Language and emotion on the Costa Concordia

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[This is a guest post by Bob Ladd.]

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


  1. Paolo said,

    January 18, 2012 @ 7:00 pm

    As a native Italian speaker, I found this analysis quite interesting but I don't think any Italian would ever come up with agitato (in the sense of "disturbed" or "nervous") as their first choice to describe De Falco's speech. He might have been esasperato or infuriato, but in Italy he was perceived as very much under control, assertive and authoritative, and far less emotional than it might sound to non-native speakers.

  2. Eric P Smith said,

    January 18, 2012 @ 7:44 pm

    Bob, I’m amused that you describe the use of an expletive like "the fuck" as a nuance. Is not a nuance delicate, such an expletive coarse? Or were you being sarcastic? I have Asperger Syndrome, and I don’t pick up sarcasm.

  3. Mary Sweeten said,

    January 18, 2012 @ 9:19 pm

    Having just arranged to acquire a "Vado a bordo" T-shirt, I especially appreciate this post. @Paolo, surely it's at least partly because de Falco keeps giving Schettino the "lei," as Dr. Ladd notes, that Italians would see him as well-controlled. Whereas non- or non-fluent Italian speakers would miss that.

  4. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 18, 2012 @ 9:47 pm

    The New York Post apparently understands Italian idiomatically, because today's front page has (accompanying the headline "CHICKEN OF THE SEA") the subhed "Tapes reveal captain's cowardice: 'Get back on board for f*** sake.'" (Asterisks in original, although I would think "f***'s sake" would have been better English.)

  5. Paolo said,

    January 18, 2012 @ 11:30 pm

    @Mary Sweeten, actually I don't agree with "The direct imperatives (Vada a bordo! "Go on board!") acquire an enhanced sense of authority by being expressed with lei" – in that specific context lei is the only expected form and it is unconceivable that De Falco might have chosen to use or simply slipped into tu, no matter how "agitated" he might have been.
    It might be interesting to note that De Falco explicitly pointed out to Schettino that the phone call was being recorded, which confirms that De Falco was fully aware of the register he was using (incidentally, here in Italy this was also interpreted as an act of politeness, to prevent the distressed Schettino from saying things he might regret even more).

  6. Ed said,

    January 19, 2012 @ 1:49 am

    another good example of polite Lei forms being combined with swearing (lots of it, and plenty of uses of cazzo, including in the Wh+swear construction) is the opening scene of the 2001 film "L'uomo in più".

    the coach in that scene could definitely be characterized as "losing it". i'm an L2 speaker of Italian, but i have to think that the formal forms in such a rant have to be for additional derision, since he's directly insulting the players in coarse terms (stronzo 'asshole', froci 'fags', etc.)

  7. Bob Ladd said,

    January 19, 2012 @ 4:12 am

    @Paolo: I think we agree about the basic analysis, namely that De Falco was in control. However, your comment draws attention to another problem in studying emotional speech, namely the difficulty of deciding what emotional descriptors actually mean and (in particular) how hard it can be to translate them from one language to another. In this case the problem is that there's a difference between English agitated and Italian agitato, the latter being much more agitated than the former. To me, at any rate, English agitated implies exactly the sort of self-control you refer to – clearly under some sort of stress, but keeping things under control.

    I remember being surprised when I learned how agitato is used to describe the condition of the sea: I knew mare mosso ('rough sea'), and I assumed that agitato would refer to a state in between calm and mosso, but in fact it is rougher than mosso.

  8. Bob Ladd said,

    January 19, 2012 @ 4:26 am

    @Eric P Smith: No, I wasn't being sarcastic. You're right that inserting taboo words into an otherwise non-taboo sentence is not exactly a "nuance", but that wasn't my main point. What I was focusing on was the fact that English and Italian actually have a grammatical device for inserting taboo words into an otherwise non-taboo sentence. I meant this as another example (along with distinctions like the one between tu and lei in Italian) of how language is used to convey a much richer set of attitudes and emotional messages than is possible with pre-linguistic means like raising the voice.

  9. Gav said,

    January 19, 2012 @ 5:46 am

    Ed's point about use of formal forms may be reflected in English as for example in "Get back on board, sir", where "sir" would be pronounced "sah" (=sirrah?). I'm surprised it seems to have fallen out of favour as it's such a useful insult.

  10. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 19, 2012 @ 8:34 am

    Now the (London) Daily Telegraph has a headline "Costa Concordia: Italians buy t-shirts with 'Get back on board, for —-’s sake!' logo," so maybe the Anglophone media are converging on a standard translation.

  11. Ken Brown said,

    January 19, 2012 @ 11:56 am

    @Gav "Get back on board, sir" also has military overtones, which even those of us who have never been near the army or navy will pick up from all those endless films and TV shows that show us future officers in training. There are times in an officer's career when the NCOs are really in charge, whatever their supposed lesser rank.

  12. Peter Taylor said,

    January 19, 2012 @ 11:57 am

    I'm intrigued to read that

    De Falco uses the lei (the polite form of "you" and the associated verb forms) throughout the whole conversation

    because the Spanish translation of the transcript which I've read notes explicitly at one point that De Falco used the informal form of "you":

    D.F.: Capitán, hable más alto, ponga la mano delante del micrófono y habla [le tutea] en voz alta. ¿Entendido?

    Is this a case of differing transcription due to noise?

  13. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 19, 2012 @ 12:32 pm

    I was surprised to see the New York Post's translation, since I can't remember hearing "for fuck's sake" from an American. Maybe I should pay more attention to popular culture?

  14. Rube said,

    January 19, 2012 @ 12:54 pm

    @Jerry Friedman — maybe, or maybe you should just be happy that people don't feel the need to use this expression towards you.

    I am mildly surprised that you haven't encountered it, but the older I get, the more I realize how uncommon common experiences really are.

  15. Paolo said,

    January 19, 2012 @ 1:05 pm

    @Peter Tayolor, first of all apologies if I won't use the correct grammatical terminology,

    Basically in Italian there are two ways of expressing commands or giving orders directly:

    1– using the imperative mood, which as such only exists for the second person; for the third person, as required by lei, the present subjunctive mood (congiuntivo esortativo) is used instead; example: vada a bordo
    2– using the indicative mood, present tense; example: ora [lei] va a bordo.

    De Falco keeps on switching between the two forms, but I had to listen to the call again to realize that he does so, because as a native speaker it's not something one consciously notices. He switched also in the middle of the sentence you quoted. As it happens, the third singular person indicative of some verbs "coincides" with the second singular person imperative, which is the case of parla in parli a voce alta … metta la mano e [ora lei] parla a voce alta – this is what must have confused the translator. I don't think any Italian speaker would think he slipped into tu at this point, also because throughout the call he clearly favours the second form so there is some kind of pattern.

  16. Commandrea said,

    January 19, 2012 @ 5:36 pm

    And now I know! Thanks for the explanation :)

  17. Peter Taylor said,

    January 19, 2012 @ 5:57 pm

    Thanks, Paolo.

  18. Ben Hemmens said,

    January 19, 2012 @ 7:15 pm

    If he'd been losing his rag, there'd have been a few porco dio!s in there, and I didn't hear any.

    Also, there wouldn't have been gaps between the sentences. He is enunciating very clearly. Excited Italians don't waste precious milliseconds by not filling them with language ;-)

  19. Bob Ladd said,

    January 20, 2012 @ 2:09 am

    Paolo's explanation (complete with correct grammatical terminology) relieves me of the need to respond to Peter Taylor's question (thanks, Paolo!). So instead let me point out something that Paolo probably doesn't know, because he's lucky enough to be a native speaker of Italian.

    The overlap in forms that he mentions is a real killer for the SECOND-language speaker of Italian. When you get to the stage of speaking fairly fluently (so that people expect you to be able to handle the difference between tu and lei), it's all too easy to offend someone just by making a simple morphological mistake. Look at the distribution of tu forms and lei forms for the two main classes of verbs:

    a-stem verbs (the most common), e.g. ascoltare 'listen'

    indicative: (tu) ascolti, (lei) ascolta
    imperative: (tu) ascolta, (lei) ascolti

    i-stem verbs, e.g. sentire 'hear'

    indicative: (tu) senti, (lei) sente
    imperative: (tu) senti, (lei) senta

    For the a-stem verbs, the meaning of the -i and -a endings is exactly opposite for the indicative and imperative. For the imperative forms, the meaning of the -i and -a endings is exactly opposite for a-stem and i-stem verbs.

    If you actually set out to design a trap for unwary second-language learners, you could hardly do better than this. I have some sympathy for the Spanish translator!

  20. a George said,

    January 20, 2012 @ 4:53 pm

    @Mary Sweeten: I find it fascinating that you can get a T-shirt showing that captain Schettino gives in, probably reluctantly, and does go aboard, after all.

  21. Glen Gordon said,

    January 20, 2012 @ 8:11 pm

    A lot of surprisingly interesting linguistic issues being raised here from this otherwise unfortunate event. Two interesting issues capture my attention in particular: 1) the way human beings can tell when someone is agitated purely by their voice regardless of their language and 2) the differing uses of informal and formal 2nd person pronouns across languages.

    The classic "angry voice" as displayed in that recording displays some features that I would think are most prominent in any language: 1) loudness of voice, 2) exaggerated pitch, vowel length in prominent syllables, gemination, etc, 3) jolting speed changes in speech, rapid speech (indicating anger) mixed in with slowly executed phrases to emphasize critical points perceived by the speaker to be continually misunderstood or ignored by the receiver (as in the case of his "vada a bordo" at the end). We take all these factors for granted and it's an excellent educational exercise to become conscious of what cues our subconscious recognizes so well and so quickly here as we listen to the tape.

    The second person informal/formal contrast in many languages can also differ greatly. In French, I would expect "vous" at all times because "tu" would be offensive and unprofessional. From this point of view, his consistent use of "lei" would seem commendable, professional and composed despite the events. Of course, it can have a tinge of sarcasm. The French have an expression "vousvoyer" meaning "to use vous excessively; to be overly polite; to be sarcastically polite" but in a highly formal and professional setting such as this one can never be too sure.

    In Swedish, "ni" has gone out of favour replaced by plain "du" but I'm not sure if command structures might still use it or whether it's gone the way of English "thou". (Any Swedes here to respond on this?)

    In Mandarin, yet again there's a formal pronoun "nín" (恁) instead of plain "ni" (你 or 妳) but this polite form strikes me to be more about subservience particularly in service roles. Again, Chinese perspective would be interesting on this note.

    So when "tu" is used in the Spanish translation as remarked above by one commenter, I wonder if this is in part due to differing uses of the formal-informal contrasts in different languages. Of course it could just as well be a perception by the translator that the "lei" here in Italian is being overly aggressive and sarcastic. There are a great myriad of variables at play here, reminding us of how translation is tricky business that a computer program won't be replacing any time soon.

  22. Glen Gordon said,

    January 20, 2012 @ 9:14 pm

    Whoops, just realized, that should probably be spelled "vouvoyer" above. And being curious on proper address in a command setting, I decided to look up whether "vous" in French is proper, even for a subordinate as I intuitively suspected, or whether I have it wrong. My view on this is fortunately confirmed by Wallace Lambert in Implications of tu-vous usage in French Canada (1969). My intuition tells me that French "tu" implies either a very close relationship (like that of a family member or lover) or that the person you're speaking to is younger than you, especially a small child. If so, either interpretation of "tu" can be received as condescending in this scenario. I can only wonder if Italian is similar in this respect but as I say, every language will use different considerations to gauge when formal address is appropriate. (Okay, I'm done with my thoughts. I'll stop typing now. Hahaha.)

  23. Greg Morrow said,

    January 20, 2012 @ 11:24 pm

    I am led to believe that in modern colloquial (Parisian) spoken French, tu dominates, even among non-intimates, as part of a general language-wide drive to simplify verb forms. If you use "on" and "tu" instead of "nous" and "vous", then the present tense for most verbs collapses to a single form.

  24. Clive meller said,

    January 21, 2012 @ 6:26 am

    I lived in Italy for about 4 years so i picked up more than a passing ability in the language. When i was reading the transcripts of the telephone calls, my eyes caught this exchange between the coastguard de Falco and the captain Schettino.
    (de Falcoè tutto ok?') (schettino"Solo un piccolo guasto tecnico.") "guasto has been variously translated in th on th blogosphere as ' problem' and it can certainly mean a breakdown or a stateof disorder but it is often translated as 'leak as in the sense of a leak from a sink or a toilet. Describing a hole caused by a rock the size of gibraltar wedged in the hull as 'just a small ltechnical eak' must deserve the award for understatement of the year

  25. Glen Gordon said,

    January 21, 2012 @ 7:54 pm

    Greg Morrow: "I am led to believe that in modern colloquial (Parisian) spoken French, tu dominates, even among non-intimates, as part of a general language-wide drive to simplify verb forms."

    I think you're overgeneralizing a little. If you want to keep your job in Paris, it's safer to stick with 'vous' when addressing your boss until told otherwise. This remains the standard form of respect to non-intimates across the French-speaking world from France to Quebec to Senegal. I don't see anything being "simplified" yet as it had in English, Swedish and Mandarin. I suspect you're observing the use of 'tu' among comrades within an institution such as among students in a school or among equal-status adult workers in some workplaces where it's generally understood to be acceptable. If you're not sure whether it's acceptable, always always always stick with 'vous'.

    It should be known too that there's a slight difference in usage between 'on' and 'nous'. Normally, 'on' is for people in general as in "On s'en parle" ("One talks about it; we all talk about it") whereas 'nous' is used with a more definite nuance referring to non-generalized actions – eg. "Nous sommes allés à l'ecole hier" = "We (not everyone in general) went to school yesterday". No conjugational simplification any time soon, I'm afraid. If only! Mais on peut rêver. Et nous aussi! ;o)

  26. Paolo said,

    January 22, 2012 @ 6:01 pm

    Let me play resident native speaker one more time…

    Several comments in this thread suggest connotations that are most certainly not in the Italian dialogue. In this specific context, I don’t think usage of lei should even be an item of discussion because, as I mentioned above, there was no option other than lei. Incidentally, I checked a couple of Italian transcriptions of the call, and the occurrence of parla that was mistaken as tu by the Spanish translator was transcribed as parli in the Italian texts, which to me is an indication that native speakers expected and therefore “heard” lei .

    Someone suggested aggressiveness or sarcasm in using lei, but again, it was not there. There was some obvious sarcasm, but it was conveyed by different means – when Schettino said it was dark and they couldn’t see a thing, De Falco replied sarcastically E che vuole tornare a casa Schettino?  È buio e vuole tornare a casa? (and what do you want, do you want to go home, Schettino? It’s dark and you want to go home?). 

    @Clive meller, guasto usually means mechanical or technical fault or failure, or any kind of malfunction of damage that prevents any type of equipment, mechanism or machine(ry) from working properly. A leak can be the consequence of a guasto but it’s never a guasto itself (and anyway with reference to a toilet or a sink, perdita would be a more common word to describe a leak).  I doubt any Italian hearing the word guasto in this context would ever think of a falla.

    @Ben Hemmen, there are very strong language taboos associated to the swearwords you suggested (please don’t take me wrong, but the fact that you were able to put them in writing probably means that you are not fully aware of them). Let’s not forget that this was a professional situation and the phone call was being recorded. No matter how stressed out De Falco might have been, it is very unlikely that he might have ever used such taboo language – his status, his education level, his training, and above all the context in which he was operating would have prevented it.

  27. Lugubert said,

    January 23, 2012 @ 9:05 pm

    The Swedish translation of the Italian male anatomical abuse word, newspapers, correctly for our swearing culture, instead referred to hell. We're not too much into WTF but go for what the hell.

  28. Anna Hawthorne said,

    January 24, 2012 @ 12:27 pm

    During the audio conversation between Captain Schettino and Coast Guard Officer De Falco… without any Italian or other language experience, one does feel the barbed effect of insistent challenges thrust from shore to ship.. as if two men in a swordfight .. when the worthy opponent must rise to the challenge and quickly, in this case, De Falco, unrelenting, cut down any gentle protests by Schettino. One man, safe in a heated office on land, the other, overwhelmed by disaster, facing horrific drama in darkness on the sea.

  29. Bob Ladd said,

    January 27, 2012 @ 4:04 pm

    @Paolo: I agree with you that the lei is the expected form here. The main reason I brought this up in the original post was to point out the effect of the various lexical and grammatical choices to people who don't understand Italian. The combination of the tone of voice with the lei conveys the sense of control that you mentioned in your first comment.

  30. Luca said,

    January 29, 2012 @ 8:17 am

    Mah, non sono tanto convinto di questa spiegazione.
    Per come la vedo io De Falco non era agitato, nel senso di essere agitato per paura di qualcosa; ma invece era molto convinto di quello che stava facendo ed era molto arrabbiato (che in italiano si può anche dire "incazzato").
    Inoltre ha spiegato lui stesso che aveva capito fin dall'inizio che Schettino stava minimizzando esageratamente (come fanno solitamente tutti i colpevoli di errori, che hanno qualcosa da nascondere) e che stava mentendo (!), e questo l'ha fatto incazzare ancora di più. C'è un articolo sul Corriere che parla proprio di questo. Quando uno si accorge che qualcuno mente, è normale alzare i toni, perché non si vuole essere presi in giro.
    Nell'articolo c'è scritto "Ho intuito dal tono che Schettino mentiva"! ("I realized from the tone of his voice, that he was telling lies")
    E' un articolo che consiglio di leggere…..

  31. Simon said,

    January 31, 2012 @ 7:02 am

    Whilst not being military personnel, Schettino holds the rank of captain and, during the conversation, De Falco would have used "lei" to address the rank and not the man. The agitated aspect of De Falco's comments were addressed to Schettino the man and his actions.

    Mr. Ladd's translation of "vada a bordo cazzo" as "get the fuck on board" is pretty much spot-on in terms of a natural English equivalent.

  32. Paolo said,

    February 1, 2012 @ 8:59 am

    Other examples of cazzo (and its regional variation minchia), this time in the remarks made by an airline captain to his co-pilot before a botched landing that almost ended in disaster. Transcription from the black box recording:

    «Comincia a rallentare, non correre… che cazzo corri a fare… rallenta la speed… basta, perché devi… cioè allora per scendere tu mi acceleri l’aeroplano in turbolenza… minchia… ma sei proprio… come cazzo fai!». […] «Cazzo, gli hai dato 250, le ammazziamo le persone!».

    I found it interesting that the experts who analysed the accident commented on the captain's remarks describing them as "not an argument" but rather showing the "attitude of a teacher towards his pupil" and "comradeship" and, all things considered, made in a "relaxed atmosphere".

    Source: "Qui ammazziamo le persone" Le conversazioni choc sull’Airbus

  33. Alon Lischinsky said,

    February 2, 2012 @ 4:37 am

    @Glen Gordon: “So when "tu" is used in the Spanish translation as remarked above by one commenter, I wonder if this is in part due to differing uses of the formal-informal contrasts in different languages.”

    I think you're spot-on. In Peninsular Spanish (unlike Latin American varieties) the use of “usted” is increasingly reserved for very formal contexts. As a native speaker of Rioplatense, I tended to upset people during my first years in Spain by addressing them with the V form, which is expected in my hometown register for almost every public encounter between nonacquaintances. Spaniards would perceive it instead as distant, sarcastic, or off-putting (“¡Tutéame, que aún no soy abuela!”, a very nice lady told me once at a post office counter).

    One of the serious disadvantages of crowd-sourced translations to Spanish of, say, TV serial subtitles, is that expectations about when to use the T or V forms change quite wildly across national and class varieties.

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