June 27, 2019

The ear of the beholder

A cuss word is a cuss word because it violates a social norm. If you don't comprehend a cuss word it arouses no emotional response unless it is tied to a tone of voice or observable physical affect. Even a cuss word in a foreign language you do understand likely lacks same emotional impact as in your first language.

That's because the cuss word itself contains no relevant information outside the immediate sociolinguistic context. The popular fallacy that "there aren't any cuss words in Japanese" is due to a fundamental disconnect over what constitutes an offensive violation of social norms.

English speakers really are obsessed with "manners," meaning the visible and audible markers of public propriety. These words are "good"; those words are "bad." The words themselves are magically imbued with certain qualities that otherwise mean nothing until filtered through a specific sets of brains.

Stop to think about it and it is utterly strange that the FCC deems "crap" and "dung" acceptable but not "shit." One could argue as well that nobody really cusses in English either. We play games with semantics and pretend to take offense until the offense-taking becomes so imbued that it goes unquestioned.

One curious consequence is that most Shakespearean vulgarities do not offend modern ears because we haven't been to trained to take offense when we hear them. They're just funny-sounding words delivered with a British accent. You know, like Monty Python.

In Japanese, fewer words are "bad" in and of themselves. Rather, a "vulgarity" violates a social hierarchy or crosses the line from acceptable private usage to unacceptable public usage, or from a "high" to a "low" usage. So whether kuso means "crap" or "shit" depends entirely on the social context.

To be sure, some words are inherently offensive for the same reasons they are in English. The "c" word, for example. Then again, the equivalent medical term (for the most part) isn't.

And then there are words like teme, one of the myriad of second-person pronouns in Japanese. Teme is the "low brow" equivalent of kisama, the latter being preferred by a more gentile class of cusser. You would be right to conclude that using teme in a "high brow" context is even ruder.

Teme is a linguistic finger jabbed in your face. It's violation of social hierarchies. This flies over the head of English speakers because English (American English in particular) shed the T–V distinction a while back. The tables in this Wikipedia article apply equally well to Japanese.

In Japanese, T–V distinctions also permeate verb conjugations. As with the quite ordinary shinu ("to die"), the command form is a particularly harsh and a yakuza-ish thing to say. Because what makes a yakuza a yakuza is less the substance of what they say than how they say it.

To start with, they get in your face and invade your personal space. And they roll their Rs. I mean, really roll their Rs. A yakuza does so in an instantly recognizable manner, identifying his social class and lack of normal social constraints. The message: "I'm a scary person who could do anything."

This unpredictability and disrespect for social order is the eternal wellspring of "honest" vulgarity.

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