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Conference Information

Full Title: The Linguistics of Offensive Language

Location: Zurich, Switzerland
Start Date: 10-Sep-2017 - 13-Sep-2017
Contact: Adrian Tien
Meeting Email: click here to access email
Meeting Description: We are currently putting together a workshop proposal dedicated to the linguistics of offensive language, to be submitted to SLE for incorporation into the SLE 2017 meeting in Zurich (10 - 13 September 2017).

As rude and coarse as offensive language may sound, it exists for a reason and speakers use it for a reason. Even if offensive language represents the “unmentionable” of language (Fleming & Lempert 2011), most people still “mention” it from time to time because, presumably, this part of the language encapsulates something socially, functionally or culturally sensitive yet significant. In fact, in Tien (2015: 164), it was through semantic and cultural analyses of a selection of offensive words in Chinese Hokkien that offensive vocabulary was shown to “represent a fascinating and compelling source of enquiry, richly packed with cultural information waiting to be discovered”.

In this workshop, we seek to establish that offensive language is more than what meets the ears. It is more than a verbal reflex as a result of an emotional outburst. If offensive language concerns deliberate challenge to certain social norms or cultural values by mentioning the unmentionables, then it intrigues us to know what these norms and values are driving at such unmentionables. Specifically, we plan to address the following questions, among others:

- Why do people offend with words?
- What is the formal representation of offensive language (cross-linguistically)?
- What kind of offensive language have people been known to say cross-culturally?
- Why can’t we do without offensive language? In other words: do people have to use offensive language?
- Why do we need to understand offensive language better?

Whether we like it or not, offensive language is here to stay. It, therefore, helps to understand offensive language better even if only in translational contexts. Research shows that offensive language is hard to translate - possibly because it encapsulates culturally significant (and unique) values - and this is one reason why offensive words and phrases don’t seem to carry the same offensive power even when they do somehow get translated. Learners of second languages etc. will know from experience that offensive language needs to be used strategically in order for it to function effectively.

In proposing this workshop, we note that there is some literature on offensive language, albeit small in size. However, a lot of it falls within what can only be regarded as non-serious generalist literature, rather than academic. In this workshop, the impetus is to bring a linguistically rigorous angle of offensive language back into focus, examining this kind of language for what it is and how it should be analysed. Following the workshop, we plan to put the contributions together into an edited volume and have these published with a reputable publisher. This volume promises to break new ground in linguistic research on offensive language.

If you have further questions please contact Adrian Tien at

References (featured above):

Fleming, L., & Lempert, M. 2011. Beyond bad words. Anthropological Quarterly, 84(1), 5–13.
Tien, Adrian. 2015. Offensive language and sociocultural homogeneity in Singapore: An ethnolinguistic perspective. International Journal of Language and Culture, 2(2), 142–167.
Linguistic Subfield: Cognitive Science; Discourse Analysis; General Linguistics; Translation; Typology
LL Issue: 27.3986

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