In the popular Netflix series, History of Swear Words, host Nicolas Cage explores the use – past and present – of the 6 most common expletives in the English language. This documentary is the latest in a series of books, articles and studies that speaks to the unspeakable. Join us now for a 5-part anthology, as we jump on the naughty word bandwagon and delve deeper into the topic of cussing. In this fifth and last article, we present a few interesting facts about swearing in more than one language.
If you’re fortunate enough to speak more than one language, here’s a fun little test for you. Think back to the last time you swore in response to a strong emotion or situation. Which language automatically came to you? Science says it was likely the one you learned in early childhood.
While being bilingual (or multilingual) may not be enough for someone to be a translator by trade, it does come with a number of attractive perks. One of them has to be the ability to swear in more than one language. But did you know that swearing in another language will feel different depending on how old you were when you acquired that language?
When children are learning their mother tongue, they soon figure out that some words strike a different cord than others. Swear words, they learn, can elicit a variety of reactions from the adults around them – laughter, embarrassment, disappointment, anger. As they acquire language, they are not just learning the cusses but also the emotional charge behind these special taboo words. Children being the little sponges that they are, this results in a lifelong connection between the profanity and the emotions. Consequently, swear words learned early in life will be most natural, powerful and automatic for the swearer later on.
If you learn another language as a teenager or adult, however, you may never fully master the emotions behind the swear words. You may know the bad words of another language and be able to use them properly, but you may never feel the ‘badness’ of such words. The emotional intensity of taboo words gets lost in translation without that early childhood connection.
Speaking of translation, all words, not just the bad ones, carry emotions that can be challenging to render in another language. It’s the translator’s job to read between the lines in order to convey not just neutral units of meaning (a.k.a. words) but also all the intensity and subtleties behind them. Something to think about!