Thursday, December 20, 2007

Residuals or a brief excursion into comparative linguistics

The Old Country language is colorful. By which I mean one can artfully swear up a storm and create nothing but admiration in connoisseurs. English off-color vocabulary to the Old Country language off-color vocabulary is as a radio-controlled toy car is to the real thing, or, let's say as your average two-year-old's vocabulary is to that of a literature professor. At Oxford. There are roots, of course, your standard set. But then, this being a grammatically elaborate language, there are prefixes, suffixes, and endings that allow for a much expanded core set with all the key parts of speech represented handily. And then you start with declension and conjugation, and things get really interesting. You can pile story (as in level) upon story of this stuff and tell rather elaborate stories (as in tales), and transmit your meaning perfectly. In fact, if you can't make up a seven story expression without breaking a sweat you are not even trying. If you can do thirteen, you have my respect.

What I am getting at is that JD used to be an accomplished artist of the Old Country language swear word. He has the appreciation, and the skill, and, back in the day, motivation to make the performances entertaining. But utilizing non-standard lexicon to enrich the entertainment value of your narrative is quite a bit different than swearing at people, and he was never much for that. His professional education, too, has developed and nurtured his ability to, when needed, creatively insult people without resorting to vocabulary for which the seven-second delay in live TV broadcast was invented.

Which is why, of course, the accusation made against him by our favorite secretary, that he called her an asshole, was, frankly, laughable. But there was something more, some worm turning in my brain, something that indicated that the particular word choice in the accusation was strictly unbelievable. The other day, Tuesday, to be exact, and yes, I am way behind on writing, and on reading for that matter, but JD had the temerity to leave the country for a long-scheduled business trip, and the logistics of drop off and pick up, and extracurriculars, and snow, oh, dear Lord, snow, well, they are nontrivial. So where was I? Oh, yes, the other day. Tuesday. As I stood in my kitchen making Monkey's school lunch for the next day, I finally figured it out.

When I tell you, you can laugh. And call me dense. It's ok-- my sister already did. My sister! The girl for whom for all intents and purposes English is the first language these days. To be fair, her Old Country language isn't half bad, but her English is much better. But she claims to have had this realization upon first hearing the accusation against JD. She could've told me and spared me a couple of days of uncomfortable worm activity in the cerebral cortex, is all I am saying. Do I have you on the edge of your seat yet? I do enjoy the suspense, you know. Anyway.

So, as my hands were performing the menial task of sandwich making, my mind wandered. Into realizing that I have almost never heard JD use the word asshole, and into considering why that is. Short hop to "the Old Country language doesn't have this particular expression" and an instant recall of the initial wonder as to why this would be considered such a serious insult in English that is a common experience of the immigrants from my corner of the world later, it hit me.

The Old Country language is gendered. And as such, swear words in it are gendered, for the most part, predictably. The slang terms for your standard body parts that are the roots of the basic swear vocabulary have the gender indicated by the sex of the person normally found in possession of one of those (although for complicated and amusing reasons that does not always hold when suffixes and endings are applied to create a derivative word in a different part of speech category), and you do not, do not, ever, I mean ever, use a male-gendered term to characterize a female or vice versa. With one exception-- in certain situations you can call a man a bitch.

You see where I am driving? Asshole is not a word in the Old Country language. But any speaker of the same, when asked what gender the English word is, will tell you that it is undoubtedly male. And you do not use male terms to insult females. You just don't. So even if JD was one of those foul-mouthed rude assholes (ha-ha, get it?) who have nothing better to do with their time than insult office staff, he would have chosen a different word. And, this last detail is entirely unnecessary, but I will tell you anyway, he spent a few formative years of his career in the US working as office staff, so he really wouldn't have done it.

This here was a two for one realization for me, by the way. I have finally figured out why, when IF blogosphere BFFs Tertia and Julie were lovingly calling each other assholes it always, always looked just a little odd to me. It's all in the grammar, baby.

14 comments:

Amelie said...

I love this! It's the same in Spanish and, though less strict, German.
It sounds like you're doing better, and I hope that is true.

Magpie said...

I love this post. Your command of the English language slays my, especially in your explication of the Old Country language.

Bon said...

makes perfect sense, now that you say it. i never could get the hang of swearing when i lived in Slovakia OR Korea, because of the gender differentiations.

but that lying little, erm, assholette?

niobe said...

Okay, I certainly don't believe that JD said any such thing.

But I'm not following your reasoning on this. You had me up until you said that any speaker of the Old Country language would consider azzhole a masculine word. Why would that be?

Is it masculine (though not obscene) in the Old Country language? Do OC native speakers automatically "gender" all English words? 'Cause to me, who pretty much speaks only English, there doesn't seem to be anything particularly masculine about the word.

And, of course, the same rule -- even about body parts that *are* gendered -- doesn't apply in English. For example, I've heard people say that a woman is a pr*ck. Though not all that often.

Bonus fact: In Latin the obscene insult equivalent to pr*ck was mentula, which is feminine, and guys called each other that all the time.

Lori said...

I have to disagree, Niobe. I do think there is something masculine about the swear word in question. I don't swear (Ever. I'm not kidding), but if I did I don't think I would ever call a female an a**hole. It does seem like a male insult to me. I don't know why though?

This was fascinating, Julia. Your intelligence and ability to articulate your thoughts (in your second language to boot!) amazes me.

Aurelia said...

I get it. I know several people who are native french speakers from Quebec, who simply don't relate to non-gendered words when they learn english later.

They are not able to understand at first that most words do not have gender and it takes time until they can incorporate it. Even then colloquialisms like swear words are the last to be properly implemented.

As for which words have gender? The non-english speaking people I know always make the assumption that those words are male, unless they are specifically female genitalia-related.

Beruriah said...

Two responses in one:

Ah, Julia, we felt the same way about meeting you. I am sorry the bad feelings reemerged after you left. Totally understandable. We were a little bubble in our hospital room.

For some reason I agree with Lori as well. It seems like a male word to me. I also think your reasoning about the OC language is spot on. You know, I thought this right away and dismissed it, but now I really wonder if you've actually been the target of bigotry rather than the secretary. Sometimes people have completely inappropriate conceptions about immigrants from the OC (well the other OC with which yours is often confused). And yeah, you're totally right about Dr. Young Gun's immaturity. I think I said that to you before. And his comment that he's as upset as you is all the evidence I need.

Anonymous said...

My original thought was that there was obviously some sort of misunderstanding but that it was noble in a way that the doctor drew the line at racism and sided with his employee over a paying customer. But then she accused your husband too, which made it much harder to imagine what sort of misunderstanding there might have been that would encompass the both of you and two different interactions, and now, after this post, I am left feeling something more along the lines of that doctor needs to know that he has a crazy person working for him! I don't think you should pursue anything that's not worth your time or in your best interest, but damn.

Anonymous said...

Julia, I understand your reasoning perfectly. I was once called an a**hole during a parking altercation, and it was especially shocking because I'd always considered a**hole to be an insult exclusively reserved for males. (I was also surprised to discover that I felt like this, English being ungendered and all.)

Julia said...

Amelie, yes, I feel better. It might be from being too busy to stop for a second, but I'll take it any way it comes.

Marpie and Lori, thanks! But you know, I have been in this country for over half my life now. I figure I should have my written language up to par by now, right? I thoroughly enjoyed crafting this post using a lot of big words but without actually using swear words except when absolutely necessary. I suppose I could've used descriptions where I used the words too. Oh, well..

Bon, hahaha :)

Niobe, I don't think we gender all the nouns, but we certainly gender the that are meant to apply to people. It is, for example, still hard for me to not use gendered pronouns in a sentence that talks about people by descriptors rather than names. I actually can't tell you what it is about that particular word that makes it so male (both individual words that make up the English insult in the OC language are female, so that's not it), but it just is, instinctively, but very definitely, male. Maybe an actual linguist can explain this. I suspect it is something about the sound of the word, especially the ending part that makes it so.

Anon1, I know... My rabbi also thinks I should write a letter, and I am considering doing that. Especially since they have yet to give me the names of the three options they promised for transferring our care.

Tash said...

This was a fascinating post. Made me think of how the Germans just paste their lovely pre- and suffixes on English terms, like "Abgefucked." Also made me realize I call *everyone* asshole. They would've kicked me out of your practice a long, long, long time ago. I wish you a speedy resolution in this mess, and hope you can continue to soar above, like you did here.

Zee said...

Maybe "asshole" feels like a masculine word because of the scatalogical connection? Since women are generally expected to be the more delicate, refined sex (at least we've been since the 19th century) it might seem odd to associate such a crude part of the body with a female. (Even though, like opinions, we all have them and they all stink!)

Just a thought.

thrice said...

Men are assholes. They just are.

christina(apronstrings) said...

that is too much that JD wouldn't even say that word, although nonoe of needed anymore evidence.

grammer and i aren't ever the bestest of friends. ha, ha. ok, i'm not THAT bad, but still. it's shameful. i just remind myself that Einstein's grammer sucked too.