Monday, July 2, 2012

On Profanity

First and foremost, hi, I'm still alive. I just haven't really been around on here mostly because I have been dealing with rather unremarkable days that haven't driven me to write anything here. But this blog isn't dead, okay. I promise.

Anyway, although it seems to be a touchy subject, I find profanity to be absolutely fascinating, not necessarily due to its content but rather its idiosyncratic use. Most of us do use some kind of profane language now and again, some more than others, some only in certain situations, etc. I don't want to explore the various instances and psychological conditions in which cursing is used, because that is a bit beyond the scope of what I do want to address here. Instead, I want to focus on a rather interesting facet of profanity, namely the use of profanity in a language that is not one's mother tongue.

Let me elaborate. My parents were born and raised in Macedonia, where they grew up learning Turkish, Albanian, Macedonian (the official language), and a slew of other languages that are all so similar to Macedonian that nearly every citizen living in Macedonia consequently and naturally becomes a speaker of Serbian, Croatian, Bulgarian, and other Slavic tongues. My parents immigrated to America two or so years before I was born. Over the years I noticed something interesting when it comes to my parents' use of profane language. They rarely curse in their mother tongues. My parents mostly speak Turkish between themselves, but generally speak English when talking to my sister and me, since it is the language in which my sister and I are fluent. The only times my parents curse in Albanian or Turkish is perhaps when they are incredibly angry, and even then the "curse words" are actually very connotatively mild, never truly extending past a mere flash of angry diction into pure, harsh, profane meaning. Instead, the intonation of the words seem to be enough to express whatever anger is at the base of the argument or discussion.

In English, however, my parents do curse, even when they are not upset. My dad can spit out the word "shit" in regular conversation with a chuckle, or even drop the f-bomb, which naturally catches my sister and me off-guard. When we were younger, we'd exclaim: "Dad, you can't just say things like that,  those are bad words!" to which he would laugh, along with my mom. It was indeed amusing to witness, but what was even more interesting was that they would never use such words when speaking Turkish or Albanian.

If I myself curse, there is some sort of internal force that recognizes the profanity of what I am saying and seems to poke at my conscience. Whether or not it makes me feel really bad is not the issue; the fact remains that I am aware that I am using profane language and that I experience a sense of severity, of impropriety, even if using profane language no longer makes me feel guilty the way it would when I was younger. Nevertheless, my parents could comfortably curse in English, whereas for me cursing was always a great ordeal of cognitive and emotional dissonance, an internal struggle of morality.

So why can my parents curse easily in English, unaffected, while my sister and I gawked, astonished, at the casual affability and ease with which the vulgarities were spoken? And why did it seem that this insouciance with profanity did not exist in the vocabularies of their mother tongues, their most fluent means of expression? There was an unease in cursing in those languages that did not transfer into their use of the English language. You have to realize that my parents are incredibly virtuous, ethical people (primarily, if not entirely due to a deeply-rooted devotion to religion and the adherence to its pedantic laws of morality that govern even the condemnation of profane language). Therefore, it isn't just amusing that they could curse in English with ease. It was simply incongruous with the otherwise principled images I had of them.

Albeit the fact that I am fluent in English (and my fluency is limited to English, seeing as I am not as proficient in the languages of my family), my parents have in actuality been speaking English longer than I have, for the simple reason that immigration to the United States called for a new desideratum--namely, the acquisition of a new language. Their exposure to English therefore outlives my lifespan, naturally and necessarily. But more importantly, the difference between my parents and myself is that I was born in America, and thus born into English. This is obvious, but it is very crucial to this discussion, because it seems to demonstrate that even though they spoke English for longer than I have been alive, it is not the duration of exposure to the language that governs the quality of the connection to the language. Instead, the true source of this whole ease-with-profanity paradigm seems to reside in some kind of innate, nearly congenital connection with a language. That is what is important. A deep connection with a language established from a very young age. It is a connection I have with the English language that they do not. Their innate linguistic connections lie in their mother tongues--Turkish and Albanian--and the fact that they do not really curse in those languages corroborates their nobler, more righteous selves, in the same way that it was quite difficult for me to break the discomfort I felt with using profane English words. Because growing up with a language does not just mean learning thousands of vocabulary words. It means the acquisition of a whole linguistic subculture that is inherently linked to the language itself. Simply put, my parents don't see profane English words as "bad" in the way I do, indeed as any other native English speaker does. They do, however, see expletives in Turkish and Albanian as carrying a weight that should be reserved only for heated, impetuous arguments, if used at all.

I've also noticed that this isn't particular to my family. One of my French professors, who does not know much English, once spoke a sentence in English on the last day of the semester. She was addressing a student while proofreading his essay, and her sudden use of English shocked everyone not just because she never used English (and thus we could never even gauge her level of English proficiency, indeed if she even knew the language at all), but because of what she said. A student had made a mistake in his paper, and she exclaimed aloud: "You should pay me for each stupid mistake here." She laughed as she spoke, and we laughed awkwardly, but the heavy French accent could not mask the use of the word "stupid" in an academic setting that would be funny if we had a professor who used such language all the time. But she was not a professor to use the word "stupid" even in French. She was always kind and strictly professional, and mistakes in class were laughed off sometimes, but not with the kind of remark she had used in English. The use of the word "stupid" may seem trivial, and on the grand scheme of things, it is perhaps quite so. But I am trying to highlight that she did not have any hesitation in saying what she did, whereas she would never have said anything of the sort in French, her mother tongue. It seemed incongruous.

She didn't have an inhibition in her use of the English language, in the same way my parents don't--at least, not as strictly as a native English speaker. Thus there seems to be something ingrained in one's mother tongue, one's language of fluency, a kind of compass that ascertains the morality, comfort, and situational suitability of using profanities, a compass that cannot easily be transferred to a new, acquired language. That's why we can easily use curse words in other languages; we don't have that strong, fundamental, personal, and emotional connection with the language because we have not been raised with it. Because saying "fuck you" does not merely involve the employment of two words, rather the tugging at hundreds of mental and emotional associations between the denotative words and their qualitative and cultural significance, their intensity, their profanity, and all their ethical implications and conflicts therein.

And to be honest, though I use profane language myself, I still can't drop an f-bomb or call someone a salope without feeling a slight internal pang at the heart that seems to scold me for my vulgarity. (And it is comical how even here, I employ the euphemistic phrase "f-bomb" to cloak the true word, whereas I can use the French version of the second expletive, uncloaked by euphemism, blatantly vulgar in its own language. But it miraculously  creates less emotional and moral conflict in my mind--because, well, it isn't my mother tongue, right?)

No comments:

Post a Comment