‘Pigs knock you down and fucking fuck you’: the obscene language of the kros

Popular lore says there are profound differences between how women and men behave. It also implies these differences are axiomatic, hard-wired, and more significant than the variation within each group. One such myth says women are intrinsically more polite, deferential, and indirect than men. So here’s a sweary counterexample.

Don Kulick’s 1993 paper ‘Speaking as a woman: structure and gender in domestic arguments in a New Guinea village’ (PDF)* is about a special speech genre used to address (if not resolve) social tension and conflict. The phenomenon, known as a kros, is a loud, obscene, highly public, near-daily, and stereotypically female display of anger – usually involving a woman criticising her partner, children, relatives, or fellow villagers.

Kros means ‘angry’, as in cross. It begins suddenly: a woman will ‘raise her voice sharply and perhaps shout an obscenity’, writes Kulick. Villagers stop and listen, and if the kros intensifies they will move closer to its source. The kroser usually stays in her home, and the object of her anger is normally away somewhere – if they end up face to face mid-kros, violence can ensue which may embroil much of the village. Kulick continues:

Kroses are heavily characterized by obscenity, sarcasm, threats, and insults, all of which are conveyed in shrill screams across the village. They are extremely abusive, and perhaps for this reason they are structured by precise conventions.

Obscenity, as well as frequently getting the ball rolling, is also a central feature of most kroses. The following lines are spoken (or rather shouted) by Sake, a village native in her mid-30s who is a ‘skilled and experienced kroser’, and directed at her husband; see further down for a note on the translations:

You’re a fucking rubbish man. You hear?! Your fucking prick is full of maggots. You’re a big fucking semen prick. Stone balls!

And:

Fucking black prick! Fucking grandfather prick! You’ve built me a good house that I just fall down in. You get up and hit me on the arm with a piece of sugarcane! You fucking mother’s cunt! What did you hit me on the arm with that sugarcane for?!

Kroses are normally monologues, a ‘rhetorical barrage’ of assertive tongue-lashing that serves to

obliterate the social worth of those with whom the speaker is engaged in argument. Obscenity in kroses establishes a similarity between the other speaker and extraordinarily shameful body parts (sexual organs) and actions (intercourse with one’s mother, defecation). The message seems to be that the object of the kros should not be listened to: any talk produced by that person is shameful talk emanating from a shameful orifice.

Sometimes, though, another voice joins in. The object of ire may try to defend themself or to turn the insult back on the kroser. The following interpolation from Sake’s father, Kruni, prompts an expletive-laden retort:

K: She has the knowledge of a pig, a dog.

S: Pigs knock you down and fucking fuck you. Pigs and dogs knock you over and fucking fuck you.

Here, from another paper (PDF) by Kulick (see footnote for details), is a separate exchange between Sake and her older sister Erapo, over Erapo’s children littering the area around Sake’s house with coffee beans:

Sake: No good rotten big black hole!

Erapo: Smelly cunt bloody bastard!

S: I was talking to Erapo [sarcastic]. I was talking good about the rubbish [i.e. the coffee beans], Erapo gets up and swears at me. Fucking cunthole bastard you!

E: This hole of yours

S: Rotten! Your dirty cunt is a big black hole. Bastard. Black guts! What is she, what is Erapo talking to me about, kros-ing me about, swearing at me for?! Ah?! Erapo [you have] a rotten black hole!

S: Catfish cunt! Erapo has a black cunthole! A black cunthole Erapo! Erapo has a huge black cunthole! Erapo has an enormous black cunthole! Satan fucks you all the time. Satan is fucking you Erapo! Erapo! Satan is fucking you really good! Your cunt is sagging like dirt on a loose cliff. Catfish cunt!

In one 45-minute session Kulick heard 119 obscenities, all from Sake even though her parents, her husband, and his brother also participated in the kros. Sake swears when ‘closure or negotiation becomes possible’, using obscenity to interrupt other speakers and set up a restatement of her complaints. The obscenities, Kulich writes, function ‘discursively to draw pointed attention to the object of her anger’, and they range

from the relatively mild Tok Pisin word “bastard” (bastad) to more incisive permutations of that word, like “rotten bastard” (sting bastad), “fucking bastard” (paken bastad), and “fucking rubbish bastard” (paken rabis bastad) to more outrageous attributive clauses in Taiap like “fucking grandfather dick” (nεnima kwεmngan aprͻ sakar) and “dog’s vomit face” (jε kambwannga nanuknga munjͻ) to complex verbal vulgarities in Taiap, such as “Crawl down into the toilet hole and sit in the shit, old man” (ͻtεta toiletnga gwabnṫ yεwṫrən sirε ambitεt lapun) or “Catfish cunt, all everyone ever does is fuck you by the footpath. Pricks stick out of you on both sides wherever you go! You walk around like a porcupine with pricks sticking out of you everywhere!”

Kroses are predominantly voiced by women. Men who want grievances aired tend to tell their wives, who take it from there. Some men occasionally have a kros, but they are generally old widowers or divorced middle-aged men: they lack direct access to a female voice. Kulick says that through kroses, women ‘effectively define not only femaleness, but maleness as well’ and are therefore ‘engaged in a highly consequential political act’.

Kroses tend not to resolve anything – the problems that prompted them tend to recur, to be readdressed in a subsequent kros. There are good cultural reasons for this, Kulick reports: mainly that kroses function primarily as opportunities not for assigning blame or resolving conflict but for self-display, public announcement of the mistreatment one has experienced, and (de)construction of cultural mores:

Throughout a kros, speakers vie with one another to make themselves heard, even as they unceasingly attempt to silence their opponents by deploying the discursive features that have already been discussed: obscenity, threats, overlapping talk, refusal to be engaged in dialogue, and direct commands to “shut your mouth!” The concern with speech and silence is so shared and overt in these situations that it is impossible to see kroses as anything other than polyphonic struggles to monopolize the floor. The importance of this struggle, which seems to be fully recognized by all speakers, is the ascension to public awareness of a specific perspective on the behavior of others. The importance of kroses, in other words, is that they have the potential to define social reality.

Location of Papua New Guinea. Image via: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Papua_New_Guinea

Not least in delimiting gender roles, which Kulick analyses in some depth. Kroses also serve as a way of ‘guiding interpretations, influencing decisions, and producing particular configurations of social organization and action’ in the village. They undercut gender stereotypes and keep the ‘fictions which compose them destabilized and under constant negotiation’.

Kulick’s study took place in Gapun, a village of about 100 residents at the time of research (1980s–1990s) near the north coast of Papua New Guinea. He reports strong multilingualism in the village but a predominance of two languages: the creole Tok Pisin and the unique village vernacular, Taiap. Regarding the translations, he says:

In order to give readers a sense of the tone and emotive force of the words used in a kros, I have avoided literal translations and have instead translated vernacular and Tok Pisin speech into a colloquial form of American English. As for the translation of obscene speech, the word I have rendered as “fucking” in Taiap is the word “bad” (aprͻ) plus an emphatic lexeme (sakar) used only in the context of abuse. The anatomical references in the obscenity are fairly literal translations of the originals; thus maya pindukunga aprͻ sakar, which I have glossed as “fucking mother fucker,” is literally “mother fuck+NOMINALIZER bad EMPHATIC”. The only exception to these literal translations is the Taiap imin katͻ, which literally means “lower intestine” but which is hurled at opponents, and reacted to, with the emotive force of my translation, “asshole.”

Kulick writes that obscene language as heard in kroses may be considered creative, poetic, and linguistically innovative, and he laments its eradication in other Melanesian cultures as a result of Christian missionization. Unlike the UK Times – see Ben Zimmer‘s report in Language Log – we’ve published the swears as they are, not as cryptic strings of asterisks. After all, this is Strong Language, not Soap Your Mouth You Filthy Vulgarian.

*

A tip of the hat to Abby Kaplan, whose excellent book Women Talk More than Men: And Other Myths about Language Explained has a chapter on language and gender that introduced me to the kros phenomenon. I reviewed Kaplan’s book here.

* Cultural Anthropology, 8:4, 510–41. Kulick’s paper (PDF) is fascinating and well worth reading, as is his ‘Anger, gender, language shift and the politics of revelation in a Papua New Guinean village’ (PDF) (Pragmatics, 2:3, 281–96), also quoted above, in which he contrasts kros with men’s oratories and reflects on their broader cultural implications.

5 thoughts on “‘Pigs knock you down and fucking fuck you’: the obscene language of the kros

    • Stan Carey May 11, 2017 / 7:04 am

      You’re welcome, Cynthia! That makes two of us.

      Like

  1. branepowerguy May 26, 2017 / 8:43 am

    I was the focus of a kros in the mid 80’s. I lived in Rabaul, East New Britain, recording music for the PNG broadcasting commission. A local woman whose brother I had recorded visited to ask if we wanted some fish he had caught. My partner, a Tolai woman, returned from the market just then, saw the woman, and launched into Kros tok.

    Her speech was 300% faster, pitched very high and monotone- AND IT DIDN’T STOP. imagine a fast trill on a ghastly musical instrument, or a car engine being gunned hard. I didn’t understand a word, but the fish selling woman did. she cowered and tried to leave.
    Trust me, there is NOTHING like a kros in any European language. it is shattering, precise, virtuoso on a level with any operatic performance: raises a question: how do women learn and practise this?
    You know John Moschitta, Jr? fastest talker in the world? imagine him in a full blown psychotic rage, LOUD and UNREMITTINGLY VENOMOUS.

    Liked by 1 person

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