Installment #7 in the mini-series on multilingual signage

When I lived in Basel in Switzerland, my then-preschool child was just learning to make sense of the alphabet and to sound out words – a development I obviously encouraged as much as I could by seizing every literacy opportunity. Generally speaking, pretty much everything can be a learning opportunity. However, I had one problem: the most direct route to her childcare center was past this huge graffiti.

The f-word on the move

Imagine my dilemma: normally we talk a lot about letters and words and how to put them together, except when it comes to the writing on the wall and mummy gets all cagey and goes “never mind” … Although I like to think of myself as a creative teacher, I’ve never been able to come up with an age-appropriate way to talk about this piece of graffiti except to change my route and take a longer route that did not involve walking past the wall with the “Fuck Blocher” graffiti. Blocher, btw, is a controversial right-wing politician.

Judging on the basis of graffiti, the f-word is continental Europeans’ favorite English-language word. The margins of the English-language empire writing back?! Most commentators on graffiti agree that graffiti are intended to be transgressive and to express some kind of opposition. This is clearly the case with fuck-graffiti. Opposition may be directed against specific politicians and the politics they stand for, as in the example above or the large number of “Fuck Bush” graffiti that graced many European cities in the middle of the decade (the first example in the slide is from the window sill of a Basel tram). Instead of targeting a particular politician, opposition may also be expressed against “the system” and its oppressive apparatus more generally, as in ubiquitous “fuck the police” graffiti (one example in the slide show is from the play equipment on a Swiss playground; the other is from a suburban Munich train station).

Why does a 1988 NWA gangsta rap protest song from the American ghettos continue to speak to European youths, in a different time and a different place? One explanation might lie in the appropriation and commercialization of hip hop and African-American cultural styles more generally that has seen them expand around the globe. Another explanation can be found in other fuck-graffiti, namely those that speak of ethnic tensions and conflicts in Europe and that allude to the exclusion of migrant youths and the concomitant formation of ethnic gangs. Slides 4-6 provide evidence of such ethnic tensions. All three come from public transport spaces in Basel: “Türkiye The best fuck of The rest;” “Fuck of Swiss” and “Fuck you Serben,” with “Serben” (“Serbians”) subsequently crossed out and replaced with “self.”

Some fuck-graffiti simply speak of animosity between individuals such as those in Slides 7-9 with “Fuck you Dina Ok!;” “Fuck off Deba” and “Fuck you bitch!!” The use of “ok” and “bitch” also suggests an indebtedness to rap and hip hop and an allusion to gang culture. Apparently, international youth culture has become so infused with rap and hip hop that English has become the medium of choice even for the expression of personal animosity – if one chooses to express that animosity through graffiti.

I’m not too sure what to make of the last two examples in the slide show. One comes from a bunk bed in a Swiss youth hostel and the other from a Basel building: “If you wanna reach the sky, fuck a duck and try to fly!! :-)” and “think fuck is funny fuck yourself and safe the mony.” They are obviously some kind of sayings or proverbs but the intertextuality escapes me. It doesn’t matter, either – graffiti are supposed to be ephemeral and not analyzed by an academic. What intrigues me is the language choice: nowhere in my collection of German and Swiss graffiti do I have a rhyme in German or French or any other language. The language of transgression is overwhelmingly English in these graffiti!

Jørgensen (2008) makes a similar observation about Scandinavian graffiti. However, where he concludes that the choice of English is evidence of the fact that graffiti break, inter alia, the monolingualism norm, I don’t actually see a monolingualism norm operating in much of continental Europe. A hybrid language that makes substantial use of English is the public language both of those who buy into the rhetoric of globalization (see my recent post about English as a non-language) and those who oppose it. In the fuck-graffiti I’ve presented here, English is both the language of the Self and the language of the Other. Jørgensen, J. (2008). Urban Wall Languaging International Journal of Multilingualism, 5 (3), 237-252 DOI: 10.1080/14790710802390186

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • David Marjanović

    What can I say? English is cool. It’s the language where the word cool comes from, now fully adopted in my generation’s German, French, and even Chinese ().

    My little bilingual cousin from Switzerland is on record as saying, when he came to Austria and heard cool: “tiens, c’est français !”

    Personally, I say scheiße when a catastrophe happens, and fuck when I’m angry at a situation. “Niche partition” is what evolutionary ecologists call this.

  • It’s not just Europe. Here in Japan, the quickest route from my house to a long running path is a very small road that has a tunnel going under a large road, and sure enough that tunnel has some “fuck” graffiti in it. I can’t recall the context though.

    And, by the way, cool works in Japanese as well.クール/UTF-8/

  • Henrik

    One observation I have made over the years is that language tends to the minimalistic, i.e. the minimum effort required to adequatly and succinctly express oneself is preferred. This is why I have always been addressed by my family name and not my given name – phonetically Lovén is easier on the vocal apparatus than Henrik. To Swedes anyway. It took me a long time to realise that there was no disrespect intended, it was just “easier on the tongue”.

    Likewise with “fuck” if you look at it from a semantic point of view. It is easier to say “Fuck Bush/Clinton/Obama/Blocher/Wiss” than “Go to hell X, I hate you and all you stand for because…”. Semantically, “Fuck you/X” equates to a rejection of the individual and/or what he/she is perceived to stand for.

    The origin: Dr Hannibal Lecter of “Silence of the Lambs”-fame eats people as a symbol of his rejection of them as human equals. It’s evident in his catch-phrase “Free-range rude”. The original “fuck you” is similar in that it is intended as a verbal rape, i.e. “you/your opinion doesn’t merit consideration on an equal basis” and “the most forceful way I can bring this home to you is by verbally raping you”. Since the setting for the origin is in linguistically challenged sub-groups, it encompasses a set of emotions that the subjects most likely could not verbalise adequately, whereas “fuck you” most satisfactorilly filled that linguistic void.

    Likewise, the transferral of the original meaning to the greater worlds of politics and sport works equally well. Instead of why we find Herr Blocher and his views repugnant, if we do, we can inform our listener(-s) of our opinion of him and what he stands for in a manner that leaves no room for ambiguity or doubt by use of the two-word phrase “Fuck Blocher”.

    There may be other semantic interpretations, co-existant and equally valid. For instance, in a situation where a person feels cornered or overmatched “Fuck you” or “Fuck Liverpool” is a semantic signal that the speaker does not agree but cannot or finds it too painful to express him-/herself further and wishes to terminate the current conversation.

    “Fuck you/the war/Bush” can also be used as a semantic signal that you are willing to enter a discussion about the subject, most likely under the condition that the conversation is aimed at a rejection of the subject. In this context, it is most likely used to confirm and strengthen the bonds of the group.

    How is that for starters?

  • Binisha Sharma

    As an international student I have experienced multiple cultural shocks. The kind of language people speak inside the train, bus (public transport), shopping malls and the way people are dressed up has put in into uncomfortable situations. Few days ago, a teenager couple were lost in their own world ignoring the other passengers in an over crowed train carriage. Every day I see boys and girls in school uniform using f-word in their communication. Passing through the train I used to try reading the graffiti words scribbled in the walls and the railway lines. The use of f-words in the graffiti and the day to day communication by people may not only refer it as “continental Europeans’ favorite English-language word ” instead “Every ones favorite English-language word”

  • Jay Mi Tan

    Such an interesting post! I really love it! I was (and still is) really interested on the evolution of the f-word; from such an offensive word to an expressive word. So much so, in one of my assignments, I did briefly encompass the use of f-word and its transformation in the society we live in. As Rajneesh (also famously known as Osho) mentioned in one of his talks, ‘Fuck’ is a magical word; it carries so many meanings with it. It is a very versatile expression expressing; ignorance, trouble, aggression, displeasure, difficulty, incompetence, suspicions, etc (a video of his talk can be viewed on YouTube by searching Osho the word fuck).

    Although the f-word has evolved to be a “common” word (colloquial), there are people who are still apprehensive of it. This happened in a class I was observing. An adult student asked the teacher the meaning of ‘fuck you’, and he wanted to know if ‘fuck you’ meant the same with get off. The teacher tried her best to explain it, but told him not to use the f-word as it is a very very bad word. I’m not sure how I would handle it if I were the teacher, but at that point in time, I wanted to tell him that the f-word was merely an expression. I have no doubts that the f-word will further transform, and it will perhaps be less of a ‘taboo’ word in the future.

  • Hanne Houbracken

    In Belgium the use of the word ‘fuck’ is very common. All my Dutch-speaking friends use the word, without shame, as the word is not really a taboo in Belgium. On the other hand, all of my Polish friends hardly use the word ‘fuck’. Instead they use the Polish word ‘kurwa’.
    In my opinion, this can be explained by the native language. Polish already had a word with enough different meanings to cover the broad use of the word ‘fuck’. Dutch does not have such a word, which is probably why Belgian people use ‘fuck’ way more often than Polish people.


    Yes, it is quite interesting to notice that people tend to learn these “bad” words faster than any other words. I can still remember when I was in grade 3 of the primary school, a kid who grew up in America came to study in our class and every little boy in the class picked up the f-word less than a week. There is a video talking about the use of the most famous f-word, explaining its functions as a noun, verb and adjective. I can`t find it though.