Swearing in different languages

By Rachel Arandilla

 

I’M NOT sure how much I should or shouldn’t say to ensure this essay sees the light of day in print.

A few weeks back I wrote about the different personalities we adopt when speaking different languages; I touched briefly about how nothing beats swearing in Bisaya. My thesis is that there’s something so raw and wrong about saying it in vernacular that one ends up with a weird combination of pleasure and guilt that I don’t get when I express it in English. But as much as I feel like a formidable war freak when I swear in Bisaya, I would never consider using the vernacular for dirty talk.

Profanity is a telling aspect of a culture — it is interesting that all cultures have language and a set of words that you really shouldn’t say. While profanity is universal, each language has its own regional quirks and peculiarities. Rude language represents a lot about what a culture likes and doesn’t like (e.g. sex and poop). Around the world, sex and genitalia is pretty much the universal focus of obscene language.

Blasphemy also plays an important role in profanity, especially among cultures with Western religions. In Filipino, we often call out the devil, or Judas, include “‘sus”, a contraction of “Hesus,” or the more peculiar “Susmaryosep,” a contraction of “Jesus, Mary, Joseph.”

All these sounds tame when juxtaposed with the Quebec French, whose swear words call out Catholic articles such as the tabernacle, chalice, host and baptism. Calling out the tabernacle, in Quebec, is just as bad as saying out the F-word in English.

In Tagalog, the most defining curse word is “putang ina,” or calling out one’s adulterous mother. This curse word is just as popular in Spain and other Spanish-speaking countries – “hija de puta” or “puta madre.” This stems from the patriarchal-dominated culture ingrained in our Spanish colonial roots.

What’s worthy of note is how Catholic beliefs of shunning sexual immorality are juxtaposed with rampant prostitution in the streets, of how women in our culture (or other Spain-colonized countries) are so internally conflicted on their views on love, sex and marriage. It’s also interesting to note that cultures that strongly swear about mothers tend to swear a lot about prostitutes, too.

In Cebuano, our swear vocabulary is composed mostly of body parts (e.g. genitalia, liver), as well as religion-based (calling out the devil, Judas, etc.). Personally I think it’s not very creative, compared to other cultures. If you want to be offensive in Dutch, simply add “kanker” to any word (which means cancer sufferer). Eastern Europeans also have swear words on cancer, typhus, cholera, or some very obscure diseases that date back to the middle ages. Other cultures also swear on animals they consider “dirty” — pigs and dogs are popular, but even the turtle can be a bad word too, in the case of Mandarin.

“Profanity is the effort of a feeble brain to express itself forcibly,” according to religious and civic leader Spencer Kimball. Most people believe that cursing or swearing is indicative of one’s lack of mental capability, education or grace, or being unable to think of the right word while in conversation and hence replacing certain words with curse words. As David Keuck puts it, profanity is the “common crutch of the conversational cripple.”

I beg to differ. This belief has long been invalidated by several scientific studies. Expletive language can actually improve one’s self-confidence, release emotional tensions, and even strengthen bonds.

And personally, I think cursing can improve creativity, too. Profanity can be poetic, if released at the right place and at the right time — and as long as it’s kept in moderation.

What’s your favorite swear word?

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