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Accommodating inappropriate language: how students react to the translation of inappropriate language in the classroom

Tracey Simpson


Based on experiences in the classroom, this paper examines some of the issues associated with using swearwords for academic exercises and in authentic communication situations. Within societies, politeness and impoliteness are extremely coded and so there is a natural tendency for native speakers to accommodate people and social conventions by not using certain words. However, the use of words considered as taboo is problematic for non-native speakers; they are consequently reduced to a system of trial and error at their own peril. We may then ask ourselves how taboo words are perceived by students and what place they have in the classroom. A study was carried out with students from undergraduate through to postgraduate levels; specific data were collected with a questionnaire and a translation exercise. An analysis of the results showed two contrasting reactions when faced with the translation of swearwords: students are either reticent and refrain from using the most suitable word in the target language (over-accommodation) or they suggest expressions that are unnaturally over-offensive (absence of accommodation). In both cases, the students’ answers were inadequate. Reasons are suggested to explain these different attitudes and results.

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1. Introduction

“Frankly my dear I don’t give a damn.”

1According to the survey carried out by the American Film Institute in 2005,1 Rhett Butler’s line from Gone With the Wind is the greatest movie quote of all time and it is notorious because of the legend surrounding the $5000 fine incurred by Selznick for keeping it in the film. But today would anybody bat an eyelid at such a tame old-fashioned word as damn? Probably not, and in more modern times, Rhett Butler’s phrase might well have ended with a very eloquent shit or even fuck.

2Indeed, it would seem that the limits of what may be considered appropriate and inappropriate language are currently being pushed back in many aspects of social interaction. On October 7th 2017, the Canadian Broadcasting Standards Council decided that the word fuck could be used occasionally in programmes in French as long as it is not used to insult a person in particular.2 No longer deemed offensive in French speech, is fuck consequently to be considered as a simple marker of the speaker’s emotional state?

3It is generally accepted that social norms exist and allow speakers to deal with situations that may be more or less difficult (Schneider 2012: 1025). These norms are shared by members of a community, even though individual or personal norms may vary within a group. Consequently, speakers are able to accommodate their language accordingly. But these norms are indeed shifting and this is very obvious in everyday situations. Bookshop humour sections present a certain literature today where authors tend to complain of lowering standards and the use of offensive language in the most banal of sentences, harking back to the ‘good old days’ when we respected our elders and when social interaction was punctuated with ‘please,’ ‘thank you’ and ‘you’re welcome.’ Although these works are based on sweeping statements rather than on scientifically collated material, they do point to a general feeling that the way we interact is changing.

4Many like to blame globalization for this change, noting that it has resulted in a loss of distance between people and so the idea of politeness and its codes have necessarily been altered. This is borne out by Sifianou’s study (Sifanou 2013) that not only takes into account SMS messages and e-mails but also real-life interactions particularly within the service industry. Sifianou cites the widespread use of first names rather than titles or family names, most notably in the banking and insurance sectors, between providers and customers who do not know each other. Service-providers wear badges displaying their first names, thus inviting us to address them informally. They also send unsolicited advertising e-mails that address the recipient on a first-name basis. According to the author, these are everyday signs of a loss of distance.

5This reduction or loss of distance in professional contexts is no doubt a corollary of increased and globalized communication, be it via Internet, in e-mails or on social networks. With these newer, more elastic forms of communication, the limits of what is acceptable or not, what is appropriate or not, have been modified. The expressions ‘Good Morning’ or ‘Dear Mr Smith’ are now considered as more formal and have given way to a simple ‘Hello’ as an opening to a message. Even the relatively new closing phrase ‘Best Regards’ has already been reduced to the laconic ‘Best.’ For our connected Y-Generation students then, rapid and effective informality seems to have become the norm.

2. Determining appropriateness and register

6Today’s students are increasingly exposed to a language that is very different from the one they are taught. Access to English-speaking media – once rare and relatively dependent on institutionalized access points (e.g. libraries, universities, language schools) – is now widespread and available at home with a simple Internet connection. We would suggest that the language and register used in journalistic media on the Internet are very close to those used in the classroom. The students take into account the written and oral norms of grammar, syntax and pronunciation but also conventions of politeness, using lexicons deemed acceptable and adapted to perhaps more formal usage. However, Internet entertainment channels also enable spectators to see recent films in their original version and few fanatic followers will miss the first episode of a blockbuster series even if it is in English. The language and register used in these entertainment media may differ radically from those used in the classroom journalistic media, offering what may be considered as more authentic speech in more authentic communication situations.

7Associated with the erosion of social norms as mentioned above and with the immediacy and spontaneity of modern communication situations, this gives EFL students greater access to linguistic and lexical varieties. But this increased access is not necessarily accompanied by a greater awareness of what is appropriate and what is inappropriate. Increased access probably means that EFL students hear words considered taboo or inappropriate more often and they may consequently consider these words more prevalent in everyday exchanges than they actually tend to be. Indeed, their awareness of the social conventions that accompany the use or non-use of these words may well be ill-informed: certain lexical choices are not systematically valid, equivalent or interchangeable in all situations. A certain amount of discrimination is required on the part of the EFL student to be able to accommodate language that may be deemed sensitive. This begs the question, to what extent is it possible to help students in their discrimination and use of inappropriate language? Can we accommodate inappropriate language in a learning situation?

8The heart of the problem seems to reside in the determination of register. Register is defined as the “variety of a language or a level of usage, as determined by degree of formality and choice of vocabulary, pronunciation, and syntax, according to the communicative purpose, social context, and standing of the user” (OED). This definition demonstrates the dual nature of problems concerning register. Speakers must gauge the relative formality of a word and secondly determine if it is acceptable to use it in the ‘social context’ they are confronted with. This difficulty is further compounded by the classroom situation where students are used to adapting or adjusting to the teacher/learner situation; they accommodate their behaviour and their language to accommodate the situation with more or less respect and deference depending on the teacher, the activity and even, to a certain extent, the subject they are studying.

  • 3 We chose to look at Linguee and its actual translations, at Word Reference and Reverso, the bilingu (...)

9The obvious solution ought to be to consult a dictionary to determine quite simply the level of inappropriateness of a given word. However, a review of several dictionary entries revealed different shades of meaning that may exist between different uses of inappropriate words.3 For example, the term informal language alone may be sub-divided into words that are inappropriate, impolite or bad manners. In the seven dictionaries consulted for English, these shades of meaning are very rarely rendered in detail and degrees of vulgarity or inappropriateness tend to jump from informal (including inappropriate, impolite, bad manners, slang, familiar or popular language) to vulgar (inappropriate or common). To give some idea of what EFL students are up against, most dictionaries give three levels of register but the terminology differs greatly from one dictionary to another. For example, eight different terms were used to designate different registers that are nevertheless all classed as informal:

Figure 1 Terms designating different levels of informal register

Figure 1 Terms designating different levels of informal register

10The differences between colloquial and slang may be far from transparent for EFL students just as they may have difficulty in distinguishing the differing undertones of offensive and vulgar. Vulgar may be translated into French as grossier or vulgaire and it would appear, for a speaker of French, that it is possible to be grossier without being vulgaire and vice versa. What is more, some dictionaries use two terms to classify a word, a strategy that may only serve to confuse a student further.

11This variation in classifications of register is exemplified if we take one example – the word shit. Far from clarifying matters, the multiple terms used in dictionaries to give an idea of the register of this word complicate the situation significantly as we can see in the following table:

Figure 2 Classification of the word shit in 7 dictionaries

Figure 2 Classification of the word shit in 7 dictionaries

12From this rapid survey, we can see that shit is generally considered as vulgar. The same number of dictionaries classified it as a slang word and as offensive but these terms are not equivalent. The OED and CALD continue to consider it as quite simply offensive. It is given as only used in spoken English in the LDCE. The Collins Robert dictionary printed in 1981 gives it a three-star rating (i.e. danger) whereas today’s Internet dictionary Reverso has toned this down to two stars, indicating that it ought to be handled with care in informal situations. Given the variety of usage guidelines indicated in dictionaries, it is hardly surprising that EFL students have trouble pinning down what they can and cannot use in certain situations.

  • 4 Waters’ study – and so her categorisations – looks at norms that are recognized by social groups us (...)

13In order to look at this question in more detail, a small study was carried out to determine our students’ awareness and use of what might be considered inappropriate language. Here, the term inappropriate language refers to any swearword or word that may be deemed offensive. These are to be distinguished from simple slang words such as bum, pee, and boobs and ordinary words such as poo, penis and sex. In spite of this classification, none of these words are what might be considered “good and proper language to use in certain company […] by certain people.” (Waters 2012)4

3. Data collection and results – on the offensive character of five in/appropriate terms

  • 5 The results of this earlier study are reflected in the small study carried out with our students. O (...)

14Our study, conducted with the help of volunteer EFL students, was carried out in two stages: first, the students were invited to answer a very detailed questionnaire and secondly to translate an extract containing language that may be deemed inappropriate for the classroom. The questionnaire was based on the studies carried out by Jay and Janschewitz (2008) and asked students to gauge the perceived appropriateness – or inappropriateness – of thirty words ranging from anatomical terms such as anal, penis or testicle that you would find in any biology class to the very explicit fuck, cunt and motherfucker. The participants were asked to decide whether the use of each word would be acceptable in certain places (e.g. in a classroom or in a bar), between two people with specific social roles (e.g. a teacher speaking to a pupil or between people from different peer groups) and by people in specific age groups. They were then asked to rate the relative offensiveness of the words on a scale from 1 to 5, 1 being least offensive.5 The translation exercise presented students with the following extract from Daniel Pennac’s Comme un roman that contains swearwords uttered by an adolescent and reported by his parents:

  • 6 Pennac, Daniel, Comme un roman, Paris : Gallimard, 1992, p. 22-23.

Putain de bordel de merde ! Il jure. Désolé mais il jure. Putain de bordel de merde de bouquin à la con ! 6

15Students were then invited to point out any problems they encountered and state whether they would modify their suggested translation in an oral context and if so, how and why.

16The results are quite telling, but can hardly be considered as wholly representative since there were only 58 respondents including undergraduates (2nd and 3rd year Licence: approximately ⅔ of respondents) through to postgraduate levels (Master and Agrégation: approximately ⅓ of respondents). There was a ratio of roughly 2:1 between female and male respondents and there were 5 native-English respondents among native speakers of French.

17Concerning the questionnaire, the number of words analysed in detail was narrowed down to five: anal which is inherently anatomical but has become disparaging and insulting especially in US English; cunt, which still seems to be widely considered as taboo; damn, inspired by Rhett Butler but that has lost a lot of its shock value; fuck, the four-letter word par excellence and finally shit, which may now be considered as relatively mainstream and everyday. When asked to gauge offensiveness on a scale of 1 to 5, 1 being the least offensive, the results were as follows:

Figure 3 Classification of 5 terms on a scale of offensiveness: native speakers vs. non-native speakers

Figure 3 Classification of 5 terms on a scale of offensiveness: native speakers vs. non-native speakers
  • 7 This is borne out by the studies conducted by Jay, Timothy and Kristen Janschewitz, “The Pragmatics (...)

18Here, the one thing that stands out is the near equivalence of shit and fuck. Also cunt is universally considered by far the most offensive word. However, native speakers rate all words as more offensive than the non-native speakers7 with the very notable exception of fuck. There is also a near equivalence between damn and fuck among native speakers. What seems most surprising is that shit is deemed more offensive than fuck for native speakers.

19With regard to the translation of the extract from Pennac, the primary analysis was restricted to the first part of the extract since the expression used by the student here was invariably taken up again at the end. Students fell into two obvious categories – those who used the word fuck and those who did not. The results are shown according to the academic level of the students:

Figure 4 Different English translations of “putain de bordel de merde” according to academic level

Figure 4 Different English translations of “putain de bordel de merde” according to academic level

This representation of the results can be further broken down to show the results of the native speakers in three academic levels.

Figure 5 Different English translations of “putain de bordel de merde” – native English speakers vs. native French speakers according to academic level

Figure 5 Different English translations of “putain de bordel de merde” – native English speakers vs. native French speakers according to academic level

20Here we remark that the native speakers had a preference for fuck and its derivatives. This tallies with their perception of shit as more offensive than fuck. Across the range of all academic levels, a large majority of students also noted that this type of language is more suited to oral contexts.

21These results show a very marked divergence. For undergraduates, there was a certain relish attached to being able to transgress the unwritten rules of the classroom and do something forbidden in usual circumstances. The many derivatives of fuck were fully exploited by these students who tended to place it twice or even three times in an expression to translate ‘putain de bordel de merde.’ This gave an impression of overkill, verging on the comic at times. In fact the undergraduates seemed to show a manifest lack of accommodation both of the textual constraints of the translation exercise (essentially concerning lexicon which was varied very little and levels of register) and of the classroom situation (respecting the ‘unwritten rules’ which imply respectfulness in a teacher/student exchange).

22In direct contrast, the postgraduates showed marked reservations about the translation required. The students were extremely reticent to write anything potentially inappropriate: visibly embarrassed on seeing the sentence to be translated, it took them twice as long to actually do the exercise and submit their answers. They thought about their answers longer and subsequently their translations of the expression ‘putain de bordel de merde’ were more varied in lexical terms, with the appearance of expressions containing damn, blasted and bloody. Only one student went as far as fuck (used just once in the expression) – an Anglophone with a quizzical and rather apologetic look. Here there was no overkill – quite the opposite – since the lexicon used seemed rather antiquated and strangely inappropriate for a modern teenager. Ultimately, the translations were no more precise than those of the undergraduates.

23When asked why they did not use stronger words that they are all familiar with, the postgraduates gave three reasons:

  1. I don’t use that kind of language in French and so don’t know how to say things like that properly in English. (My emphasis)

  2. I didn’t want to write swearwords down since they are bad words that I only associate with informal oral situations.

  3. I found an alternative that was less offensive so as not to shock or offend you. (My emphasis)

24From these comments, it becomes obvious that the classroom situation has a direct effect on the students’ answers. Some are concerned about appropriateness (reason 1) and suggest that their personal lack of familiarity with this lexical field in French does not enable them to translate into English well and others also state that they did not want to put the teacher in a position where s/he might be embarrassed or shocked (reason 3). This made us aware of the acute embarrassment experienced by postgraduates and the accommodation strategies they use when faced with language that is perhaps not as academic as expected. Basically, they chose to sanitize the language by taking away or ignoring the problematic words in order to anticipate and defuse a potentially embarrassing situation in class. Consequently they tend to over-accommodate.

25In both cases, undergraduates and post-graduates, what comes to light is a lack of empathy with the source text and a substitution of the author by the translator. We would suggest that the problem of translating a text, of remaining faithful to the nature, style and register of the author, is made more difficult by the classroom context. The undergraduates’ lack of accommodation and the post-graduates’ over-accommodation both resulted in a large majority of inadequate translations.

4. Possible explanations for differing attitudes

26This leads us to the question of what it is exactly that makes students either hold back from using the most appropriate word in the target language (over-accommodation) or suggest expressions that are over-the-top (absence of accommodation). Research studies suggest that the problem of inappropriate language in the classroom is multi-faceted.

  • 8 These three elements are cited by the authors in their presentation of the subject.

27First, a general conclusion of the study carried out in this field by Jay & Janschewitz states that in some very specific situations, the use of any kind of informal language is deemed inappropriate by a large majority of people. One of those situations is its use by figures of authority and more specifically teachers. Secondly, there may also be an issue with gender; whereas swearing in all-male informal work or leisure situations is acceptable and accepted, it is deemed less or even un-acceptable as soon as a woman is introduced into that situation. Men are thus expected to accommodate due to the presence of women. The third element to take into account is age: social conventions tend to denounce swearing in front of our elders, and a teacher is very often older than his/her students (Jay & Janschewitz 2008: 272).8 This is also one of the conclusions of the study carried out by Dewaele (2016).

28In class with an older female teacher, all of these three factors are present. This problematic situation is further complicated by the idea of our projected image. Even if EFL students may well use swearwords in less formal oral contexts, writing one down in a translation class, albeit in a foreign language, may require an almost physical effort. We would suggest that they do not want to lose face in front of their teacher. Leech defines face as the “positive self-image or self-esteem that a person enjoys as a reflection of that person’s estimation by others” (Leech 2014: 25). Loss of face occurs when an “individual’s self-esteem is lowered due to the lowering of that person’s estimation in the eyes of others” (Leech 2014: 25). If we refer back to our students’ translations, postgraduates did not use fuck; this may well be due to more experience of and contact with EFL but also to an altered awareness of their future or current role as a teacher – they do not wish to use language that they would not use themselves in a class situation. Kerbrat-Orecchioni’s study on interpersonal relationships (Kerbrat-Orecchioni 1995) suggests that there are a certain number of parameters to take into account when considering an exchange between two people (social hierarchy, degree of intimacy, social roles and expectations). This is very much the case in the classroom where relationships are extremely codified; teachers have a specific social position and role and as such may feel obliged to maintain a certain number of standards or social norms that include the use of appropriate language at all times.

  • 9 We might wonder whether this is not indirectly a face-threatening act, since it does not allow the (...)

29Consequently, it would not seem unreasonable to suggest that our students’ reticence in the use of inappropriate language is due at least in part to a desire not to lose their personal self-esteem but also not to place the teacher in a situation where s/he may be required to use inappropriate language and so lose his/her own self-esteem or the estimation of others. We seem to be in the presence of a situation of face want which aims to enable all speakers in a given situation to ‘keep face’ (Kerbrat-Orecchioni 1995). In order to not lose face personally and not cause loss of face for the teacher – their hierarchical superior in the classroom and a role model for politeness – our students consciously sought translations that they knew to be inadequate. This strategy allowed them to ensure the integrity of all faces at all times. This would appear to be a form of accommodation towards the teacher. The students do not want to project an image that is tainted or that shows that they might be socially unaware of the taboos surrounding the use of certain words. However, this accommodation strategy does not allow the teacher to fully assess the capacities of the students to translate in an adequate manner.9

  • 10 This formulation is used by Waters: the act of forbidding concerns the group ‘faire-X’.

30Furthermore, the cultural determination of the speaker is important as are personal education and upbringing; once again, all three elements determine language use or non-use. It is interesting to point out a slight but specific linguistic difference between French and English culture in the education of children which stems from a different way of looking at a learning situation (Waters 2012). In French, one often hears parents use the expression “Ne fais pas X.”10 When confronted with the immediate “Pourquoi ?”, the parent will invariably say “Cela ne se fait pas.” The flat act of forbidding is most important here with relatively little or no justification – just an idea of social convention conveyed by the impersonal formulation. In English the standard phrase is “It’s rude to + verb” – the verbs point or shout come immediately to mind. Waters suggests that this phrase takes into account the social convention as in the French situation but “It’s rude to …” also underlines the possibility of someone else feeling a negative emotion because of the child’s behaviour. This makes the child aware of his/her place and role within a social group, adding extra weight to the initial phrase and prohibiting to a certain extent any questioning response. By knowing what not to do, we project the image of being “socially-aware.” This explains the reticence in the classroom: the postgraduates promote an image of social awareness but at the same time they avoid the lexical content and “falsify” the translation exercise.

  • 11 These were the conclusions of the study carried out by Jay and Janschewitz.

31Closer to the art of translation, Dewaele points to a specific difficulty concerning inappropriate words: their intrinsic dual nature. On the one hand, they display a literal meaning and on the other they contain an inherent emotional load (Dewaele 2016: 114). The learner’s representation or not of this dual level may well be an important source of the difficulties our students experience when manipulating this sensitive lexicon. Internet and the availability of media of all types have facilitated and fostered increased access to other cultural artefacts that affect the learning and use of language. When questioned, most EFL students state that they hear and learn swearwords thanks to films and series. Because they invariably hear the word in context (e.g. in situations of anger, conflict, humour and so on), they ought to be aware of the pronunciation, the semantics and above all the very variable emotional load that accompanies it and its level of offensiveness. However, Dewaele suggests that, once extracted from its context, the word is stripped of its emotional load in the student’s mind. If a word is devoid of emotional content and social associations, if it is taken as a mere semantic entity with minimal content, then its offensiveness may also be lessened in the mind of the foreign learner. Similarly, students may interiorize direct equivalences between words. For instance, ‘putain’ is always translated with fuck, ‘bordel’ by fucking and so on. This over-simplification of the translation process does not take into account either context or various degrees of meaning and/or offensiveness (and it may also explain some of the syntactic errors in undergraduate translations). This lack of awareness of the various shades of meaning and offensiveness leads directly to problems associated with acceptable usage. In some situations, the same word may be more acceptable than in others. The notion of what is appropriate is also variable within a social group depending on environment, context and emotion (Jay & Janschewitz 2008).11 The fact that some words may cause offence and loss of face to the user or the interlocutor or both can only be appreciated with a wide experience of authentic communication situations and the acquisition of more objectivity or hindsight when faced with the desire to swear in a foreign language.

32EFL teachers tend to banish the use of words deemed inappropriate – be it a question of familiar language and slang or more vulgar and offensive terms. Non-emotional words are legion in the classroom because they represent safe tools for teachers. If used in the classroom, emotional words such as insults are rarely fully explained but rather glossed over or at best given a red flag signalling danger (Dewaele 2016: 123). Also, when EFL students participate in a conversation, they do not necessarily come from the same social group as the native speakers and, most importantly, do not have the lexicon and tools required to use familiar terms. Consequently, they are left very much to their own devices when confronted with the possible use of swearwords in an authentic situation and tackle the problem through trial-and-error, often at their peril. Having learned their second language in the schoolroom, they have not been exposed to authentic use of inappropriate words and it is only after having reached a high level of socialisation in the second language and proximity to the second language culture that they will be able to allow themselves to employ more familiar language in specific situations (Dewaele 2016: 123).

33In addition to these considerations, the over-use of inappropriate words in social media, series, and on the Internet, makes them banal in the minds of the students. Hence their own use of the swearword is in some way truncated: what is banal becomes the norm and so appropriate. To a certain extent, this is exactly the trap into which our over-zealous undergraduates fell (even though a few may consciously have been seeking to lend a certain amount of ‘shock-value’ to their translations).

34The conclusions of Christie’s study may help us to understand the reasons for this ill-informed use of inappropriate language and why it resulted in many cases in a translation that was both unnatural and inexact. The paper aims to define limits or restrictions that might be deemed acceptable for the use of swearwords and concludes that usage outside those limits delegitimizes the speaker (Christie 2013: 167). Drawing on occurrences of swearing on television, she suggests three criteria for the acceptable use of inappropriate language:

  1. Specific environments: notably an all-male, working-class environment

  2. Spontaneity – responding to emotion

  3. Spontaneity – accidental use

35The author illustrates her conclusions with two telling situations. First, the footballer Wayne Rooney was not overtly criticised for his use of the word fuck and various derivatives towards a referee on the football field (even if not audible, it could be read on his lips) because he was reacting spontaneously to a strong feeling of injustice in an all-male workplace situation within a working-class environment. Two of Christie’s three criteria are respected. Secondly, and in complete contrast, Gwyneth Paltrow’s use of the word cunt on an American late-night TV chat show was deemed totally inappropriate by viewers. Christie suggests that this is because Paltrow’s usage did not respect any of the three criteria: the environment was not considered suitable, the speaker was not a working-class male and rather than saying the word spontaneously or accidentally, there was a conscious effort to use it because she wanted to give herself a ‘bad girl’ image. Hence the use was deemed reprehensible and the result was the exact opposite of that sought by the speaker – according to Christie, Paltrow seemed to lose all credibility through her inappropriate use of a taboo word.

  • 12 Another aspect of this ‘delegitimization’ may well be due to phonology. If the pronunciation of a s (...)

36Being given full freedom to do something inappropriate the undergraduates tended to delegitimize themselves, offering translations of pure shock-value that were in fine less than satisfactory because they went too far. They gave the impression of trying to lend authenticity to their speech but since this was a conscious act, the lack of spontaneity as suggested by Christie, delegitimizes that person to a certain extent in the eyes – or ears – of the receiver.12

5. Conclusion

37Considering the diversity of limits suggested in this very brief overview, it might then seem difficult to teach students how to swear correctly. Social codes present us with a problematic situation whereby we would be introducing disrespectful behaviour into an environment where respectfulness has always been the norm and even a requirement. In the minds of students, the classroom is still very much a place where learning is dispensed and as such, it ought not to be ‘desecrated’ or tainted with vulgarity. Deference to authority, as embodied by the teacher, is also important and so the very idea of using inappropriate language when addressing a teacher is unthinkable, just as it is unacceptable that a teacher manipulate such language in class. This complicated situation is rendered almost impossible if the teacher in question is female.

38In all cases, the students require or request permission to express themselves freely using swearwords and invariably apologize afterwards. The more advanced the level of study, the more EFL students tend to attenuate the offensiveness of the language they use. This may be due to the fact that they are training to be teachers or are already teachers and so they move towards a more appropriate register, to a more normative use of language. This is also probably due to the fact that they wish neither to lose face in the classroom nor to inflict loss of face on the teacher. The result in translation means a move away from the most adequate words to more unsatisfactory alternatives. It would seem that this type of problem might only be discussed and treated adequately in class if all of the participants agree to a ‘temporary suspension of respectfulness.’

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Christie, Christine. “The relevance of taboo language: An analysis of the indexical value of swearwords.” Journal of Pragmatics 58 (2013): 152-169.

Culpepper, Jonathan. “Towards an anatomy of impoliteness.” Journal of Pragmatics 25 (1996): 349-367.

Culpepper, Jonathan. “Conventionalised impoliteness formulae.” Journal of Pragmatics 42 (2010): 3232-3245.

Culpepper, Jonathan, Derek Bousfield and Anne Wichmann. “Impoliteness revisited: with special reference to dynamic and prosodic aspects.” Journal of Pragmatics 35 (2003): 1545-1579.

Dewaele, Jean-Marc. “Thirty shades of offensiveness: L1 and LX English users’ understanding, perception and self-reported use of negative emotion-laden words.” Journal of Pragmatics 94 (2016): 112-127.

Haugh, Michael. “Im/politeness, social practice and the participation order.” Journal of Pragmatics 58 (2013): 52-72.

Haugh, Michael. “Impoliteness and taking offence in initial interactions.” Journal of Pragmatics 86 (2015): 36-42.

Jay, Timothy and Kristen Janschewitz. “The Pragmatics of Swearing.” Journal of Politeness Research 4 (2008): 267-288.

Kerbrat Orecchioni, Catherine. « La construction de la relation interpersonnelle : quelques remarques sur cette dimension du dialogue. » Cahiers de linguistique française 16 (1995) : 69-88.

Leech, Geoffrey. The Pragmatics of Politeness. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Mills, Sara. “Impoliteness in a cultural context.” Journal of Pragmatics 41 (2009): 1047-1060.

Pennac, Daniel. Comme un roman. Paris : Gallimard, 1992.

Schneider, Klaus P. “Appropriate behaviour across varieties of English.” Journal of Pragmatics 44 (2012): 1022-1037.

Sifianou, Maria. “The impact of globalization on politeness and impoliteness.” Journal of Pragmatics 55 (2013): 86-102.

Taylor, Charlotte. “Beyond sarcasm: The Metalanguage and structures of mock politeness.” Journal of Pragmatics 87 (2015): 127-141.

Waters, Sophia. “‘It’s rude to VP’: the cultural semantics of rudeness.” Journal of Pragmatics 44 (2012): 1051-1062.


Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. Kate Woodford and Guy Jackson (eds.). 2nd edn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. (CALD)

Collins Robert French-English, English-French Dictionary. Beryl T. S. Atkins. New York: Webster’s New World, 1981.

Linguee. Dictionnaire anglais-français et recherche via un milliard de traductions. URL: < > ; consulted on 05/10/2017.

Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English. Della Summers (ed.). 4th edn. Harlow: Pearson Education, 2003.

Le Petit Robert. Paris : Dictionnaires Le Robert, 1986.

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Reverso. URL: < >; consulted on 05/10/2017.

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Word Reference. Dictionnaires de langue en ligne. URL: < >; consulted on 05/10/2017.

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1 URL: < >.

2 URL: < >.

3 We chose to look at Linguee and its actual translations, at Word Reference and Reverso, the bilingual dictionary Robert-Collins (published in 1981), the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (CALD) and Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (LDCE), the Petit Robert in French, the OED and also Roget’s Thesaurus.

4 Waters’ study – and so her categorisations – looks at norms that are recognized by social groups using the same language natively and she does point out that some overlapping is inevitable depending on each individual. This is obviously not the case in the classroom.

5 The results of this earlier study are reflected in the small study carried out with our students. Only a small part of the data was exploited for this particular study on inappropriate language in the classroom.

6 Pennac, Daniel, Comme un roman, Paris : Gallimard, 1992, p. 22-23.

7 This is borne out by the studies conducted by Jay, Timothy and Kristen Janschewitz, “The Pragmatics of Swearing,” Journal of Politeness Research 4, 2008, and Dewaele, Jean-Marc, “Thirty shades of offensiveness: L1 and LX English users’ understanding, perception and self-reported use of negative emotion-laden words,” Journal of Pragmatics 94, 2016.

8 These three elements are cited by the authors in their presentation of the subject.

9 We might wonder whether this is not indirectly a face-threatening act, since it does not allow the teacher to do his/her job efficiently. The desire to assess a student’s mastery of informal language is somehow truncated.

10 This formulation is used by Waters: the act of forbidding concerns the group ‘faire-X’.

11 These were the conclusions of the study carried out by Jay and Janschewitz.

12 Another aspect of this ‘delegitimization’ may well be due to phonology. If the pronunciation of a swear word is a little uncertain, the native ear can be very unforgiving. Unfortunately for our French students, fuck and cunt are both articulated with the notoriously difficult phoneme /ʌ/ that they find hard to distinguish from /ɒ/. Mispronounced, the word has less force, especially when we take into account that fock is a well-known avoidance strategy used in place of fuck. This characteristic is exploited in the film title Meet the Fockers (2004) which was subsequently given the second title Meet the Parents 2, probably to avoid any problems due to mishearing.

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 1 Terms designating different levels of informal register
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Title Figure 2 Classification of the word shit in 7 dictionaries
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Title Figure 3 Classification of 5 terms on a scale of offensiveness: native speakers vs. non-native speakers
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Title Figure 4 Different English translations of “putain de bordel de merde” according to academic level
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Title Figure 5 Different English translations of “putain de bordel de merde” – native English speakers vs. native French speakers according to academic level
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Electronic reference

Tracey Simpson, Accommodating inappropriate language: how students react to the translation of inappropriate language in the classroomAnglophonia [Online], 25 | 2018, Online since 01 June 2018, connection on 25 January 2022. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Tracey Simpson

ALTER (Arts / Langages : Transition & Relations, EA 7504), Université de Pau et des Pays de l’Adour (UNIV PAU & PAYS ADOUR / E2S UPPA), 64000, Pau, France

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Licence Creative Commons
Anglophonia – French Journal of English Linguistics est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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