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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

On obscenities and homelands

"Obscenity: the root that attaches us most deeply to our homeland."
This is Milan Kundera going one step further from Czeslaw Milosz who famously wrote that language is the only homeland. I love Kundera's ability to get into the core of an issue with a pithy definition. I bumped into this one while browsing his "Art of the Novel" and I could not stop laughing.

What he describes is a familiar sentiment to all of us who have been uprooted out of our native linguistic context and into a second or a third language. Swearing in a foreign language? No problem! It carries almost no weight. You say the words just like any other words because you are detached. You don't feel them as bad, inappropriate, or harsh.

In my own language, on the other hand, I use them with utmost care. Don't ask me to teach you to swear in Serbian because I won't--first, because Serbian curses are really harsh and, second, because there is a proper context for swearing and that, for me, always involves being home (as in, home in Serbia). Out of that context, it doesn't feel right.

It is funny, when I am irritated or angry, I use a Bulgarian expression "po dyavolite" which means "to hell." Now, to Ruslan this is extremely rude and he reprimands me every time. My other Bulgarian friends say this is an old-fashioned curse which almost doesn't feel like one, it is kind of charmingly outdated. That's how I feel about it, too.

The Serbian equivalent "dodjavola" (it has identical meaning) is so light, I don't think anyone would consider it an obscenity. In fact, I bet people would just burst out laughing at it. But then it is true that we are a nation which curses a lot, and a general threshold of tolerance to using "bad language" is much higher than in other places I lived.

In Serbia, swearing is weaved seamlessly into conversations, whether it's a friendly banter or a serious discussion (as for arguments, that goes without saying). It completely cuts across class, geographical origin or education--you can't pigeonhole people based on swearing because everyone does swear a lot, from manual workers to university professors. It's one true democratic pursuit.

That's one thing that has been a cultural shock for Ruslan and I don't think he managed to get used to it even after all these years. Our cultures are otherwise incredibly similar, our languages very much alike, most of our idiomatic expressions are the same and, generally, we have very similar "mentality," except for this one difference that we curse a lot and, somehow, they don't. Why is that?

18 comments:

Alessandra said...

I'm so pleased to read about the Serbian swearing! I'm in the same situation with my Hungarian husband, because swearing is part of the Italian (and above all Sardinian!) speaking, while apparently using the same words I would use in Italian but translated into Hungarian would make me "extremely impolite". :)

Jelica said...

That's another very interesting phenomenon--everyone says that Hungarian is very rich in swear words and phrases (to the point of being very creative) and yet Hungarians are very formal and uptight. Maybe it's more class-based here?

spudballoo said...

Oh how interesting! I have nothing helpful to suggest for a reason however. I find it interesting how, in the UK the most foul mouthed people I know are the poshest. Why is that? Swearing with a posh accent somehow isn't as offensive as it is with a 'normal' one?

Interesting. Of course, my swearing days are over now the boys are here. I reserve the worst of my foul language for email!

x

Jelica said...

I definitely keep my mouth shut in front of the kiddies, although sometimes when a car buzzes past us without any regard for our safety I do mutter something in the way of a curse under my breath. And Boris immediately jumps at it: "What did you say, Mummy?" Too curious for his own good.

Lone Grey Squirrel said...

Very educational post. When they teach a foreign language do they also teach someone to curse and swear too? I wonder.

MissBuckle said...

I used to swear a lot in English, but not in Norwegian.

I swear more with certain people than others. And of course more after a few beers.

I don't in front of the boy. Not even in another language.

And on the blog I struggle. Cause the english word shit is used so lightly in Norway. And I tend to say it a lot. And bloody. I like bloody. But is that swearing?

Ruslan said...

I agree with all Jelica wrote. They also say that when 'mother' is replaced by 'God' in curses, you've crossed from Bulgaria to Serbia. As if mother was not enough....

Cursing is an exercise in semiotics: one has to analyse the relation between signifier and signified. In Bulgarian signifier is not as distanced from signified as in Serbian.

Jelica said...

Squirrel--"in my time" they didn't use to teach curses. But some friends of mine took a French course recently and they told me they had an entire lesson on slang and swearing :)

Miss Buckle--I don't think I am the most relevant person to answer your question, but for me "bloody" doesn't sound bad at all. But then, nothing really sounds that bad in English to me.

Ruslan--that must be it, then, although I am still curious as it how it came to be.

Dumdad said...

What a f**king interesting post!

I've always been amused when newspapers or books put in asterisks like the above example. One is hearing the swear word in one's mind and virtually reading it on the page and yet this seems to be more "proper".

I confess I swear alot and always have. I don't know why. I can swear in French too, but if I go ballistic (some idiot driver cutting me up) I tend to revert to Anglo-Saxon swearing - far more earthy and satisfying!

Jelica said...

Ah, the idiot drivers--the ultimate curse catalysts! I swear in Bulgarian when I am mildly irritated, English when I am more angry and if you hear me swear in Serbian better run for cover...

Polly said...

I can completely relate to everything you said here: I have no problem whatsoever swearing in English or German but swearwords never seem to come easily in Polish. I did wonder about that before but never managed to reach any conclusion, so you work this out please let me know!

And this makes me want to read Kundera's book even more.

And we say "do diabla" in Polish.

P.S. I hear you're coming to BC 3.0. I just booked my flights. I'm really looking forward to meeting you in person!

julochka said...

that is a really interesting question. i suppose a linguist somewhere has studied it. if we were in chicago, we could go find some students in a bar in hyde park and discuss it. i once had a lengthy conversation about swearing infixes in a bar in hyde park (which is why i think it's the place to go). :-)

Jelica said...

Ah, Julochka, you so elegantly avoided telling us if you ever swear in Danish :)

Polly, when you said you were in on that Blog Camp post, I immediately went to check the tickets :)

Merisi said...

I know exactly what Kundera and you are talking about! *chuckles* It is so true, I swear in my second and third language without guilt, never though in my mother tongue, how rude would that be? *hehe*

Adriana said...

I'm so glad you wrote about this! I've always been fascinated by how easy it is to curse in a foreign language as opposed to cursing in your mother tongue :) I have no explanations to offer, but it's definitely true for me. I curse a lot in English and have no misgivings about using the F-word, but I refuse to teach my American friends to curse in Bulgarian. One thing I've noticed is that I only start cursing in Bulgarian when I'm truly mad. I guess English curses just don't cut it when it really matters :) Curious thing, language, isn't it? :) And btw, I personally don't think "po diavolite" is really a curse :)

Elitza said...

"Po dyavolite" to me is simply a less sophisticated way to say "right now I am not as great as you (especially here in the US) expect me to be 24/7." Not a curse really, I agree with Adriana. But this is truly an interesting subject. To take the discussion a step further, I wonder in what language would your kids eventually express themselves when angry - Serbian, Bulgarian, English, or maybe Hungarian?

Jelica said...

I am happy to be vindicated in my belief that 'po dyavolite' is not obscene language at all!

Eli, I think the kids will curse in the language of their environment--so most probably Hungarian if we are still around when they reach cursing age, or some other language if we (hopefully) move before that. This is partly because they cannot hear any swear words at home (except po dyavolite, but that doesn't count ;) and partly because the language of the environment/school will become dominant eventually.

Elitza said...

I see. This was my indirect way of asking if your kids are actually learning Hungarian. It is very interesting! They will be quite the polyglots before they reach "cursing age," so they will have lots of options. :) I see you sneak in the word "hopefully" when you are talking about moving. Where would you guys like to move? Your blog makes me think that Budapest is a wonderful place for your family, at least for the moment.