Swearing in foreign languages
Besides the most basic terms in a language (greetings, numbers, how to say ‘yes’ and ‘no), swear words seem to be some of the most readily-learned phrases in foreign languages. Just the other night, I met a Mandarin speaker whose Cantonese lexicon contained the words for ‘hello’, the numbers 1 to 10, and various ways to insult other people. He was in the army in a Cantonese-speaking province, so this isn’t entirely unsurprising.
Why is there such a need to learn these words? Perhaps it’s because learning other languages is sometimes so frustrating that learners want to express this. I think it’s more that, especially in groups of younger people, swearing in a casual way is a way to connect with others, show that you are comfortable with them, and have a bit of a laugh. As long as you choose your audience well, and don’t have conversations consisting entirely of swear words and rude gestures, I think it’s acceptable.
I’ve also found that people sometimes swear in other languages when it is inappropriate to swear in their own. Even though many people know what the words mean, they seem to lose their potency in other languages. For example, I’ve heard quite a few people say the German word Scheiße (scheisse) instead of the English counterpart, shit. This has happened in social situations as well as in the workplace.
For a user-generated list of foreign swear words and phrases, have a look at YouSwear.com. They have phrases in languages from Afrikaans to Yiddish, and they even have a Swear Phrase of the Day.
Do you have any other examples of people’s fantastic swearing abilities in foreign languages?