Tuesday, September 2, 2014


Boys are the world's acknowledged experts on cussing.  If it offends, boys use it.  When I was at that stage we were moving around the world and every time we landed, my brother and I would set out to find out what was obscene so that we could use it with impunity until our parents caught on. (I know, I know, but it was a living.)

But we ran into a tricky situation in Indonesia.  Tahi (poo or 'shit') and kontol (penis or 'dick') were two words that we found immediately.  We ran around tahiing and kontoling to our hearts delight, certain of our transgression.  Then one day our pet dog tahied in a place thought inappropriate by our very respectable Javanese maid:  Ratmi.  She shouted out "aduh ada tahi!" "Darn (or ouch), there's some poo" while swatting the dog.  We were stunned.  Our respectable Ratmi had cussed.  But of course she hadn't cussed, she was merely using a language that being young hadn't produced words that had 'obscene' emotional impact.  You see Bahasa had not had a thousand years of Anglo Norman overlords to turn common nouns 'obscene'.

Bahasa (The Language) is a lingua franca that has its origins several hundred years ago.  It was developed by Dutch, Indian, and Chinese traders to communicate with the inhabitants of the over 10,000 islands in the Indonesian archipelago, each of which seemed to have its own incomprehensible tongue.  After Indonesian independence in 1948, the government standardized and adopted Bahasa as the national language.  Like Hindi, Urdu and Swahili, this 'syncretic' language overlays a rich tradition of local tongues.  One of the consequences is that Bahasa, being used primarily for commercial and external interactions has not developed the rich tradition of obscenity and invective that characterizes indigenous languages.  This was certainly the case in 1970s Jakarta where my brother and I were plotting our cussing careers.

I mention all of this to address an observation that my Pastor made in his sermon at church today.  In a sermon discussing the right and wrong ways to adapt the presentation of the Gospel to modern ears he pointed out that some Christians were advocating utilizing 'obscene' or 'cuss' words not only in everyday speech but in sermons.  This, needless to say, was not an example that he endorsed.

But should he have?  An interesting thing to do if you can pull it off is to hang out with people who speak some English as well as one of these other Lingua Francas and listen to how they use language.  When the conversation gets heated they often use Anglo Saxon obscenities to make their points in Hindi or Bahasa (or even Singlish).  Yet they don't come from cultures where those words have any emotional content.  When asked why they use one, they shrug or say because it was the best word, perhaps it is more fashionable or has more impact.  I think it's also because Anglo Saxon scatalogical phrases (shit, piss, fuck) have currency everywhere the way that the more sophisticated Anglo Norman words don't (defecate, urinate, fornicate) .  Everyone knows them and how to use them.  This was illustrated in one of the truest moments in the rather sophomoric (but hilarious) film "Stripes" when Harold Ramis is teaching an English as a foreign language class and asks the students if they know any.  One of them immediately pipes up:  "Son of bitch, shit!".

Why do the basest English words have the most global currency?  I don't know, blame it on sailors or Hollywood or even teenage boys.  But I do know that English has slipped any guide wires that used to constrain its development on its way to becoming the most ubiquitous language the world has even seen.  The result is 'proper' usage is becoming an anachronism as different cultures take the lingua franca and make it their own.  One of the more frustrating things I have experienced is to be  in conversation with three or four non-native speakers from different languages.  They are all speaking English and understand each other.  Me?  I struggle to understand them.

So what's the point of all this tahi?  Simple:  what is obscene in English is shifting.  As it becomes more and more the lingua franca that dominates world culture, it is much less useful to 'speak right' than to 'speak to communicate'.  After all uttering an 'obscene' word only becomes a sin when it offends or otherwise causes distress to a hearer (I of course exclude from this analysis those words that transgress the 3rd Commandment).  I think this is what those people that my pastor was describing were really saying. 

And I think they're right.

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