Saturday, May 23, 2009

Ancient intercourse

Until the 1950s everyone thought language conditioned thought, much as clothes make the man. This was called the Sapir-Whorf Thesis, and was dreamed up by a pair of Americans whose vocations as artificial-language advocate and fire-safety inspector marked them out as pillars of common sense.

This was a happy time when doctors prescribed cigarettes for a sore throat and Communism could be measured by the gap between your eyes, so the Thesis seemed to make sense. It also had a zippy name, the sort of thing a maniac from the Rand Corporation might snap at you from behind his cruel glasses.

Nonetheless St George Orwell got their number. His Newspeak is based on the Sapir-Whorf Thesis. As the retrospective article about it in 1984 is written in standard English, we can assume that Newspeak fails to eradicate independent thought. Only management training courses can do that.

Noam Chomsky turned up in 1957 and pointed out that we do not think in cartoon speech bubbles after all, and since then Sapir & Whorf have lived on solely in pub-quiz questions about the number of Eskimo words for snow - the linguistic equivalent of thinking a swan can break your arm with its wing.

(Chomsky, by the way, is himself proof of the Alibhai-Brown Thesis - namely that every clot is right about something at least once. Except the Quakers.)

But cognitive linguistics may yet have something useful to say about that most fecund and democratic field of semantics - swearing.

My experience suggests that smaller languages, or those of subject peoples, tend either to curse less or to adopt patterns of profanity from their dominant neighbours:
  • Welsh oaths are mild and Medieval. One can hardly imagine a 10-minute scene in The Wire consisting of riffs on "By the bones of St David!" ("Asgwrn Dafydd!);

  • Estonians simply pump Russian obscenities through their own tubular tongue; and

  • Modern Hebrew, despite having the whole of the Book of Leviticus to play with, enjoys lambasting Arabs in words that they will instantly understand.

The larger the tongue, the fouler the mouth is the basic contention of the No-Good-Boyo Thesis. The Balkans are notable exceptions, of course:

  • Hungarian is a blasphemous tongue of garter-snapping depravity;

  • Romanian whispers invitations to necro-incest against the beat of leathery wings; and

  • The exploding super-nova that once was Serbo-Croat showers such sentiments as "Jebem ti dušu!" on anxious Albanians as it hurtles to the ends of the Yugosphere.

English and Russian are my empurpled imperial proof of the profane. Both languages have catalogued their curses in major lexical references works, Roger's Profanisaurus and Alec Flegon's "Beyond The Russian Dictionary".

England's North Country deserves a special mention for its innovation of swearing within a word. I met a Yorkshireman on my first day at college. "What are you reading?" I asked. "Mechanical Engi-bloody-neering," he replied. Deep Joyce.

I shall illustrate my thesis with seminal fieldwork among the Russians.

"Wanter cuppa, mate?" inquired a jovial chai-wallah in shalwar kameez and fluent Russian halfway down the corridor in Student Hostel No.2 at the Order of Lenin/Banner of Lenin State University of Voronezh, USSR, in September 1985.

"Don't mind if I do, guv'nor!" I replied, and padded along behind the pandit. I'd been in Russia about a fortnight, but my linguistic facility was due entirely to failed but enjoyable attempts to seduce Mrs Martin, the Tartar wife of one of our college lecturers in Swansea - a Mr Martin.

Shahid was a Bangladeshi postgraduate whose enthusiasm for Communism had made him unpopular in his waterlogged homeland. Once I'd got to know him better I asked why he hadn't moved to Communist-run West Bengal in India instead of the grisly Land of the Soviet and its lukewarm, lice-ridden welcome for people of colour.

"Wrong kind of Communists," he said with a wistful hint that for once nutrition and self-respect ought to have trumped sectarianism.

He ushered me into his room, where sat a row of various non-Soviets, each clutching a notepad and exploding ballpoint pen from the Rosa Luxemburg Propelling Pencil and Ink Implement Factory of Ust-Kamenogorsk. A cup of condensed milk and road sweepings dropped into my hand, and Shahid continued.

"So, Abdullah," he addressed an Afghan, "How would you go into a bar and drink a beer on your way home."

"In His Name!" declared the swart Pathan. "I cocked down the road, whore, and twatted into the bitch of a bar. Then I dicked a beer - "

"Let me stop you there, brother," interrupted Shahid. "First, very good deployment of 'whore', most idiomatic. But you don't dick a beer after twatting anything. In a stand-alone sentence you can dick what you like, but remember the Sequence of Swearing - No Dick After a Twat. It's biological. Now please carry on."

Some Swansea Poles had taught me basic Russian swearing, but this was a stumble through Alice's Looking-Glass as imagined by Frank Harris. I appreciated the difference when Shahid asked me to have a go. "Be so good as to ask me for a beer, swearily," he requested.

"Er, gizza beer you bastard?" I hazarded.

He patiently assigned me homework and a mentor in the form of a chap from Rostock called Raik. He was a German with a sense of humour, albeit strictly one-way as I found when I nicknamed him "Das Dritte". He introduced me to Russian Swearing: Intermediate Level.

Chemistry lessons effect a chain reaction on your personality as you trudge through the education system:

  • Before 'O' level it is all stinkbombs and dyes, the happy preserve of the short-trousered anarchist.

  • By 'A' level you enter the knotty world of balanced equations, which still attracts the occasional blue-stocking.

  • At university, however, all normal social activity has ceased and the chemistry lab is the haunt of the chess-player with one pair of underpants and a pocketful of pies.

With Russian swearing you have a reverse reaction. Any flan-faced 12-year-old can call you a knob, but it takes years of sociabilité to apply the appropriate prefix, voice and aspect to a concise verbal phrase (based on the same noun) in order to suggest that you should depart immediately on a vertical exploration of your illegitimate mother's lower intestine while simultaneously continuing to pleasure yourself with the rubbery parts of your father, who has just met you and is seeing your mum for only the second time ever.

Slavonic grammar arms poet and pissant alike with an almost infinate array of affixes and insertions to tease out the tenderest nuance.

On one level polyubit' (полюбить) means to fall completely in love with someone, while vlyublyat'sya (влюбляться) is to fall in love despite some awareness of the footwear-and-hygiene-fixated harridan to whom you are handing over your life. On another, zapit' (запить) is to have a chaser with your basic potation, while upit'sya (упиться) is to knock back a trough of vodka and forget where you live.

A similar approach is taken to cursing. Verbs provide the most exotic bouquets of abuse, but the true connoisseur seeks out the rarer refinements of the noun. Zapit', for example, yields the wonderful zapoi (запой) -a weeklong village drinking bout to mark some good augury like the birth of a one-headed child.

I was relaxing with some friends on the banks of the River Don one day when our Austrian colleague Ursula joined us. She had been barracked on the way through a nearby copse by some village rascals for declining their invitation to join them for redeye, dried fish and molestation.

"Do you know what they called me, Boyo?" she fumed. "They called me a yebanka!"

I grasped my metaphorical Moleskine and made a note of this little gem. It combined the earthy verb yebat' (ебать) with banka (банка), or jar, to produce something like "fuckbucket". Eloquent, and all the more satisying for being most unfair to an attractive, demure and by all accounts trim young lady.

You must master the plug-ins and cables that adapt the odd obscenity into a charabanc of Rabelaisian excess before moving onto Russian Swearing: Advanced Level, and I'm content to say I never even got that far.

The higher reaches of cursing involve what the poet Velimir Khlebnikov called zaum, or trans-sense language, and you'll get nowhere without native speech, extensive reading in the underground works of Pushkin and Lermontov, a pair of piss-stained brown flares and a lifetime of yelling at passers-by from your perch in the gutter by the kvass kiosk.

I did some coursework on subsidiary subjects like Georgian Swearing. This does not mean swearing in the Georgian language, a tongue so fierce that a grocery list sounds like an illustrated account of the Swansea Ospreys' visit to a Beirut bath house, but rather the way Georgians swear in Russian.

Georgians, like many nations, often invite antagonists to couple with their own mothers, or accuse them of already having done so. The Russian phrase "Yob tvoyu mat'!" ("Ёб твою мать!"), however, is a statement that someone else (male) has availed himself of your mother's favours, and is used as an exclamation of annoyance or surprise along the lines of "bloody hell" rather than an insult directed at the listener.

A Georgian market trader in Moscow will sometimes seek to offend a customer by yelling "yob tvoyu mat'!" at him, which has something of the effect of snarling "drat, and double-drat!" with an accusatory finger-jab. It also explains much about the failings of the Georgian market economy. Russians call this misuse of register "Georgian swearing", and consider it a sign of moral degeneracy on a par with the Baltic States.

Other languages that lug pre-modern grammatical baggage around with them are also blessed with the Slav's facility for offence.

A former ladyfriend fluent in Levantine Arabic once recalled that Syrian border guards were always delighted to see her French travelling companion, as the young woman's Gallic surname sounded exactly like "I (female) am in the process of being rooted by you (male singular)/other (male singular) while we are speaking" in Damascene dialect. This one-word sonata puts Welsh-speakers' amusement at the surname Cotsen to shame.

Important work is being done on Russian sweariness by, for example, Vadim Mikhailin and Alexei Plutser-Sarno. I can only hope that progressive scholars elsewhere will follow them in wresting frame semantics from the pallid paws of the academy. Not only because it is amusing to call someone an "Armenian plugnut", but because it can aid international understanding.

I recommend watching this clip, in which a young Russian has translated the popular Soviet children's puppet show Krokodil Gena into Swearish:

You may not understand the words, but I am sure that you will know exactly what he is saying. Language planners like that weed Zamenhof and his flaccid Esperanto missed the point. We need less reason in discourse analysis, not more.

I believe that if United Nations debates and all diplomacy were conducted at the level of the primary-school playground we would be well on the way to universal peace and fuckyourmotherhood. Пиздец!


SnoopyTheGoon said...

Enjoyable, albeit somewhat imprecise in places, essay. As for:

"Modern Hebrew, despite having the whole of the Book of Leviticus to play with, enjoys lambasting Arabs in words that they will instantly understand."

True, but the secret here is that in Hebrew - both classical and modern - there are only a few swear words, and thus both sides happily use Russian for the purpose.

Anonymous said...

Spanish is another great sweary language, which specialises in defecating in the inanimate and animate alike.

No Good Boyo said...

Metsuyan! These are the sorts of learned comments I like.

Examples please, gentlemen.

From your respective languages I know only the Arabic borrowings (eg kus immak), "jo!" and "cago" this and that.

Francis Sedgemore said...

Crynwyr cotsenaidd?

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...


Regarding widespread defecation in Spanish, the sentence begins "Me cago en..." ("I shit in/on") and can end with just about anything, from "tu puta madre" ("your whore of a mother") to "la leche" ("the milk"). Everything and anything can be shat on, but traditional favourites include "Dios" (God), "la hostia" (communion wafer), "el copón" (communion chalice), "la mar" (the sea) amd "la puta que te parió" (the whore who gave birth to you).

No Good Boyo said...

Now I see where Dalí was coming from, Simon. This only confirms my thesis about large/dominant languages, which Spanish clearly is, as long as the swearing in subject tongues (Catalan, Basque) is either milder or basically Spanish translations.

Hollol gytun, Francis.

xerxes said...

Noam Chomsky took care to set the bar pretty low for himself. I wish I'd been so clever.

That engi-bloody-neering is a fine example of tmesis, popularized, like geometry, democracy and pederasty, by the Greeks. (Sorry, I have no actual Greek swearish to contribute.)

No Good Boyo said...

Most erudite, Inky. If only Pete "Bloody" Eastwood had known he was demonstrating classical rhetoric every time he opened his mouth for purposes other than brisket consumption.

I've a feeling the Modern Greek swearing is a hybrid of Balkan blasphemy and Puristic prudery, and worth a doctorate in itself.

Gadjo Dilo said...

Excellent thesis, Boyo. For me, a bit of a theoretical linguist though I say so myself, all this talk only leads to the book Studies Out in Left Field: Defamatory Essays Presented to James D. McCawley on the Occasion of His 33rd or 34th Birthday, in which swearisms like "Fuck Lynden Johnson" are analysed in total seriousness and with syntactically significant results. Scatolinguistics and allied disciplines are at the sharp end of linguist evolution.

And I've been hoping for mention of "Fearless" Frank Harris - A thoroughgoing Welsh though born in Ireland.

Mrs Boyo said...

Snoopy's remark might provide the diplomatic breakthrough in the Middle East that all decent people and I seek.

The Israelis and their Palestinian antagonists should conduct negotiations and conclude a peace agreement entirely in Russian obscenities, as this is clearly the only language they both understand.

Boyo could then earn some money by translating it all.

Anonymous said...

"This only confirms my thesis about large/dominant languages, which Spanish clearly is, as long as the swearing in subject tongues (Catalan, Basque) is either milder or basically Spanish translations."

That is the case with Basque, but with languages such as Catalan, Galician or Aragonese there isn't much point making any distinctions as far as swearing goes as all of these languages were basically the same back around the 12th or 13th century. It's a bit like trying to work out if Cockneys are more sweary than Geordies or Glaswegians.

Pearl said...

Good God I can't stay away from this blog and yet rarely do I understand more than half of it.

That was, ya no good boyo ya, the best thing I've read today. And I've read a bit. I would be interested in what you know about American swearing, if it has possibilities beyond the scatalogical and the sexual. Is there hope, or are we all flailing about in our own fuckedupedness? Or is it all shit?

No. Really.

Excellent post, as always.


xerxes said...

Boyo, surely one should mention the possibility of Turkish in modern Greek swearing, if only to be annoying.

Gareth Williams said...

Looking back at my rural Welsh upbringing in the light of this post, I recall that some English swear words were used more as punctuation than curses. From respectable old ladies to upright young gentlemen, nouns were often 'bloody' or replaced entirely by 'bugger'. When we moved to England I naturally maintained this form of colourfully interspersed language until one day in the class room I was bollocked by the teacher who informed me that he was sure such language was unacceptable at home. Quite the bloody contrary, I replied after which I got six of the best with his inky dap.

This must have been something of a distinguishing feature for our family as my father became known locally as 'Mr Bugger-Me'.

No Good Boyo said...

Delighted to hear that the Boyo Thesis is standing up to the Iberian Test, Simon. I've always imagined that languages with ergative constructions like Basque and Georgian would be most filthy because of the kinky connotation of mixing up subject and object. Pashto does the same, hence the seriously pervy Taleban.

I knew I could count on you for some heavyweight sweary references, Gadjo. I see a second, less crap academic career opening up before me. I recall Romanian swearing as being warped and graphic - I trust this is still the same (Boyo Subsidiary Balkan Hypothesis).

Further to the Hypothesis, Inky, I imagine right-wing Katharevousa-speaking Greeks sigh "Heu, by the brow of Zeus!" with a krater of woody wine in hand, while left-wing Demotic Greeks grunt "wind yer turban 'round this!" through a mouthful of minced bollocks.

Gaw, you speak words of truth. My guess is that many rural Welsh picked up English from the building site or army service - that and so much more. This led to "bloody" and "bugger" being normalised when they brought their earthy form of English back to the farm.

The same happened with Tok Pisin, where "bagrap" (bugger up) in the usual word for "broken".

Pearl, American English yet again confirms the Boyo Thesis. British English can strip the hair off a French matelot's arms, but lacks the intensity and sheer inventiveness of American.

You have contributions from Sicilian, Yiddish, Spanish and other gobby languages, not to mention Ebonics. My attempt at rendering the work of Mr Schoolly D into British English shows the space between us:

By the way, Gadjo - there's a coffinful of lei in it if you can show me how to insert hyperlinks into comments like you did in yours.

Kevin Musgrove said...

Don't forget the importance of geography to the language, Boyo.

It was made very clear to me once that the profane impact of "ёб" was in inverse logarithmic relationship to the speaker's distance from Novgorod.

And in England there is the "t" word... Imagine the reaction of a North of England librarian finding the phrase: "they were a bunch of twats" in a children's book!

Gareth Williams said...

Thank you Boyo for your compelling theory - you are a source of great enlightenment. Just out of interest, how did you get so bloody knowledgeable about language, you bugger?

Re embedding hyperlinks, I just found out myself. If you go to 'help' in Blogger and type in something along the lines of 'embedding links in comments' you'll find a page that explains. There may well be more cunning ways to do this but that's all I've found.

No Good Boyo said...

Quite right, Kevin. I found this out while working in an office in Oxford. "I'm off for a wazz" I told Elaine, our nympho secretary. After years of living in Sarf Landanmayte I took the word to mean "a piss". In Oxfordshireshire it means "a wank". She offered to help. I declined nervously. If only I'd known.

The popularity of the surname Du Toit in South Africa has always amused me.

Gaw, I was intrigued by random facts about language, rather than learning to speak them properly, from an early age. A bilingual upbringing, an inspirational bookshop owner and a copy of Bodmer and Hogben's badass comedy of errors "The Loom of Language" set me on a path to deceptive erudition.

And thanks for the embedding tip, the lei are yours for the taking if you can hire a van.

Kevin Musgrove said...

I was beguiled as a child by a book in my local library called "Bozzimacoo!" which was a compendium of world-wide swear words and oaths. If memory serves it was written by a very attractive French lady.

M C Ward said...

This is the home of all that books cannot teach.

xerxes said...

Forgive me, Boyo, I realize that the aim of your blog is thorough and well-considered exegesis, but might your point be summarized as: swearing is the new rhetoric?

Daphne Wayne-Bough said...

I am disappointed you have such a low opinion of Zamenhof, as last week I made a trip in searing heat to the old Jewish cemetery in Warsaw, and took a photograph of his grave for you. I am sending it to you anyway, do with it what you will. I thought you were the Esperantist around here - am I mixing you up with Gadjo or Gyppo? Polish swearing, by the way, is generally food-influenced. The way to tell someone to go forth and multiply before the end of communism was "odpierpz sie", or go and pepper yourself.

No Good Boyo said...

French ladies whispering imaginative obscenities into the ears of infants - that's what I was hoping for from our joining the EEC. Instead we got more elections. Curse you, Heath!

I look forward to the photo of Uncle Ludwig, Daphne. And yes, I am the local Esperantist, as this shameful post shows:

MC, I like to think I'm part of the great Internet democratisation of knowledge. Whereas earlier facts were determined by the educated elite, now web blogs like this, Wikipedia and the Guardian's Comment is Free site are ensuring that underemployed halfwits can gibber at major events as well.

Inky, I can but quote the old story:

A tramp approaches a gent outside a theatre, and asks for £1.49 for a cup of tea.

"Neither a borrower nor a lender be - Shakespeare," quoth the gent.

"Fuck off - DH Lawrence," replied the tramp.

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Anonymous said...

You may not understand the words, but I am sure that you will know exactly what he is saying. Language planners like that weed Zamenhof and his flaccid Esperanto missed the point. We need less reason in discourse analysis, not more.

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