New research from the University of Warsaw confirms what we already knew: learning to swear in translation is innately appealing. Think about it: If you only know a few select phrases in another language, chances are they’re either “survival phrases” or swear words.
To test whether bilinguals prefer to swear in their native language or their second language, the researchers designed a “covert experiment” amongst a group of bilingual university students, all fluent in both English and Polish.
The students were asked to translate two “equally offensive” texts from English to Polish and from Polish to English. When translating from English to Polish, the majority of the students tempered the obscenities, bowdlerizing the texts. However, when they translated from Polish into English, they were much more willing to use offensive language, sometimes even adding obscenities out of whole cloth.
Well, at least for certain obscenities. The study actually only found a significant difference when it came to ethnic slurs directed at certain outgroups. Apparently, swearing in a foreign language can be easier from a psychological standpoint because the words don’t carry as much weight in your mind. However, since society has become somewhat deadened to even the “big seven” dirty words, the effect was only significant when it came to ethnic slurs, words that today are designated as “hate speech” and thus are far more taboo than your standard four-letter obscenities.
In a write-up of the study published in PLOS One, the authors conclude that “the main factor triggering the language choice in bilinguals is not necessarily the different emotional power of both languages, but social and cultural norms.” The “distancing effect” of using a foreign language makes it easier to cross those cultural boundaries.