Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

I Swear...

I need some author's guidance from people with extensive experience in other languages. I'm looking for an understanding of profanity/vulgarity in French, German and Russian, most especially if you can comment on profanity and vulgarity that would have been used 100 years ago (during the Great War.)

Thus far I've done a certain amount of reading around about this in regards to French, and my initial impression is that French does not have nearly as much variety of profanity or vulgarity as English. I came across "merde" and "zut", neither of which is apparently all that bad. Is there anything else out there? That seems pretty tame compared to English in which the world wars brought "fuck" in its many manifestations into general usage. (I gather the Australians are often blamed for this, but who is to say.)

What is out there for German and Russian? Am I simply spoiled by English? Do we have an unusual range of things to call people and exclaim?

11 comments:

Kate said...

Interesting question! I know a number of fairly old Quebecois curses--but as they are almost all blasphemous, I don't use them. (My elementary school French teacher taught us 'zut', which means it will never ever sound like a real swear word to me).

Googling brought me here: http://www.librarything.com/topic/79266
and here: http://www.richardbeard.info/2009/09/translating-french-swear-words/

German shouldn't be too difficult, considering the common germanic roots of a lot of our basic english obscenities.

http://www.goethe.de/ges/spa/pan/spg/en5770963.htm

This looks like a fun read on the topic of swearing in different languages: http://www.eoivillalba.com/paginas/swearing.htm

I have no idea about Russian, but I am sure there must be a fair range in that language, too!

Brandon said...

For French, I imagine Zola would be useful -- L'Assommoir (1877) is supposed to have a lot of profanity, but I've never actually read it myself, and I don't know how likely it would show through in translation. I don't know if there's anything similarly convenient in German, and would doubt that there's anything similarly convenient in Russian (Dostoevsky has an essay somewhere in which he talks at length about Russian profanity -- and never actually says what any of it is, because of censors).

Rebekka said...

Russian profanity is called mat. I tried to avoid it when I was there, because obscenities always sound stupid from foreigners. Also it's really profane and good girls don't use it. But I googled a little and here is an article with a historical overview of mat in general and a bunch of the key phrases: http://www.russki-mat.net/e/mat_VEvrofeyev.htm

Gilbert said...

I think for German during WWI that would still be a fairly dialectical thing, i.e. it would depend on where exactly in the German-speaking area we're talking about. Generally German swear-words where more scatological, ethical or animal based than sexual, but there always were exceptions and nowadays there is a lot of globalization.

The German Wikipedia has an endearing category for slurs, complete with sub-categories for ethnic and female slurs, but only about half of them would have been in use back then. Many of the newer ones are actually English loan-words.

Darwin said...

Heh. I guess that I am going to catch up on these links at some other time than over my morning coffee right after getting in to work. I don't think I've ever tripped the "tasteless" filter on the company's web filter so many times in five minutes before.

Thanks, these look like some really helpful links.

I figure that one of the dangers of writing fiction set in a culture that isn't yours in attempting more familiarity than you have. So I plan to keep foreign word and phrase use to a minimum. But I am trying to figure out way to have my English "sound like" the language of the characters I'm writing about. And given that my context for the period is entirely English-speaking, I want to get a feel for what kinds of phrases and concepts were used for profanity and insults in the different languages, even though I may mostly be using English equivalents.

bearing said...

Why don't you try contacting a large university language department with your language research question? See if any of the profs are native speakers who can tell you how their grandpa swore, or who are familiar enough with popular culture of a hundred years ago that they can answer your question or point you to the right resources.

Cojuanco said...

Well, for Quebec French, there is an entire genre of swear-words known as "sacres" (From the expresssion, "Ne dites pas ça, c'est sacré." "Don't say that, it is a sacred thing") Basically they are specifically Catholic terms used literally in vain (referring to the tabernacle, the ciborium, Baptism, the Host), which have survived even as Quebec secularized.

Lauren said...

You know who would love this reference question, Library of Congress. I think you can ask reference questions online and they will research it for you. They have all sorts of language specialists. Good Luck.

Brandon said...

So it turns out that I have a one-volume works of Zola in translation lying around that I've never looked at, and I've been skimming through it quickly and comparing with the French at parts where it looks like there might be something more than the pretty tame expressions in the English. There's a lot of mon Dieu, which would have been stronger than it sounds to us today; and a Tonnerre de Dieu, which is 'Thunder of God!'. There's salope -- a vulgar word for a prostitute, and still a very common French swear-word -- which the English translation I have amusingly translates as "miserable fool". There's a Vous êtes bête, which literally just means 'You're a beast'; but my sense is that this sort of insult, like calling someone a pig, is a much more serious thing to say in French than in English, and this is confirmed by the fact that the translator refuses to translate it at all. Beyond that a quick survey hasn't turned up anything much.

Rachel Stroumsa said...

http://www.lyricsmania.com/la_ronde_des_jurons_lyrics_georges_brassens.html
My sense is actually that English is considerably poorer than Russian or French....

Jennifer Fitz said...

Coming to this late - bête in contemporary usage isn't a swear word at all. It just means someone is stupid or annoying -- used all the time among siblings, parents to their children, by children, etc.

Salope - definitely a swear word. Putain is more of the same, don't know if it's period.

Unfortunately I learned all my French swear words on the playground and not in literary works . . . but if you send me a bit of text, if I'm around I'll take a look and give you a read on it.