Book Review: Curse + Berate In 69 + Languages Edited by R.V. Branham
Maybe it's because I write so much, but I've always been fascinated with words and languages. Where did they come from; how did different sounds come to represent words for different people, and why? I think it's amazing that so many people have come up with different ways of being able to communicate ideas, emotions, and abstract concepts.
There's so much you can learn about a culture from its language based on the ideas and concepts they are able to express and how they utilize the words at their disposal when doing so. In English we may be able to call an object a television and understand what that means, but another language may have to string a couple of words together that will describe the function in order to communicate the same meaning: the box which brings people to life.
English of course is itself a mongrel of a language, being made up of bits and pieces from all the peoples who ever invaded the British Isles dating back to the Romans and earlier. If you look at the earliest texts written down in the English language, Beowulf. Sir Gawain And The Green Knight, or Chauser's Canterbury Tales you wouldn't recognize it as being the same as what we speak today. Even today the English language continues to evolve depending on where its spoken and by whom. The English spoken in India differs from that spoken in Australia, which differs from what's spoken in Canada, and that in turn is different from the form it takes in the United States.
Yet, in spite of all that's different between us, and all the distinctive flavours that our languages have, there is one thing it seems they all have in common; the ability to rip the flesh off someone's bones with a few well chosen words or phrases. According to Curse + Berate In 69 + Languages published by Soft Skull Press every language from Afrikaans to Zulu contains the means to be rude, crude, lewd, and just downright insulting.
Assembled by the staff of the international literary review, the The Gobshite Quarterly and edited by R.V. Branham, editor of the same publication, Curse + Berate In 69 + Languages contains an A - Y(abnormal - Yuppie/snob: apparently no curses they have found in the English language begin with Z) listing of English profanity translated into as many languages as possible. A second section contains a selection of choice phrases for use in specific circumstances. "Corpus Politic Or What Would Caligula Say/Do & Variations" for instance contains a list of things that one culture might say to another in a moment of pique, or aspersions you might want to cast upon your political enemies in times of undue stress.
In his introduction to this compendium of invective, Mr Branham makes no bones about his intent. He's appalled at what he considers our cavalier attitude towards swearing. We now toss off words, that even a generation ago would have caused consternation among the masses, without a second thought and they have lost their power to inflame or incite. By opening our eyes to some of the truly inventive means others have found for utilizing what we have managed to trivialize through overuse, he hopes to instil in us a new respect for the profane and encourage his readers to breath new life into that which has been allowed to become moribund - swearing.
Now I won't say that I've read every listing, but even a sampling of the offerings under the various headings in this dictionary (the majority of which if published here would probably result in this site being blocked by parental locks on servers around the world) is enough to make a reader realize how much we have been limiting ourselves. The Spanish, for example, have a way with a descriptive phrase that makes the rest of the world seem like innocents, and I doubt that anybody can match certain Mid Eastern languages for inventiveness when it comes to curses.
Curses are of course a different matter all together from cursing, and it's interesting to note how some cultures make use of one over the other when it comes to wishing a person ill. I have to admit that until now I hadn't given the matter much thought, but after what I've read here, I can see the attraction of a good hearty curse as compared to cursing. A curse has the power of momentum behind it, and as it builds up a head of steam to its denouement it gives you a wonderful opportunity to let someone know the depth of your feelings towards them. It's definitely an area where the English language has been lagging behind the rest of the world, and Curse + Berate offers up some wonderful choice examples that surely will provide fodder for the inventive mind.
The other thing that becomes abundantly clear from reading this book is how much we all have in common when it comes to our source material for swearing. Body parts, bodily functions, and religion are at the top of the charts for almost every single language on earth when it comes to cursing. Animals feature high on the list too of course, but usually only when combined with human activity - generally sexual for some reason.
Sex: there's no getting away from it when it comes to swearing it seems. Somehow being able to work the subject of sex or sexuality into your invective makes it all that more potent. What that says about most cultures attitudes towards sex isn't very complimentary, as it means that the subject is still obviously taboo or considered somehow dirty, but next to references to God, I'd have to say that sexual activity and defecation are the most prominent features of cursing across the board. (Being able to combine the three into one curse is the sign of an extremely inventive mind and obviously an ideal to strive for in your own attempts.)
Aside from the obvious benefits of attempting to build bridges between cultures that a book like this strives for by showing the reader that no matter where we live we have so much linguistically in common, I'd be remiss in mentioning just how much fun this book is. If you don't have any hang ups about swearing - and if you did I doubt you'd even open the damned thing - Curse + Berate In 69 + Languages will have you laughing so hard that it will hurt.
Some of the funniest parts of the book are the literal translations of other languages' expressions. While an idiom taken as a whole will have one meaning, and that can be funny enough - when translated word for word it becomes even more outlandish and hilarious. Some of the best examples for this are some of the Chinese dialects - check out the Mandarin slang for breasts and you'll see what I mean.
Curse + Berate In 69 + Languages is one of the funniest, most intelligent, and inventive books on language that you will ever come across. If this book doesn't give you a new respect for the wonder of words - nothing will.