Following the wreck of the Costa Concordia last weekend (one Italian comic suggested it should be renamed Costa Codardia, where codardia means “cowardice”), I’ve been temporarily taken on as a correspondent by Language Log’s Italian desk in order to report on a few linguistic aspects of the already notorious telephone call between the Coast Guard captain De Falco and the ship’s much criticized captain Schettino.
If you listen to the recording of the conversation, it’s obvious even if you don’t understand a word of Italian that De Falco is pretty agitated. Yet it’s actually surprisingly hard to be scientifically specific about what it is that makes speech sound agitated (or sad, or whatever). One of the first modern phonetic studies of this topic (this link may need a subscription) was based on a similar recording — the live radio reports of the crash of the airship Hindenburg as it docked in Lakehurst, New Jersey after crossing the Atlantic in 1937. The authors of this study measured lots of acoustic variables such as pitch range and loudness, but their overall finding didn’t amount to much more than reporting that the announcer raised his voice when the zeppelin burst into flame. Many other papers on emotional speech have reached similarly plausible but frustratingly vague conclusions.
One possible explanation for the vagueness is that we need better measurements of speech and more precise classification of the emotions that speech can express. A more likely conclusion is that what makes emotional speech sound emotional is pretty rudimentary. It may just work with a couple of basic dimensions like “arousal” (is the speaker worked up or quiet?) and “evaluation” (is the speaker feeling positive or negative?). That may be about all you can tell from listening to emotional speech in a language you don’t understand. The rest comes from the words.
In fact, the words can often do the job by themselves, without any help from the speaker’s voice. The various published translations of the transcript of the Costa Concordia phone call make it pretty clear to the English-speaking reader that De Falco is agitated even without hearing his voice. Swear words (variously translated, or left untranslated) are one giveaway, of course. The explicit threat to make trouble for Schettino is another. The sarcasm of What do you want to do, go home? is still another. Despite the fact that De Falco’s voice seems to convey agitation all by itself, the real detail comes from the language — the swearing and sarcasm and threat — and the full effect depends on the way the language is combined with the voice.
One aspect of this that escapes anyone who relies only on the English translation is the fact that De Falco uses the lei (the polite form of “you” and the associated verb forms) throughout the whole conversation. The direct imperatives (Vada a bordo! “Go on board!”) acquire an enhanced sense of authority by being expressed with lei. De Falco is not losing it; he’s remaining correct and military in his manner. At the same time, he frequently addresses Schettino as Schettino, without any title. This is again proper military usage from a superior to a subordinate. In the original context of the phone call, in other words, De Falco’s voice contributes only a small part of the overall emotional message.
OK, I know you really want to know about those swear words. The one that comes up repeatedly in the phone call is cazzo, which is probably the most common taboo word for “penis”. In its literal meaning, a good English translation is probably prick. But it’s widely used for generalized swearing, to mean something like For God’s sake! or Bloody hell! In one of the most quoted parts of the conversation (you can already buy a T-shirt with this phrase on it), De Falco says Vada a bordo, cazzo! In one of the English translations of the transcript, this is rendered as Go on board, (expletive)! But De Falco is not saying Go on board, you prick!, as that translation might suggest. A much more natural way to render what he says would be Get the fuck on board!
At this point I could easily link into recent and not-so-recent Language Log discussions of what kinds of words you can use for swearing in different languages, but I’ll close with a more grammatical comment. English has quite a variety of syntactic devices whose only purpose is to provide a grammatical home for swear words, like the pseudo-object (if that’s what it is) in Get the fuck on board! Italian and English actually share one such construction. In both languages you can insert certain specific swear words after the wh-word (the question word) at the beginning of a question like Who…? or What…? So What the fuck are you doing? could be translated into the syntactically parallel Italian sentence Che cazzo stai facendo? Once again, this all seems to point to the conclusion that, when it comes to expressing emotion, speakers of all languages want to get past the simple system of emotional vocalizations that are part of our primate heritage, and to exploit the nuances that only true language makes possible.
— D. Robert Ladd, University of Edinburgh