In our family, swearing was more of a male preserve, and I was surprised that when I visited home as an adult, my aging mother used expressions that I had never heard her use as a child. Perhaps this was because she lived alone, or perhaps it was because her environment had changed, as it is now much more common to hear words that were once considered taboo in mass media.
Researchers agree that the use of swearwords varies with age. We become familiar with them as young children – even if we are forbidden from uttering these words and phrases – and as monolinguals we have a very early sense of exactly when, within what register, in what frame of mind, and at what age or with what gender they can be used. Usually triggered by feelings of pain, anger or surprise, these expressions can take on different meanings and functions in different contexts, but usually they say the most about the attitude of the person using them.
In fact, there is also a gender difference, with men swearing more often than women, although current research suggests that this evens out briefly in adolescence.
Although there can be significant differences in the usage of taboo insults between languages, there are also great similarities. Almost everywhere, terms related to sex, motherhood and diseases appear. However, the differences provide an excellent opportunity to look at deeper levels of cultural differences.
In terms of multilingualism, there is a huge difference between those who acquired their additional languages before and after the age of about 12 in terms of the degree to which people know the exact use of these terms.
I heard a phrase from my children, who were still in primary school at the time, that they sometimes mentioned to each other, and even their young friends used it. I can’t remember exactly what the phrase was, but I gathered from their speech that it couldn’t be too strong a term. Once in my class I somehow felt I could say it, perhaps not wanting to use its power, but instead wanting to speak to the children using their own language, thinking that it was, after all, a term often used by their own peers. However, the moment I uttered the word, there was a sudden silence and twenty-something children looked up from their notebooks at the same time, wide-eyed. They all immediately realised that something was wrong.
I was very surprised by their reaction and I told my children about it at home. After that, whenever I asked them what similar words or phrases meant, they refused to explain them to me, arguing that I had better not know what they meant, lest I ever thought of using them. They didn’t give me, a late multilingual, much credit when it came to understanding when exactly such words could be used.
We late multilinguals are indeed not in an easy situation. Regardless of the proportion of these terms in our everyday language use, they are distinctly under-represented in grammar books. Our learning is also made more difficult by the fact that when we hear these words, they no longer affect us in the same way as they would if we had known them since childhood, or heard their equivalent in our mother tongue.
However, even multilinguals who have been in contact with their languages since they were young may not be aware of the correct use of these terms in all their languages. It also depends on their relationship with the person or people with whom they share a language, and even on the frequency with which they speak that language.
A fundamental characteristic of adolescence is the pushing of boundaries, which includes the preference for this type of vocabulary. The country in which children are living at this age is also important. After all, one of the basic elements of belonging to a community is to be able to ‘go with the flow’ of their peers in terms of the slang of their age group.
But not only school, but also summer camps for adolescents can play an important role in the acquisition of elements that make intercultural competence more complete. This vocabulary has an advantage over other words in that it is remembered much more quickly.