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.
Language, linguists will tell you, doesn’t exist in a hermetically sealed vacuum: it has speakers, and those speakers exist within a particular time, place, and context. That means that the language is also affected by time, place, and context. Nowhere is this more apparent than in a quick-and-dirty overview of common Finnish swear words.
Finland is, for those who don’t know, the Nordic country bordered by Sweden on the west and Russia on the east. It is, as a country, a bit of a cipher: in spite of spending most of its medieval and modern history as either a duchy of Sweden or Russia, it’s neither Scandinavian nor Slavic, but its own little island of Finno-Ugricness. Finns on the whole are reserved folks, yet their best-known export is Lordi and they proudly support what might be the only Men’s Shouting Chorus in the world. They’re also people of very, very few words, no doubt because they must regularly rassle with the likes of peruspalveluliikelaitoskuntayhtymä (which refers to a regional community health provider). In short, they are a people of contradictions, and their swearing is no different.
Most of us who have traveled abroad have usually toted along some sort of guidebook, be it Michelin’s Guide France, Baedeker’s Germany, or the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. They generally include a slew of phrases the authors assume you will find essential: “Do you speak English?” “Have you any ready-made clothes?” “Is the bed well-aired?’ “What time is the next steamer?” Rarely, if ever, do you see supremely useful phrases. “Excuse me. Is this the way to Jim Morrison’s tomb?” And you will never find what you eventually need more than anything else, a good, hearty swear: “This is bullshit!”
Having spent some time in France and Argentina, I managed to pick up a few choice morsels omitted from the venerable guides. Since we are packing lightly for our journey, here are a few words that might come in handy when all else fails.
In my mid-teens I spent a few summer weeks in beautiful Brittany on a school exchange. With our French peers my classmates and I eagerly exchanged more than just grammar lessons, swearwords being among the most popular items of cross-cultural education. I tried out all the new swears I learned (and did the same when I learned German), but my awareness of their social nuances remained crude. The internet hadn’t happened yet.
As the years passed and my fluency in these languages declined with disuse, I seldom resorted to their swears – the emotional gratification was limited, and I didn’t feel authentic enough. I had im-fucking-postor syndrome. But I never forgot the feeling of swearing in a foreign tongue, the impish appeal of going native with these exotic and tantalising taboos. The phenomenon is especially interesting because swearing, linguistically speaking, is neurologically unusual.
Which brings us to multilingualism.