Profanity is experiencing a renaissance right now. A Profanaissance, if you will. There’s more swearing on television than ever before, and even cursing at work is considered acceptable in a lot of places these days (assuming you’re not swearing at someone). Expletives have always been around, of course — even in the sanitized days of Leave It To Beaver. Increasingly, though, they’re an integral part of almost everyone’s language.
Part of the reason for the increase in cussing is that psychologists keep finding benefits to swearing. An F-bomb can help you tolerate the pain you feel when you stub your toe. Repeating curse words when you’re performing an athletic feat can make you stronger. People who swear more even seem to lie less. Basically, swearing makes you a powerful human incapable of deception.
Though swearing has a number of advantages, there is one context in which it’s disappointingly unsatisfying: a different language. Sure, it’s entertaining and hilarious to learn about vulgarity around the world, but shouting “Merde!” when you hit your thumb with a hammer will not have the same effect as the English equivalent. Why? In part, the reason is obvious: if you weren’t taught growing up that a word is taboo, then it won’t seem taboo to you. It’s like when a child runs around screaming “fuck” because they recently learned it. They won’t realize why their parents are looking on in horror until they’re scolded.
Examining why foreign swear words prove so ineffective when we use them provides some interesting insights into exactly how swearing works, and how you should approach curse words when you’re learning a new language.
Studying Our Swearing Habits
Expletives seem to hold a very special place in the human mind. In one study, a patient had a severe case of aphasia — brain damage that causes someone to have difficulty with language — but he still had the ability to swear. They found that while most language is stored in one part of the brain (the Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas, to be exact), swearing seems to be nestled into the limbic system, which is more closely connected with emotion. This means cussing is baked right into human instinct, nestled into the subconscious. If you’ve ever accidentally sworn after hitting your head on a cabinet door, this probably won’t be a surprise to you.
Another study looked specifically at swearing in another language. The researchers had Polish students translate texts that were filled with curse words, both general swear words and ethnic slurs, to see how they would translate them. When they translated from English into their native Polish, they tended to tone down how offensive the words were. When the students translated in the other direction, they scaled their offensiveness up. If this teaches us anything, it’s that it may be ideal to avoid ethnic slurs in a new language (if that wasn’t already obvious).
When you first start learning a new language, you’ll be emotionally detached from the vocabulary. Whereas you’ve spoken your mother tongue your whole life and have imbued special meaning into words like “love,” “happiness” and “goddamn,” the new language is just a bunch of sounds. Studies have even shown that if you’re asked ethics questions in the language you’re learning, you’re more likely to act in a detached, less moral way. This isn’t to say speaking a new language will cause you to become a monster; it just means you might want to be careful if you run into the trolley problem abroad.
The Importance Of Cultural Knowledge When Swearing
What does the case of swearing tell us about learning a language? It means that even once you nail the grammar and vocabulary, it might take time before you really start to emotionally resonate with the language. It also means you may want double check how words are used in a new language. For example, one of the German equivalents of saying “I want to have dessert” would be Ich habe Lust auf Nachtisch, which literally translates back to “I have lust for dessert.” If a German were to say this to you in English, you might be a bit weirded out because “lust” has certain … connotations.
You’ll want to be all the more careful with swearing in another language. If you’ve only learned a word by reading it, you might think it’s something light-hearted when it’s not. The French love throwing around “fuck”s because there’s some emotional distance there, which can cause English-speakers to recoil. Even within a language, there can be differences in swearing culture. The British use “cunt” with wild abandon, whereas in the United States, it is probably the most taboo word. This has caused many an American tourist (including myself) to be scandalized.
Swear words are culturally constructed, so to use them well, you need to learn about the culture that uses them. Fortunately, you should already be doing that when you’re learning a language anyway. If, however, you need to get your rage out about something, there’s no shame in reverting to your native language. There’s nothing like a good ol’ F-bomb, no matter where you are in the world.