Swearing in Italian: A redefinition of the notions of dysphemism and euphemism

Advances in Swearing Research: New languages and new contexts

Swearing is a phenomenon strongly connected to social interaction, to which its linguistic features have often been linked (cf. Montagu 1973; Averna 1977; K. J. K. 1978; Averna and Salemi 1982; Allan and Burridge 1991, 2006; Zwicky et al. 1992 [1971]; Culpeper 1996; Hughes 1998; McEnery 2006; Spencer-Oatey 2005; Hughes 2006; Bousfield and Locher 2008; Jay and Janschewitz 2008; Jay 2009; Culpeper 2011). Yet despite the growing interest in the study of swearing among linguists, only a minority of studies have focussed on the grammatical features of swearing (e.g. Jay & Danks 1977; Radtke 1977). When attention has been devoted to the grammatical features of swearing, the results of these studies have led to the identification of sets of constructions (Hoeksema and Napoli 2008) or formulae (Culpeper 2010; 2011) that are conventionally associated with swearing (e.g. Postma 2001; den Dikken & Giannakidou 2002; Sprouse 2005). Drawing on these studies, this paper investigates swearing in Italian by looking at how the variants of the construction rompere i coglioni (“break the balls/testicles”, meaning “bothering someone”) as attested in the itWaC corpus can shed light on syntactic and lexical changes in swearing. In order to do so, we will firstly provide an account of how swearing is encoded linguistically in Italian by analysing the features known as dysphemism (the use of harsh forms of word when there are less harsh forms available) and euphemism (weaker forms substituted for harsh forms) (cf. Allan & Burridge 2006) and how they are syntactically constructed in relation to “conventionalised impoliteness formulae” (Culpeper 2011). This relation will provide evidence that the notions of dysphemism and euphemism should be supplemented with a usage-based perspective in order to be able to account for attested changes and variations. This work stems from linguistic studies of dysphemisms and euphemisms (inter alia Allan & Burridge 2006), and in particular, those that outline how these features are used in Italian – notably Galli de’ Paratesi (1973 [1964]) which looked principally at euphemisms; Radtke (1977) which investigated the suffixations of a set of dysphemisms and euphemisms related to the Italian word prostituta (“prostitute”); Tartamella (2006) which principally explored variation in swearing in Italian; and Napoli and Hoeksema (2009) which analysed a set of Italian taboo constructions. Our focus is on investigating how swearing is rendered at the syntactic level, with the goal of testing whether the ‘grammar’ of swearing could benefit from a Construction Grammar analysis of the processes that ‘govern’ swearing. This chapter therefore aims at understanding how swearing is syntactically structured, and which features it presents in terms of changes and variations. Hence, we will address the issue of how swearwords are used and substituted with other words in constructions, in spite of an apparent lack of a semantic relation/similarity between the words involved (cf. Napoli and Hoeksema 2009:636). This latter condition also allows us to test whether “[i]n taboo constructions […] lexical meaning appears to play no role”, as previously noted by Hoeksema and Napoli (2008:352). The starting point is the belief that a set of variational aspects attested in Italian conventionalised impoliteness formulae cannot be accounted for by the anthropological/sociological/etymological approach adopted by previous studies on Italian swearing as well as swearing in other languages. We argue that dysphemisms and euphemisms should be approached from a usage-based perspective, using corpus linguistics to highlight a set of grammatical features related to these notions. By adopting a Construction Grammar framework to analyse the results gathered from a large corpus of Italian, ItWaC, we test whether this framework can account for changes and variations in Italian taboo language dysphemisms and euphemisms. Accordingly, the next section presents an overview of the current literature on dysphemisms and euphemisms, with a particular focus on how these two features have been analysed in Italian, as well as an introduction to “conventionalised impoliteness formulae” (Culpeper 2011). We then proceed to an introduction of the corpus method, the Construction Grammar framework and a description of the data used for the analysis – the itWaC corpus. Continuing on, we present the analysis of the Italian multi-word taboo expression rompere i coglioni. This analysis focuses in particular on two different features, namely (i) the occurrences of conventionalised dysphemisms in the expression; and (ii) the variations of the expression formed by the use of conventionalised and non-conventionalised euphemisms, where the taboo status (but not the nuance/connotation) remains unaltered. We look at variants where coglioni is substituted with non-dysphemisms, as well as compound nouns that are related to the multi-word expression under analysis (e.g. rompicoglioni; “ball-breaker”). Subsequently, we propose a Construction Grammar approach to the results highlighted by the corpus analysis, arguing that this framework can explain the variations discovered through the analysis of the data. Finally, we put forward the thesis that euphemisms can be understood as variants whose taboo status is provided by the highly frequent occurrences of dysphemisms in expressions where euphemisms are used to convey taboo language.