The Joy of Swearing in a Non-Native Language
Cf. original piece at “http://www.multilingualliving.com/2010/08/31/the-joy-of-swearing-in-a-non-native-language/“
By Corey Heller
Photo Credit: Ben and Kaz Askins
Today was not a day that I am proud of. I yelled at my German husband in front of my multilingual kids. And, as always, I regretted it later.
My patient husband kept calm – which made me even more annoyed.
Is that a German trait, that staying-calm-in-an-argument trait? That trait that can drive me up the wall? My fiery response to it (inherited from my Irish grandparents) was a clear indication that I still haven’t mastered that trait – not yet, at least.
Let’s hope my children inherit my husband’s calm genes. Please!
The thing that I find fascinating is that when I lose my temper and start to yell, it is usually in German, my non-native language. Rarely do I launch into a host of deeply familiar American exclamations.
Instead, I automatically turn to my limited, yet carefully selected, set of German vocabulary – words that I have chosen over the years due to the way they so comfortably roll off my tongue.
Non-native speaker tip: Don’t use swear words in a heated argument that you (1) haven’t learned well enough to use comfortably and (2) you can’t pronounce correctly. I can say this from experience. The impact is less than stellar when a swear word you utter makes your opponent burst out laughing (at you) because he can’t figure out what you just said. “Did you just say I’m a pair of binoculars? Bwahhhahhahh!”
Memorable. But definitely not satisfying. Not in the least.
I enjoy swearing in German. It feels sophisticated compared to the English equivalents. It gives me a certain sense of satisfaction, primarily because the words feel so very empowering and forceful yet not crude and obscene. Those German words just roll of the tongue with such slithering pleasure:
“Verdammt, noch mal!” Doesn’t that sound so much more appealing and mature than “damn it all”? Course, I have to admit that I do enjoy a good “bloody hell” from time to time while watching those fantastic British mysteries on our local PBS TV station! What sophistication. Such refinement.
“Scheiße!” Those two syllables make our English “shit” seem so very vulgar. The smoothness of the “sch,” the openness of the “eye” and the soft ending of the “eh” is so very soothing to the ear, is it not?
Even “Idiot” in German has a kind of low, casualness with that lovely long-o sound. Contrast that with its sharp, edgy American-English cousin. Anything that ends in “ut” like the American pronunciation must be relegated to the compost heap.
Obviously, I didn’t pick up the worst of the worst when it comes to German swear words (thanks to my clean-talking husband and his friends). My repertoire of German swear words is limited to a few targeted general ones that I most likely learned from German television.
The fact that I lack a personal association with these words makes them feel so much less offensive – almost pleasant in my mind. In fact, being that I learned them during a very exciting, joyful time in my life (those first euphoric years with my husband-to-be), it is no surprise that they hold with them many pleasant memories (even though some were used in that same joyful context against that same wonderful person – let’s just blame it on that same Irish blood).
Even though I try never to use swear words in front of my bilingual children, there are times when they slip out. Purely by accident. I swear!
I have even been known to use an occasional English swearword in front of my children now and then. However, I aim to stick with German exclamations: they are so much easier to get away with when my kids repeat them in front of English-speaking community members. I can just pretend like my kids said something extremely cute and praiseworthy: “What did he just say?” they ask. My response: “Oh nothing, really. Just ‘darn it,’ that’s all.” (Inward chuckle.)
I have been asked once or twice by my kids to please define a given swear word in English. As I usually only use German swear words, I always respond with an honestly shocked response: “What!? Where did you learn that word!?”
To which my children answer matter of factly, “From you Mama.”
“Really? Are you sure? From me?”
Scheiße, verdammt noch mal!
On the rare occasions that you lose your temper, which language do you prefer? Do your children ever use swear words? If so, do find that swear words in one language have less of an impact than in your other languages? Are your children allowed to use words in one language but not their translation in the other language(s)?
Corey Heller is the founder of Multilingual Living and the Editor-In-Chief/Publisher ofMultilingual Living Magazine. Multilingual Living is the place where she shares her knowledge about raising multilingual and multicultural children. Corey, an American, and her German husband live in Seattle where they raise and homeschool their three children, ages 12, 10 and 8, in German and English.
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