Verbal profanity around the world

Did you know that children learn at least one swear word before they learn the alphabet? And that 0,7% of the words we use on a daily basis are swear words? But how is verbal profanity present (or not present) in other cultures? First of all, let’s talk about the amount and diversity of bad words in English and other languages. I was incredibly surprised to learn that the profane vocabulary of an average English-speaker is incredibly basic. Everyone is more or less familiar with those five to ten words that I won’t list in this article, but have you ever realised that putting these words together in many different combinations to create a more diverse rude vocabulary is simply an effective illusion? Believe it or not, if languages were ranked by the diversity of their vocabulary for swearing, English would be in quite a low position.

A few years ago I accidentally came across an official research which suggested that the language which is known to have the most swear words in it is my mother tongue, Hungarian. The amount of different ways we can refer to certain things is simply unimaginable! Despite my great effort, I didn’t manage to find this report on the internet, although some sources make references to it and agree that Hungarian should be given the gold medal. Others mention Russian, Polish and Cantonese as possible rivals.

It’s time to have a look at the other end of the list and ask ourselves the question: does the concept of swear words exist in every language? In order to find the suitable answer, I would like to direct you all to this page of The Guardian’s ‘Notes and Queries’ section. Here, quite a few people mention Basque (which is known to be the most complicated one) as a language with absolutely no swear words. A contributor from the Basque Country explains that “insults are usually borrrowed from Spanish.” Others argue that the belief according to which Japanese has no rude words is a myth. But how do we know what counts as a swear word? All languages have words for the genitalia, for example! A swear word is a term that could be used to insult another person. Are Basque and Japanese people never insulted? Ladies and Gents, this is a real mystery!

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14 thoughts on “Verbal profanity around the world

  1. Japanese abounds with swearwords. For example, one should be careful not to use the phrase “kono kusottareta takoyaro” in shady Tokyo alleys around yakuza-type people…
    In fact, Japanese is one of the few languages that allow you to tell someone off just by the good choice of the pronoun you use. In Japanese, “kisama” simply means “you”. Well, sorry I was lying there. Not simply. It means “you” in an extremely rude way, that could only be replicated in English by saying “you fucktard asshole” or something similar.

    • Wow, I could never have imagined that the use of a personal pronoun could be classed as profanity! Well, to some extent, using the informal second person sing. pronoun in a language such as French, Italian, German or Hungarian when addressing a person who undoubtedly deserves more respect may be rude, but not profane. I wonder how such word developed in Japanese. I’ve spent a few minutes searching and found out that “kisama” may have originated from the upper elite classes (nobility), who used it as an indeed respectful term. So is it really a pronoun (in which case, such a phenomenon shall be of great interest to linguists) or a derogatory noun used in the vocative case? Thank you very much for your comment, I learned something new today! Furthermore, I now wonder where this gossip may come from, according to which Japanese is incapable of expressing profanity.

      • Kisama (貴様) is indeed a second person pronoun (not necessarily singular though, since Japanese language doesn’t change words to indicate number). It was also indeed originally a highly polite way to address a superior. However, eventually, because it was so polite, and people had other ways to address superiors, kisama fell out of use, except in the sarcastic/mocking sense. This is how kisama has become what it is today: a highly inflammatory simple second person pronoun.

  2. It would be very interesting, if we could find that article, which write, that Hungarian language has the shameful gold medal. I know a few Polish people, and they often use the word which begins with k, and means a filthy woman occupation, and if something is wrong, they also can grumble enough long to think that they also deserve a good place on the list.
    Japanese: temee also means you in a rude way, and they use kuso (“shit”), and the rudest thing (I only read it, so it is not confirmed to me) says, that “eat shit and die”, yaro means idiot, kusoyaro… so they really have rude words, but even words with normal meaning can represent a very rude attitute.

    • Hello! Due to living in a city with a significant Polish population, I am aware of the fact that the ‘k’ word (and the ‘p’ word too) is used way to much. I’m not sure of its origin, but it is also present in Hungarian and many of the Slavic languages. The main issue with finding the language with the widest variety of swear words is that people often confuse the size of profane vocabulary with the associated nation’s swearing habits. In my opinion, Poles tend to use only a handful of bad words, but they do so on quite a regular basis! However, I allow you to disregard my opinion due to my lack of knowledge about Polish profanity. You have probably read our discussions about Japanese swearwords. I’d like to use his opportunity to thank you for extending this conversation, the statement “Even words with normal meaning can represent a very rude attitute” really sums up the main message of my article’s conclusion.

      It is amazing how phrases used for swearing or cursing are present in entirely different cultures and languages! For example, I already knew the sentence that you presented as the “rudest thing” in Japanese, in it’s Italian form: “Mangia m*rde e morte!” By the way, I’ve just thought about how meaningless, invented phrases could serve as effective verbal profanity: the Hungarian saying “Azt a fűzfán fütyülő rézangyalát!” could best be translated as “That copper-angel whistling on the willow-tree”, yet it may successfully be used to represent one’s anger.

    • Heh, temee (手前) has a similar backstory to kisama, but with an interesting twist! The proper pronunciation is temae (teh-mah-eh) rather than temee (teh-meh), and it CAN still be used politely in some situations IF you pronounce it properly. The more common pronunciation certainly is temee, but that one is always very insulting, and is often translated as “You bitch!” or “You bastard!” rather than it’s dictionary definition of “you.”

  3. Although I (almost) never swear (although I know *how* to in at least three languages), I’m fascinated by the origin of swear words and curse words.

    In English, a lot of our profanity comes from the divide between the Anglo-Saxon “English” (who spoke a Low German dialect) and the Norman “French” conquerors (who spoke Norman French). Hence why we own “cows” but eat “beef”, or own “sheep” but eat “mutton”.

    But the Anglo-Saxons were considered vulgar, and thus their words for things were also considered vulgar. For example, “shit” has obviously Germanic roots, and is one of the most common English swear words. If asked for the equivalent in Gaelic (either sort)(perhaps with the intention of swearing), it would be “cac” (which, by the way, can be used in English – “I cacked myself laughing”). However, “poo-poo” is also “cac”. If you want to be rude in Gaelic, it involves long, convoluted, real curses – wishing someone’s backbone pulled out of their throat and used by the Devil as a ladder, perhaps. (If you want to read more, check out http://www.bitesizeirishgaelic.com/blog/cussing-like-a-leprechaun/). Also, if I wanted to be rude to my parents in Gaelic, I’d use “thu” rather than “sibh” – Gaelic’s one of the only languages I speak where you use the polite form of “you” with your parents.

    I also find it fascinating how you can be indescribably rude in Japanese without actually using a swear word, simply by changing the pronoun. But then, my father still tells the story he got blasted by a German hotel owner whilst drunk, not for being drunk but for calling the proprietor “du” rather than “Sie”.

    • In Japanese, you usually don’t even use pronouns. The proper way to address someone in Japanese is generally by their name followed by an honorific rather than a pronoun. The more polite 2nd person pronoun “anata” is only used if you have never been told this person’s name or between lovers who are being cute with each other. So a sentence like “Are you going to the game?” Would become “Is Ms. Rachel going to the game?”

      • That’s such an interesting feature! My native tongue, Hungarian, has multiple formal ‘styles’ (which each consist of unique pronouns, conjugation patterns etc.) and one of them works just like the one you have mentioned. For example, if my mother wished to ask her mother-in-law how she was, she would say “How is Klára néni”, where “néni” is an untranslatable word used to refer to or address an elder lady (some English-speakers would say “aunt”, but it would be considered inappropriate kinship terminology in this case). Back to what we are discussing, I was very glad to find such a similarity between Japanese and Hungarian. Nevertheless, I can hardly imagine not using any pronouns when addressing family members or close friends. So is it right to say that second person pronouns in Japanese are used to convey attitudes and emotions, especially the two extremes: love and hate?

      • Speaking with family members in Japanese, you would just use each other’s names without the honorific for siblings, haha 母 for “mom,” and chichi 父 for “dad.” For your siblings, you could also say imouto 妹 for “little sister,” otouto 弟 for little brother, ani 兄 for “big brother,” etc. but I still wouldn’t use pronouns for family or friends. (Also of note, when speaking of one’s own mother, she is haha, 母 but when speaking of someone else’s mother, she is okaasan お母さん – the inital o- お being an honorific prefix, and the -san さん ending being the same honorific ending you would address acquaintances by.) To be safe, I try to avoid using pronouns other than first person (and even that CAN usually be omitted).
        On a tangent, I’ve always wondered if “Yo Momma” jokes exist in cultures other than my own, and if so, would people like the Japanese still refer to someone else’s mother as okaasan in such a joke?

      • I’m quite surprised by the use of honorific affixes in Japanese! What surprises me even more is that there is a separate word to address someone else’s mother. Before you went into detail about the honorific affixes that may be placed around the root ‘haha‘ 母 to manipulate the register, I assumed that ‘haha‘ 母 and ‘okaasan‘ お母さん were two unrelated words. Now it seems much more obvious that the ‘kaa‘ in ‘okaasan’ is actually the word ‘haha‘ – which has undergone some kind of phonetic change perhaps? If I’m not making any sense, which is probably the case, I apologise. Thank you for this little insight, and for linking this topic to that of my article named ‘How specific are you? – Kinship terminology across cultures‘!

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