As an Indonesian, I can speak English quite fluently. I’ve been learning the language since I was a kid, and I might as well consider it my second language at this point. Not so much for other languages, as I only know some of the swear words and not much more than that.
Regarding the Spanish language, for example, while I understand some common words like “amor” and “casa”, I also know some of its curse words by heart; words like “cojones”, “pendejo”, and “cabron”, even though they are probably not taught in any Spanish language learning curriculums.
It goes way beyond Spanish, though, as I also have no trouble at all remembering some of the rude words or expressions from Banjarese, the language spoken by people of the South Kalimantan province of Indonesia, even though I live far from the area and have no relatives who are currently residing there at all.
As someone who played Dota 2 a lot in the past, I also know some of the vulgar words from Tagalog. This made me thinking: why is it so easy to remember curse words? I literally can’t comprehend any single word coming from a Filipino, but when he/she swears, I may get what he/she means.
If I had to guess, it might be because of the way the human mind works. The majority of people tend to be more interested in things that have a sexual connotation, or things that are considered taboo. Thus, our mind tends to remember those things a little easier.
I remember when I was still in elementary school, I would ridicule some of my friends when I heard them talking in their local language. But then, I would also ask them how to swear in their language; not how to greet people, or how to say thank you, but how to curse. So yeah, even the 10-year old me had already have an interest in profanity.
To be honest, I don’t feel bad at all. If you think about it, people swear almost all the time, and it’s not only when they feel pain or anger. I may swear a little more than I should, but this is how I communicate in a colloquial setting, as in when I’m talking to my friends on a daily basis. I even greet them using curse words, and none of them would even consider it offensive.
With that in mind, I think it’s not wrong to see curse words as a big part of the language, especially in verbal communication. After all, we learn a language to communicate with one another. So if curse words are really a big part of it, what’s stopping us from learning them?
Curse words are a big part of spoken language
According to Slate’s old podcast episode, curse words account for approximately 0.7% of English speaker daily vocabulary, while first-person plural pronouns make up around 1% of the words people speak every day. Looking at this data, curse words are basically spoken as often as regular, descriptive words. Which brings us to the question: why are curse words considered socially unacceptable?
To answer that question, we need to define the word “social” first. In its simplest definition, the word social means “relating to society or its organization”. The society I’m in is different from yours, which means it’s all about context. While curse words are unacceptable in a formal context, they are just part of how my friends and I speak informally. We know how to use and when to use them, which is why none of us would even call them obscene.
Despite how rude curse words sound, they are the words I use the most on a day-to-day basis. And when I can comfortably swear in a particular language (in this case, my local language Javanese), it basically shows that I have a complete comprehension of it. I know when I can say things and when I can’t, and how some words may mean differently depending on how I say it.
A study conducted in 2015 showed that an individual’s fluency in the English language was linked to fluency in swearing. One of the researchers even concluded that “people who are good at producing language are good at producing swear words”, which is to say it shows how fluent they are in a particular language. Another way to think about it is, swearing may actually be a sign of having a more robust vocabulary.
Learning a foul language isn’t all that bad if you really think about it. If you want to avoid mistakes, you should know what the mistakes are in the first place, right? In this case, if you want to avoid talking offensively to people, you need to know what curse words not to use.
For me personally, I’m always interested in the curse words when I start learning a new language. Again, it’s just how my mind works. I will practice how to pronounce them properly until I can utter them without any vocalization mistake. However, sometimes the words our brain formulate are uttered differently by our mouth. My brain might be thinking “What a fine beach”, but then what I said would sound more like “What a fine bitch”. Now imagine if I say that in front of strangers. Just one wrong pronunciation can result in trouble.
The word “bitch” itself can actually mean different things, right? When you meet a lady who’s walking three dogs, two male and one female, it’s natural to just point at the female dog and yell “There’s the bitch!” Use the same word to refer to the lady, however, and it would just result in you getting slapped.
Referring back to my first question, the way curse words play a big role in spoken language also contributes to how they are very easy to remember. When something is spoken frequently, it just sticks to your mind. When the most-used Spanish words in the movies I watched are “cojones” and “pendejo”, it’s no surprise then if I understand them to the fullest, and this could be a great step for me to continue learning Spanish.
Usually, some of the most common expressions we learn when learning a new language are regarding greeting or saying goodbye. Put curse words into these expressions, and you’ll learn how people would greet each other in that language on an everyday basis. It’s just the context that’s different, and if in the end we are encouraged to learn more about the language, I suppose curse words are not bad at all, right?
It goes without saying that you will also need to learn the norms, the rules, and the scenarios when swearing can be considered tolerable before you can spew all those vulgar words. To me, this is all part of what makes language learning exciting.
Featured image: Dictionary.com.