January 18, 2007

2500 words for cursing the weather

According to Nathan Bierma (or the editor who wrote his column's headline), "Hell will freeze over before the Eskimo snow myth melts" (Chicago Tribune, 1/17/2007). Certainly the cartoonist Martin Kellerman, in his Rocky strip for 1/18/2007, is doing his part to restrain the demand for solid-phase water terminology in the nether regions (though not, apparently, in Sweden):


Rocky: Fuck snow, man! Fuck... snow...
Bird: Did you know that the Eskimos have 2,500 words for snow?
Rocky: How many words do they have for fuck...snow?

I don't know the Rocky culture well enough to understand why Rocky is using English to curse the weather -- you'd think that the Swedes would have developed an adequate native vocabulary for this purpose, over the centuries.

[Hat tip to Ed Keer at Watch Me Sleep]

[Update -- Ed Keer wrote to draw my attention to one of his earlier blog posts, which helps to make the role of English cuss words in Swedish a bit less obscure:

Taboo swear words are probably among the first thing a second language learner learns if they have a teenage mentality. But while it's easy to master swear words, I don't think you ever really internalise the depth of feeling associated with the taboo.

As a case in point, a few years ago, a movie about a teenage lesbian stuck in stifling a small town was all the rage in Sweden. The Swedish title of the movie is Fucking Åmål! Since Åmål is just the name of the small town in question, this Swedish movie title is really in English-and probably offensive to some.

I have heard that the original title of the movie was Fucking Jävla Skit Åmål! mixing some Swedish curse words in with the English. That title literally means fucking devil shit ... and can be loosely translated as Goddamn fucking shit ... Now if we could somehow objectively measure the degree of offensiveness of words across languages, I would bet that jävla skit is less offensive than fucking. But apparently the Swedish film board did not see it that way. They balked at jävla skit but allowed fucking!

Most Swedes know English. But surely, they don't really know the power of fucking.

When Fucking Åmål! was released in America, the title was changed to Show me love. Ugh! Talk about a tin ear translation. They could at least have gone with Damn Jävla Skit Åmål! I wouldn't have been offended.

Eric Vinyl also wrote to draw my attention to the same movie title shift.]

[And Axel Theorin writes from Osaka, Japan:

The simple (or rather quite complicated) fact is that Rocky's choice of expressions accurately matches that of his real life counterparts in Stockholm and most parts of Sweden.

Immersed in English language cultural expressions from a very early age, Swedes use, adapt and create entirely new English words and expressions in all manners of conversations (and even columns in the national press). Many lament this and call it a sign of attrition in these speakers' Swedish ability, which is what the joke of the strip rides on.

In Rocky's Swedish, the meaning "snow" is signed by the symbol "snow", while his friend uses the (more) Swedish "snö" (did that o with umlauts come out right?) . Accordingly he notes what his friend has to say about the Eskimoes and their astounding number of words for this "snö"-phenomenon, and then proceeds to connect this to what is on his mind: "snow".


[Axel adds:

After having read the update with the extra citations from Ed Keer's blog I cannot help myself but comment in turn.

Ed Keer's feeling on the subject obviously differs, but I would say that English swear words retain most of their feeling of taboo. Especially a word like fuck since swear words on the sexual theme are virtually nonexistent in "native" Swedish, except for expressions casting doubt on the virtue of a woman (I know only two which are felt as swear words: kuk - cock and fitta - cunt). Thus "fuck" is a very strong swear word in the Swedish context and is felt even stronger in (real life) English contexts were many Swedes will refrain from using it alltogether. Even though this in turn becomes unnatural (if the context is England, according to reports). On the other hand, the prolific use of "fuck" seems to have opened some doors and lately you will here, although infrequently, Swedes swear by the act of sexual intercourse using the native word "knulla"


[Victor Steinbok forwarded these observations "from a friend with some knowledge of Scandinavian and other Baltic languages":

Unlike Russian, the word for "fuck" "knulla" can't be adjectivized and is not usually used as an expletive. In other words, Swedish for "Fuck you!" is "Fuck you!" or "Ta dig i röven" "Take yourself in the ass". It's just not one of the great cussing languages. Even Finnish is better. When the best you've got to come with when you hit your thumb with a hammer is, "Fie, Devil!", you're pretty sad.

Some of the Finnish options were discussed here.

I take it that the Swedes are code-switching, not actually borrowing English curses into Swedish, either as calques or as fully nativized loans. Perhaps this doesn't work with taboo words. I'm glad to see, in any case, that we English speakers have been able to make a contribution to Swedish culture.]

[Update 1/27/2007 -- Lars Svensson writes:

A friend just pointed me to the Language Log. Great stuff! Hope I found a good email address.

The Rocky story is a few days old already, so this comment may be woefully late; but to appreciate the dialogue and the rôle of the language mix, I believe it helps to know that Rocky and his friends are rap and hip-hop enthusiasts, who frequently quote gangsta lyrics more or less accurately (or rather modified to fit the occasion). I'd not be surpised to find a line similar to "fuck...snow" on a CD liner.

Btw, it's easy to adjectivize "knulla" as "förknullad", in loose correspondence to "fucking", "fucked-up", and German "verfickt". The Swedish word is not in common use but readily understandable, will not be mistaken as a reference to intercourse, and (by virtue of not being common) makes the listener take notice, which is the whole point of thoughtful (as opposed to routine) swearing.

Ah well. Back to grading engineering exams. Sigh.


Posted by Mark Liberman at January 18, 2007 02:40 PM