Recent research into spoken British English reveals that swearing habits between men and women are closer than ever before. This insight has received a great deal of media coverage, and Robbie Love from the Spoken BNC research project explains first-hand to us how the language of swearing has evolved since the 90’s.
Ten years ago, Professor Tony McEnery and colleagues published groundbreaking research about swearing in spoken British English in the early 1990s, exploring the associations between ‘bad language’ and gender, socio-economic status and age. By studying millions of words of conversation between Brits he was able to categorise swear words to a level of sophistication never achieved before. It provided an excellent ‘snapshot’ of swearing at one particular point in the recent history of our language. What he and colleagues found was that certain bad words, such as f*ck and Jesus were preferred by male speakers, whereas others, like b*tch and sh*t, were more heavily used by female speakers.
Fast forward to the present day, and Professor McEnery has launched a new spoken language project. The project is known as the Spoken British National Corpus 2014 (Spoken BNC2014) for which I am part of the research team – a collaboration between Lancaster University and Cambridge University Press. Together we have compiled a 10 million word corpus of contemporary, informal spoken British English. Inspired by the previous research by Professor Tony McEnery, I thought it would be interesting to study swearing in our new data in the same way. What, if anything, has changed in the last twenty years? Do people swear more than before, implying that swearing is more acceptable in everyday speech? Are there any new swear words? Are there still so many clear imbalances in swearing between men and women?
This is the first time in the history of the human race that we have been able to study large scale changes in spoken language over a time period as short as twenty years!
This work is still in its infancy, but I have taken a good look at the f-word (and all morphological variants e.g. f***ing, f***ed, etc.) to see if there is any indication of change. It is clear that there has been a massive shift in the use of this word in British society between the 1990s and the present day.
In the early 1990s, the f-word was very much a male word. Men used this word approximately 1000 times per million words, as opposed to women who used it less than 200 times per million words. Furthermore, teenagers and young adults were much more likely to use the f-word than their older counterparts, and it was used more so by speakers in lower socio-economic status groups than higher (even though those in the very highest groups used it more than middle class speakers!).
Looking at the new data, some things appear not to have changed very much. The f-word peaks in use with speakers in their twenties and generally decreases with age. And it is still more heavily skewed towards the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum (however, the f-word does appear to have become more popular among the middle class).
What has changed substantially is the distribution of the f-word between men and women. In the present day, our data suggests that the imbalance that existed in the 1990s has completely disappeared – men and women now use the f-word equally as frequently as each other (nearly 600 times each per million words). So, men are using it less than before and women are using it more, it seems.
The next step is to consider why this drastic change may have happened. The answer appears to lie within a wider trend of gender equality which has been progressing for many decades. The idea that women should perform ‘feminine’ language and that men should perform ‘masculine’ language appears to be changing. In the words of Professor McEnery, “as equality drives on, the idea that there is male and female language, that there are things which men and women should or should not say, is going to be eroded . . . gentlemanly behaviour and ladylike language should become something of the past”. And so, the shift in the use of the f-word seems to be evidence for the convergence of male and female talk.