Swearing in different languages

Today’s topic is interesting as 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 something so raw and wrong about saying it in vernacular; 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 very telling aspect of the culture–it is very interesting that all cultures have language–words that and a set of words that you really shouldn’t say. While profanity is universal, each language have their 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 a very 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 unique ‘Susmaryosep’, a contraction of ‘Jesus, Mary, Joseph’.

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 than 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 very Catholic beliefs of shunning sexual immorality are juxtaposed with rampant prostitution in the streets; 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 who strongly swear about mothers tend to swear a lot about prostitutes, too.

In Cebuano, our swear vocabulary compose mostly on 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 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 & civic leader Spencer KimballMost people believe that cursing / 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 proven invalid 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?


The multilingual Filipino

I finished my phone conversation with a silly grin on my face when I caught Nico* looking at me without disguising his curiosity.

“What language was that?” he asked.

The conversation was with my girlfriend from back home. We were sat having sandwiches outside the Fisher Fine Arts library in UPenn, where my friend and I normally studied. 

Visayan.” I said. “Why?”

“It didn’t sound like the same language you speak with Ryan.” he said, referring to another Filipino classmate of ours.

“That’s Tagalog.”

“But this language Cebuano–it must be your first language, yes?”

I confirmed, and he shot a grin back in triumph.

He said he knew because everyone always sound angrier in their own language. He said I certainly sounded angry, but knew I wasn’t, because I was laughing after every sentence.

“Unless, you laugh in anger in your culture,” he mused.

I thought about what he said for a while. He made a pretty good point. We are always nicer and more respectful in another language, saying everything in a more gentle, question manner, unsure of ourselves; like we become children conversing to adults once again.

Come to think of it, I do tend to take up different personalities in the different languages I speak. I feel more professional in English, more gentle in Tagalog and Hiligaynon, and I’m a foul-mouthed, warfreak, drunken sailor in Cebuano.

Being Filipino, I grew up to hearing different tongues–sometimes simultaneously–that it was the only kind of world I knew of. In my hometown, we spoke both Visayan, and our Muslim brothers Maranao; my father’s side spoke Hiligaynon, and my mother’s side Tagalog. You know my grandfather’s temper is on the upside when you hear cussing in Spanish, English is taught in our schools from prep to college, and French…simplyfrom dating a few of them.

Sounds impressive, but not really. This is not unusual in a typical Filipino household. The country, after all, has 7,000+ islands, 300+ dialects, with frequent movement and diaspora; long colonial Spanish history, and then raised by Hollywood and 80’s love ballads. With this hodge-podge history, it is already given for every Filipino-born to be multilingual (or bilingual at the least).

We don’t really think about the multilingual aptitude much. But when you go abroad and realize that most people speak only one language.

Some weren’t granted the opportunity or exposure to other foreign tongues and cultures. Some by choice and refuse to learn any other language. And some are just simply crippled by the convenience of being born spoilt into a culture that didn’t have the necessity (I’m looking at you, America).

Foreign peers compliment me at how ‘good my English is’, like I’m not supposed to get my v’s and f’s right. And then revel at how easily I can switch from one language to another. It’s kinda nice to show off once in a while, pretending it’s some sort of superpower.

The truth is, you don’t really need to be fluent in the languages–you just need to know enough. You only need to know ‘hi, nice to meet you’, ‘beer’ and ‘cheers’ in a dozen languages for them to look at you like black sorcery. Kanpai!

Nico, being European, was also multilingual.

And so I played around with the topic and shot back a question: “Nico, what language do you think?”

His blue eyes danced, like he had been expecting the discourse. “The German language is made perfectly for a thinking mind, I believe. The vocabulary is just so exact and concise, there’s little room for error.”

I shot back the question to myself. What language do I think? What language do I feel?

On formal and professional scenarios, English seemed the default. It was my rationalizing language. But in the social and emotional aspects, Cebuano is my preference. 

Especially when it came to bodily feelings, I feel I could better explain myself in my dialect. How can you translate gigil? Kilig? Binhod? Panuhot? Pasmo? Alimungawan? How do you translate them to English in one word, without giving people the context or comparison? The nuances of languages tell us how the people and culture are characteristically; and on this–it seems like Cebuanos are very attuned to their bodies and feelings.

Nothing is more satisfying than swearing in Cebuano. I would write some of my favorites down, but they might not make it out on print. Sometimes, the F-word just don’t cut it, you know? There’s just more meat in our dialect, it’s just so wrong , dirty and crude.Especially the B-words…

Ah, nothing beats the B-words.

Now that I think of it, when I need to make more rational and moral decisions, I should probably not process my thought processes in Cebuano.