Swearing in another language

October 02, 2013

There are some things that just can’t be taught. You can pick them up along the way, but no matter how many lessons you have, you only get them if you live them.

When people swear in another language, they either get it wrong, or they’re too correct for it to sound right.

The incongruity of Germans swearing in English is hard to explain. I’m not sure what it is, but there’s something wrong with it. Maybe it’s a shortage of plosive power. Maybe it’s the sheer correctness of it, or the sense that it’s being acted out, like boarding school boys trying Cockney rhyming slang. As Ruth Wajnryb puts it, “it’s difficult to ‘feel’ the intensity of a swear word in a language not your own”.

Slang is a badge of group membership, and if you use the slang owned by a particular group, you’re claiming membership of that group. Wajnryb again: the rude word “serves now as an in-group marker, a way by which they solidify their individual sense of belonging”.

I think it’s about authenticity. Again and again it seems to be the key to value.

It’s partly doing it like you mean it, and partly doing it because you can’t help it. It’s why Definitely Maybe was great, but Be Here Now was terrible. If you’re doing something for any reason other than for the sake of the thing itself, there’s an indefinable quality missing.

The other thing about swearing is that it’s about context. In some circumstances, it’s just noise, meaningless discourse markers. Foul language is losing its power to outrage most people, but in some situations it can still shock.

I was once walking through a busy shopping centre in Japan, and over the sound system I could hear some rapper giving it his all, shouting “Let me fuck you from behind”, while mothers and children drifted past oblivious. His fury was utterly impotent, but the thing for me was that I wasn’t sure whether some disgruntled employee was taking over the sound system, or whether this was on the official playlist of the shopping centre.