Scholarly article on topic '“May Bread Run and You Run After It”: The Function of Cursing in Persian'

“May Bread Run and You Run After It”: The Function of Cursing in Persian Academic research paper on "Psychology"

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{Cursing / "Speech act theory" / DCT / "Focused interviews"}

Abstract of research paper on Psychology, author of scientific article — Marzieh Nezakat-Alhossaini, Abbass Esslami-Rasekh

Abstract This study sought to investigate the function of cursing as a speech act in Persian and uncap its underlying social and cultural principles. An open Discourse Completion Test (DCT) of eight situations along with focused and individual interviews were used to collect the data from the 90 males and females participated in the study. The females were found to use cursing utterances more often than males. Less educated people used cursing utterances more frequently than more educated ones. The other strategies used by these participants were swearing, advising, and blaming oneself, in the educated ones, and praying and asking God for help among the uneducated.

Academic research paper on topic "“May Bread Run and You Run After It”: The Function of Cursing in Persian"

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Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences 70 (2013) 517 - 525

Akdeniz Language Studies Conference 2012

"May bread run and you run after it55: the function of cursing

in Persian

Marzieh Nezakat-Alhossainia* Abbass Esslami-Rasekhb

aUniversity of Isfahan, English Department, Faculty of Foreig Languages, Isfahan,81746-7344, Iran bUniversity of Isfahan, English Department, Faculty of Foreign Languages, Isfahan,81746-7344, Iran


This study sought to investigate the function of cursing as a speech act in Persian and uncap its underlying social and cultural principles. An open Discourse Completion Test (DCT) of eight situations along with focused and individual interviews were used to collect the data from the 90 males and females participated in the study. The females were found to use cursing utterances more often than males. Less educated people used cursing utterances more frequently than more educated ones. The other strategies used by these participants were swearing, advising, and blaming oneself, in the educated ones, and praying and asking God for help among the uneducated.

© 2012 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Ltd. Selection and peer-review under responsibility of ALSC 2012

Keywords: Cursing, speech act theory, DCT, focused interviews

1. Introduction

Since the introduction of speech act theory by Austin (1962) and then Searle (1969) many studies have investigated these different acts both intra-culturally and cross-culturally. One very rarely investigated speech act which is the focus of this study is 'cursing'. Cursing is as opposed to blessing. As it is defined by Longman Cultural Dictionary, cursing is "to ask God or a supernatural power to harm somebody". Austin (1962) places cursing utterances among the behabitives part in his classification of utterances according to their illocutionary meaning, and adds that behabitives (such as apologizing, congratulating,

* Marzieh Nezakat-Alhossaini. Tel: +989131282773. E-mail address:

1877-0428 © 2012 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Ltd. Selection and peer-review under responsibility of ALSC 2012 doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2013.01.089

commending, etc.) have to do with attitudes and social behavior. Thomas (1995) in his classification of performatives introduces 'ritual performatives' which are by definition highly culture bound in nature. Cursing utterances, therefore, can be regarded as culture specific utterances which might be present in a culture though absent in another, or be used more or less frequently in different cultures. This might be granted for this speech act being under-investigated in the literature.

The present study, as a result, tried to investigate cursing utterances in Persian, which has a long list of cursing utterances some still used in every day conversations. As stated earlier, cursing utterances are culture bound, so this study is an intra-cultural study within Persian culture, and therefore, not a cross-cultural one. The following questions are under scrutiny here.

1. How do educated and uneducated or under-educated people differ in using cursing utterances?

2. How do males and females differ in using cursing utterances?

3. What are the most prevalent strategies used by these participants in social conflicts?

2. Literature review

The relationship between a language, its speakers, and their thought and culture has been a topic of interest among philosophers and linguists for a long time. Sapir (1929) was the first to argue that language and culture are related, and it is not possible to understand one without understanding the other. In direct relation to this association, John Austin (1962) and then Searle (1969) introduced the notion of speech act theory by which they claimed that people do not only utter words in terms of the grammatical structures and words, but they carry out actions through these utterances. Throughout the literature many different speech acts have been widely investigated from among are studies on Brown and Levinson (1987)'s politeness theory (from among the most recent ones: Hobbs, 2002; Haugh and Hinze, 2003; Haugh, 2007; Bella, 2011; Abdolresapour and Esslami-Rasekh, 2012), studies on request (Fukushima and Iwata, 1987; Blum-Kulka, House, and Kasper, 1989; Sato, 2008; Ho, 2010), refusals (Beebe, Takahashi, and Uliss-Weltz, 1990; Chen, 1996; Koutlaki, 2002; Allami and Naeimi, 2010), and apologies (Cohen and Olshtain, 1981; Olshtain, 1983; House, 1988; Shariati and Chamani, 2007; Kampf, 2009).

Cursing utterances are also known as a speech act. Austin (1962) divides performative verbs into verdictives, exercitives, commissives, behabitives, and expositives. Behabitives are related to social behavior and include apologizing, congratulating, commending, condoling, cursing, and challenging. According to Austen, a performative verb is the one which, under appropriate conditions and in a performative way, carries out the act it calls. Verschueren (1980), on the other hand, proposed that there is a 'performativity continuum' which on one extreme there are performative verbs and on the other the performative verbs that due to pragmatic constraints cannot be used performatively. Cursing utterances, as do not always perform actions as other speech acts, can be considered a kind of performative verb which does not intend to perform an action but express feelings. This is in line with Lyons (1981) who classifies cursing utterances as 'emotionals' since they do not have any truth value, and when uttered it is not clear whether the punishment called is happening or not. Accordingly, these utterances, unlike interrogatives or imperatives, do not indicate judgment, but only express emotions such as anger, surprise, sadness, grief, and complaint.

An important fact about cursing utterances, like swearing utterances, is that unlike other speech acts the consequence of the utterance is directed towards the speaker not the hearer or the addressee. This is due the fact that, as stated by Austin (1962), cursing utterances are uttered to relieve the speakers of anger, in other words, the perlocutionary act is not for the person to whom the curse is directed but for the performer.

Curse utterances have not been widely investigated in the literature. Among the existing studies are the investigation of curing utterances in Sh^esperce's plays (from among, Scott 1984, Dunning, 2010), short

articles on cursing in bible in bible study forums (Pratte, 2005, 2007, 2008), and studies on cursing, witch-hunt, and witch-crafting (Culpeper and Semino, 2000). One very relevant study conducted in cursing utterances is done by Vanci-Osam (1998). In this study he has developed a typology of cursing utterances based on the speech act theory of Austen. He has tried to see how these utterances fit into the different criteria Hymes (1974) proposed for analyzing speech acts, such as setting, participants, goals, etc. The present study intended to investigate the use of cursing utterances by triangulating the data via a Discourse Completion Test (DCT) and follow-up interviews.

3. Methodology

3.1. Participants

The participants of the study consisted of 45 males and 45 females. From among the males 20 held higher education (MA/MS and Ph.D.) and 20 held a high school Diploma or less; the same pattern was true for the females. The participants ranged in age from 25 to 45. They were all Persian native speakers, however, some did not have literary knowledge to read and write (n = 15).

3.2. Instrumentations

3.2.1. Demographic questionnaire

A demographic questionnaire was used to gather the participants' personal information. The questionnaires were anonymous and were numbered in accordance with the DCTs. The items included the participants' age, gender, mother tongue, educational level, marital status, and jobs. The population distribution is presented in table 1 below.

Table 1. The participants' biodata_

Education Gender Mother tongue Marital status

Illiterate, n= 10 (11%) 45 M Persian Married, n=50 (55.5%)

High school dropout n= 10 (11%) 45 F Single, n= 40 (44.4%)

High school diploma, n= 15 (16%)

Ma/MS (student/holder), n= 35 (38%)

PhD (student/holder), n= 10 (11%)

Total (un) under-educated= 45 (50%)

Total educated= 45 (50%)

3.2.2. Discourse Completion Test (DCT)

A tailored DCT was used to help investigate the participants' production of cursing utterances in conversations. DCTs are believed not to be reliable enough to be used as the only research instrumentation. Beebe and Cummings (1996) provide reasons to DCTs' lack of reliability. As they state "DCT is a written hypothetical situation so that DCT does not bring out psycho-social dynamics of an interaction between members of a group" (p. 77). They believe that DCTs lack naturalness. One problem they point out about DCTs is that when participants are asked to write what they would say at the end of given situations, they might not produce the real statements they would actually say in real situations.

Despite the mentioned shortcomings, though, these authors recommend DTCs as a useful data collection instrument because they believe that naturalness is only one of the requirements for good data.

The first question of each situation in the DCT was after investigating whether or not the participants use cursing situations as the speakers do in conversations. The second question asked the participants what they would really want to say if they were not socially limited in each situation. This part was included in the questionnaire to help avoid avoidance in answering the questions, and therefore, gain more realistic answers.

The DCTs contained eight situations. The following table shows the contextual variables of the items (See the appendix for the questionnaire).

Table 2. Contextual variables in the DCT

Situation Social power Social distance

Situation 1 S>H - SD

Situation 2 S<H - SD

Situation 3 S>H - SD

Situation 4 S<H + SD

Situation 5 S<H + SD

Situation 6 S<H - SD

Situation 7 S>H + SD

Situation 8 S<H + SD

Note: S: speaker, H: Hearer, SD: Social Distance

In the first situation, there is a conversation between a father and his demanding son. The second situation is a conversation between a stubborn husband and his wife. The third one is between a mother and her son. The forth situation is a conversation between a poor widow and a banker. The fifth situation is between an old woman and a young fellow on a bike. The sixth one is a conversation between a mother and her toddler. The seventh situation is between an old man and a bullyboy. And finally, the eighth situation is between an abused woman and an officer. In all situations we tried to make the conversations as close as possible to the reality, and also tried to make them stimulate the readers sentiments; for example, having an abused woman or a helpless old lady.

3..2.3. Follow-up interviews

After finishing the questionnaires, a number of forty participants were randomly selected to have follow-up interviews. The reason behind conducting the interviews was to provide a more natural data and to compensate for the possible lack of naturalness in the DCT, since there was a chance to negotiate on the answers provided. Another reason was to use these interviews as a stimulated recall to gain deeper insight into the answers provided by the participants. There were two kind of interviews involved in the study; individual and focus group interviews. The content of the interviews was the same and only differed in that the content of the questions in focus groups was put to discussion in groups of 5 to 10 people. They were asked about how they felt about each situation, and if they had ever encountered a situation in which they or others cursed somebody and why. If they had written that they would utter the same cursing statement the interviewer would ask them why or in cases they had avoided cursing they were asked why not. The interviews were recorded and then transcribed for coding.

4. Results and discussion

This study tried to answer three research questions. The first research question dealt with the difference in producing cursing utterances among educated versus uneducated or under-educated people, and the second one was concerned with the difference in production among males versus females. The third research question sought to gain a pattern of use among the participants in what utterances they used more, that is, the prevalence of the utterances used. Below, the results obtained through the two research instruments are presented and discussed in details.

The DCT, as stated earlier, checked two things; whether or not the participants were willing to use the cursing utterances embedded in the conversations and their pattern of use. The results of the first part (what would you say?) are presented in the following table.

Table 3. Results for cursing utterances production (DCT)

Situations Educated/M Educated/F (un) Under-educated/M (un) Under-educated/F

Situation 1 2% 3% 7% 5 %

Situation 2 3% 3% 5% 10%

Situation 3 3% 7% 7% 10%

Situation 4 4% 5% 10% 15%

Situation 5 5% 5% 15% 15%

Situation 6 3% 3% 6% 7%

Situation 7 3% 2% 13% 10%

Situation 8 5% 3% 10% 20%

Total 28 31 66 92

In this part of the DCT the participants were to say what they would say in the same situation having read the statement said by a speaker which was always a cursing utterance. As it is presented in the table the individual percentages show that both groups found using cursing utterances not very appropriate. The females in both groups tended to perceive cursing utterances more appropriate than the males in the same group. And the (un)under-educated people seemed to perceive these utterances more appropriate than the educated group.

As mentioned earlier, the second question for each situation was about what they would really want to say that they would avoid saying in the real situation due to, for instance, being in public or talking to strangers. The respondents' answers were coded by the researchers and categorized into the following strategies. The following table shows the other strategies they claimed they would use.

Table 4. Indirect strategies used in situations

Praying God to help the hearer for the bad Threatening behavior

Swearing Making a Promise

Blaming oneself Asking for permission

Asking God to help oneself Approval

Cursing Silence

Blaming God Imposing ideas

Expressing regret Negotiation

Advice Expressing disappointment Expressing embarrassment

The first research question tried to find the possible differences between females and males in using cursing utterances. The first question in each situation required the participants to imagine themselves in the same situation and in place of a speaker who cursed in an annoying situation. As presented in table 3, the total percentage of producing cursing utterances in females (31% and 91%) was more than the males (28% and 66%) regardless of their educational level. Women are known to have less social power in comparison with men. In traditional and religious societies like what exists in Iran, women have even less social power in the society. As mentioned earlier cursing utterances are known as emotional expressions to relieve from anger or a feeling of being suppressed. Women, due to their low social power and lack of power of imposition, tend to show their anger by asking a supernatural power to help them or revenge the person involved in the act of suppression.

The second research question dealt with the difference between educated versus uneducated or undereducated participants. Regardless of being a male or a female the educated participants produced less cursing utterances (28% and 31%) compared with the uneducated (66% and 92%).

Another way to look at the results of the first question was to see how educated versus uneducated females and educated versus uneducated males were different in producing cursing utterances. As presented in table 3, the educated women produced less cursing utterances in comparison with the uneducated or undereducated ones. A way to justify this issue is that educated women, due to their social interactions and social position, feel more powerful and secure in their social interactions, and therefore, do not see the necessity to show their anger by using cursing utterances or asking a supernatural power to come to help in such social conflicts. The results for educated males versus uneducated ones were the same as the females. The reason to this difference is rooted in cultural and religious issues in such societies as Iran's. People in these societies, due to their religious beliefs, actually have faith in the truth value of cursing utterances. These beliefs are stronger in less educated people who feel less socially powered to win in unequal social conflicts and try to ask a more powerful entity to provide them with justice.

The second question in each situation tried to elicit the strategies they would use in each situation, if they were not socially limited. Table 4 illustrated these 17 strategies. The pattern of use between uneducated versus educated males and females was different regarding the most prevalent strategies used in different situations. The most prevalent situation used by the educated females and educated males was negation. When recalled in individual and focus group interviews, these participants claimed that cursing shows weakness in characteristics and power and the best way to solve the conflict is negotiation. Another frequent strategy was keeping silent. They explained that when things are out of control, it is sometimes better to keep silent and talk when neither of the participants is angry or upset. Furthermore, they found cursing taboo.

One strategy frequently used by the educated participants was swearing. They expressed in the interviews that cursing involves God, and some even believed that it is bad luck to curse because something bad might happen to somebody as a result of cursing. Another strategy used by these participants was advising. In interviews they believed that instead of coming to fights, advising is a better way than losing control and curse. Other strategies such as promising, blaming oneself and imposing ideas were used but not very frequently.

The uneducated males and females also showed differences among themselves and their educated counterparts. The uneducated women tended to use cursing utterances again. Some who had avoided cursing in the first place expressed in the interviews that cursing utterances have truth value and they do not dare curse anybody. Instead they preferred to pray for the hearer in conversations, and ask God to help both counterparts. Another strategy they preferred to use was asking God to help oneself. They would ask God to help them overcome the unpleasant situation and help them keep calm. They tended to

blame themselves for the situation more than their educated counterparts. They believed that if something is happening to them it is the direct result of their own actions and that they may actually deserve to be behaved that way.

The undereducated and uneducated males tended to use cursing utterances, but in comparison to the females they believed less in the truth value of cursing utterances and looked at cursing as a way to express their anger. They used threatening more than females and their educated counterparts. The uneducated males in comparison with the undereducated ones seemed to behave like the uneducated females, especially when it came to show disappointment and blaming oneself. These also thought that a bad situation is the result of their own actions and this is God's will, therefore, they blamed themselves and asked God to help them overcome the situation as they found themselves helpless.

5. Conclusion

This study intended to have a close look at cursing as a speech act and its actual use in Iranian society. The factors under study were gender and educational level as two important factors in the prevalence of these utterances in the society. As mentioned above, educational level was found to be a defining factor in using these utterances by the participants. The higher their educational level the less they tended to use these utterances. It was discussed above that educated people believed themselves to be powerful enough to overcome the unpleasant situation, and they did not find it necessary to ask for a supernatural power to come to help.

Females, regardless of their educational level, were found to use these utterances more frequently than their male counterparts. The uneducated females found themselves less powerful and mostly helpless in social conflicts, and sought for help from a powerful source, here God.

The strategies used more often by the educated people were negotiation, keeping silent, and advising. Some also tended to sweat when they felt angry in the situation. The uneducated tended to curse, threaten, blame themselves, ask God to help them, pray for both partners in the situation, and pray.

The implications of this study were that the more socially involved these people were the stronger they felt in the situations, and the more willing to negotiate. This was even more salient among women. Therefore, the more educated they were they believed less in the truth value of these utterances, and found these utterances taboo. Also being educated had direct relation to the way they tended to behave in public as to avoid using socially unacceptable utterances and tried to work the situation out by using negotiation and advice something which is in accordance with the politeness theory.


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