (Eds), Corpora, Varieties and the Language Classroom. Special Edition of Teanga 21. Dublin: IRAAL, 5-29.

McEnery, T., 2005. Swearing in English: Bad Language, Purity and Power from 1586 to the Present. London: Routledge.

McEnery, T., and Z. Xiao, 2004. 'Swearing in Modern British English. The Case of Fuck in the BNC'. Language and Literature 13(3): 235-268.

Sapolsky, B. S., and B. K. Kaye, 2005. 'The use of offensive language by men and women in prime time television entertainment'. Atlantic Journal of Communication 13(4): 292-303.

Selnow, G. W., 1985. 'Sex differences in uses and perceptions of profanities'. Sex Roles 12: 303-312.

Stenström, A.-B., 2006. 'Taboo words in teenage talk: London and Madrid girls' conversations compared'. Spanish in Context 3(1): 115-138.

Session: Themed Panel (part 2)
Pragmatic variation: The interplay of micro-social and macro-social factors
Saturday, April 5, 2008, 13:45-15:15
room: 15