[Lingtyp] Grammatical marking of insults (?)

ROBERT Stephane stephane.robert at cnrs.fr
Wed Dec 15 11:01:04 UTC 2021

Dear Ricardo (and all),

When studying grammatical marking of insults, I think that one should first distinguish insults in "direct speech" (i.e directed to the addressee) and those in the third person (referring to someone being talked about).

Interestingly, for the second kind of insults, you can find in French a genitival construction as it was the case in the Portugese and Finnish examples mentionned by the colleagues:

In this specific construction (for insulting a referent in discourse), a "genitival" complement is attached to a depreciating adjective (outside this insulting use, this construction, in which the head of the NP is an adjective, is agrammatical)


as in :

cet imbécile de chauffeur

DEM stupid of driver

lit. 'this stupid of driver'

This construction did exist already in classical French (cf famous example from the dramatist Molière : ce coquin de valet)

- this construction is impossible with a positive adjective (*ce merveilleux DE chauffeur > ce merveilleux chauffeur 'this wonderful driver')

- it would be strange to use it with a second person, that is to say it to the addressee (? toi, imbécile de chauffeur 'you, stupid of (a) driver'); possible though, but with specific pragmatic effects (cf using third person in dialogs)

- It is maybe possible with definite article (should be checked on corpus) but sounds less natural than with the demonstrative (? l'imbécile de chauffeur)

- I feel that it is possible to have a possessive determiner (mon imbécile de chauffeur 'my supid of driver') , but the demonstrative determiner is still better.

So deictic pointing seems to be part of this specific "qualifying" construction whereby the referential noun is presented as a possessor the "quality" expressed by the.... adjectival head.

NB. "de" is a preposition used for the source ('from'), the  as well as for possession.

For those who read French, there is a book on this question in French, but I don't remember the details (so the comments above are mines):

Ruwet, Nicolas. 1982. Grammaire des insultes et autres études. Paris : Éd. du Seuil



Stéphane ROBERT
Langage, Langues et Cultures d'Afrique - UMR8135

De : Lingtyp <lingtyp-bounces at listserv.linguistlist.org> de la part de Riccardo Giomi <rgiomi at campus.ul.pt>
Envoyé : mardi 14 décembre 2021 19:49
Objet : [Lingtyp] Grammatical marking of insults (?)

Dear all,

A student of mine would like to investigate the linguistic coding of insults across languages. She is particularly interested in finding out whether languages can have dedicated (uses of) grammatical forms/constructions for this specific purpose. The best example I could come up with so far is the use of the Portuguese third person reflexive possessive adjective (determiner in Brazilian Portuguese) seu/sua with epithets which are meant as insults. An example would be

Cala=te, seu burro!
shut.up.IMP.2.SG<http://shut.up.IMP.2.SG>=2.SG.OBJ 3.SG.REFL.POSS donkey.M.SG<http://donkey.M.SG>
'Shut up, you idiot!'

(Where, funnily enough, the third person of the adjective/determiner is presumably the polite form!) This is an interesting case, I think, because as far as I can see you never use seu/sua in 'plain' vocatives, nor with terms of endearment, nor, for that matter, with NPs which are not used as invocations.

I am wondering whether anyone is aware of a language which has some grammaticalized form or construction that can be used in this specific way. Note that I am not interested in, say, abusive pronouns or honorifics or general expressions of the speaker's disappointment ('frustrative' markers) but only in grammaticalized means of marking the speech act as an insult.

Many thanks in advance and best wishes to all,

Riccardo Giomi, Ph.D.
University of Liège
Département de langues modernes : linguistique, littérature et traduction
Research group Linguistique contrastive et typologie des langues
F.R.S.-FNRS Postdoctoral fellow (CR - FC 43095)
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