Saturday, May 23, 2009

Ancient intercourse

Until the 1950s everyone thought language conditioned thought, much as clothes make the man. This was called the Sapir-Whorf Thesis, and was dreamed up by a pair of Americans whose vocations as artificial-language advocate and fire-safety inspector marked them out as pillars of common sense.

This was a happy time when doctors prescribed cigarettes for a sore throat and Communism could be measured by the gap between your eyes, so the Thesis seemed to make sense. It also had a zippy name, the sort of thing a maniac from the Rand Corporation might snap at you from behind his cruel glasses.

Nonetheless St George Orwell got their number. His Newspeak is based on the Sapir-Whorf Thesis. As the retrospective article about it in 1984 is written in standard English, we can assume that Newspeak fails to eradicate independent thought. Only management training courses can do that.

Noam Chomsky turned up in 1957 and pointed out that we do not think in cartoon speech bubbles after all, and since then Sapir & Whorf have lived on solely in pub-quiz questions about the number of Eskimo words for snow - the linguistic equivalent of thinking a swan can break your arm with its wing.

(Chomsky, by the way, is himself proof of the Alibhai-Brown Thesis - namely that every clot is right about something at least once. Except the Quakers.)

But cognitive linguistics may yet have something useful to say about that most fecund and democratic field of semantics - swearing.

My experience suggests that smaller languages, or those of subject peoples, tend either to curse less or to adopt patterns of profanity from their dominant neighbours:
  • Welsh oaths are mild and Medieval. One can hardly imagine a 10-minute scene in The Wire consisting of riffs on "By the bones of St David!" ("Asgwrn Dafydd!);

  • Estonians simply pump Russian obscenities through their own tubular tongue; and

  • Modern Hebrew, despite having the whole of the Book of Leviticus to play with, enjoys lambasting Arabs in words that they will instantly understand.

The larger the tongue, the fouler the mouth is the basic contention of the No-Good-Boyo Thesis. The Balkans are notable exceptions, of course:

  • Hungarian is a blasphemous tongue of garter-snapping depravity;

  • Romanian whispers invitations to necro-incest against the beat of leathery wings; and

  • The exploding super-nova that once was Serbo-Croat showers such sentiments as "Jebem ti dušu!" on anxious Albanians as it hurtles to the ends of the Yugosphere.

English and Russian are my empurpled imperial proof of the profane. Both languages have catalogued their curses in major lexical references works, Roger's Profanisaurus and Alec Flegon's "Beyond The Russian Dictionary".

England's North Country deserves a special mention for its innovation of swearing within a word. I met a Yorkshireman on my first day at college. "What are you reading?" I asked. "Mechanical Engi-bloody-neering," he replied. Deep Joyce.

I shall illustrate my thesis with seminal fieldwork among the Russians.

"Wanter cuppa, mate?" inquired a jovial chai-wallah in shalwar kameez and fluent Russian halfway down the corridor in Student Hostel No.2 at the Order of Lenin/Banner of Lenin State University of Voronezh, USSR, in September 1985.

"Don't mind if I do, guv'nor!" I replied, and padded along behind the pandit. I'd been in Russia about a fortnight, but my linguistic facility was due entirely to failed but enjoyable attempts to seduce Mrs Martin, the Tartar wife of one of our college lecturers in Swansea - a Mr Martin.

Shahid was a Bangladeshi postgraduate whose enthusiasm for Communism had made him unpopular in his waterlogged homeland. Once I'd got to know him better I asked why he hadn't moved to Communist-run West Bengal in India instead of the grisly Land of the Soviet and its lukewarm, lice-ridden welcome for people of colour.

"Wrong kind of Communists," he said with a wistful hint that for once nutrition and self-respect ought to have trumped sectarianism.

He ushered me into his room, where sat a row of various non-Soviets, each clutching a notepad and exploding ballpoint pen from the Rosa Luxemburg Propelling Pencil and Ink Implement Factory of Ust-Kamenogorsk. A cup of condensed milk and road sweepings dropped into my hand, and Shahid continued.

"So, Abdullah," he addressed an Afghan, "How would you go into a bar and drink a beer on your way home."

"In His Name!" declared the swart Pathan. "I cocked down the road, whore, and twatted into the bitch of a bar. Then I dicked a beer - "

"Let me stop you there, brother," interrupted Shahid. "First, very good deployment of 'whore', most idiomatic. But you don't dick a beer after twatting anything. In a stand-alone sentence you can dick what you like, but remember the Sequence of Swearing - No Dick After a Twat. It's biological. Now please carry on."

Some Swansea Poles had taught me basic Russian swearing, but this was a stumble through Alice's Looking-Glass as imagined by Frank Harris. I appreciated the difference when Shahid asked me to have a go. "Be so good as to ask me for a beer, swearily," he requested.

"Er, gizza beer you bastard?" I hazarded.

He patiently assigned me homework and a mentor in the form of a chap from Rostock called Raik. He was a German with a sense of humour, albeit strictly one-way as I found when I nicknamed him "Das Dritte". He introduced me to Russian Swearing: Intermediate Level.

Chemistry lessons effect a chain reaction on your personality as you trudge through the education system:

  • Before 'O' level it is all stinkbombs and dyes, the happy preserve of the short-trousered anarchist.

  • By 'A' level you enter the knotty world of balanced equations, which still attracts the occasional blue-stocking.

  • At university, however, all normal social activity has ceased and the chemistry lab is the haunt of the chess-player with one pair of underpants and a pocketful of pies.

With Russian swearing you have a reverse reaction. Any flan-faced 12-year-old can call you a knob, but it takes years of sociabilité to apply the appropriate prefix, voice and aspect to a concise verbal phrase (based on the same noun) in order to suggest that you should depart immediately on a vertical exploration of your illegitimate mother's lower intestine while simultaneously continuing to pleasure yourself with the rubbery parts of your father, who has just met you and is seeing your mum for only the second time ever.

Slavonic grammar arms poet and pissant alike with an almost infinate array of affixes and insertions to tease out the tenderest nuance.

On one level polyubit' (полюбить) means to fall completely in love with someone, while vlyublyat'sya (влюбляться) is to fall in love despite some awareness of the footwear-and-hygiene-fixated harridan to whom you are handing over your life. On another, zapit' (запить) is to have a chaser with your basic potation, while upit'sya (упиться) is to knock back a trough of vodka and forget where you live.

A similar approach is taken to cursing. Verbs provide the most exotic bouquets of abuse, but the true connoisseur seeks out the rarer refinements of the noun. Zapit', for example, yields the wonderful zapoi (запой) -a weeklong village drinking bout to mark some good augury like the birth of a one-headed child.

I was relaxing with some friends on the banks of the River Don one day when our Austrian colleague Ursula joined us. She had been barracked on the way through a nearby copse by some village rascals for declining their invitation to join them for redeye, dried fish and molestation.

"Do you know what they called me, Boyo?" she fumed. "They called me a yebanka!"

I grasped my metaphorical Moleskine and made a note of this little gem. It combined the earthy verb yebat' (ебать) with banka (банка), or jar, to produce something like "fuckbucket". Eloquent, and all the more satisying for being most unfair to an attractive, demure and by all accounts trim young lady.

You must master the plug-ins and cables that adapt the odd obscenity into a charabanc of Rabelaisian excess before moving onto Russian Swearing: Advanced Level, and I'm content to say I never even got that far.

The higher reaches of cursing involve what the poet Velimir Khlebnikov called zaum, or trans-sense language, and you'll get nowhere without native speech, extensive reading in the underground works of Pushkin and Lermontov, a pair of piss-stained brown flares and a lifetime of yelling at passers-by from your perch in the gutter by the kvass kiosk.

I did some coursework on subsidiary subjects like Georgian Swearing. This does not mean swearing in the Georgian language, a tongue so fierce that a grocery list sounds like an illustrated account of the Swansea Ospreys' visit to a Beirut bath house, but rather the way Georgians swear in Russian.

Georgians, like many nations, often invite antagonists to couple with their own mothers, or accuse them of already having done so. The Russian phrase "Yob tvoyu mat'!" ("Ёб твою мать!"), however, is a statement that someone else (male) has availed himself of your mother's favours, and is used as an exclamation of annoyance or surprise along the lines of "bloody hell" rather than an insult directed at the listener.

A Georgian market trader in Moscow will sometimes seek to offend a customer by yelling "yob tvoyu mat'!" at him, which has something of the effect of snarling "drat, and double-drat!" with an accusatory finger-jab. It also explains much about the failings of the Georgian market economy. Russians call this misuse of register "Georgian swearing", and consider it a sign of moral degeneracy on a par with the Baltic States.

Other languages that lug pre-modern grammatical baggage around with them are also blessed with the Slav's facility for offence.

A former ladyfriend fluent in Levantine Arabic once recalled that Syrian border guards were always delighted to see her French travelling companion, as the young woman's Gallic surname sounded exactly like "I (female) am in the process of being rooted by you (male singular)/other (male singular) while we are speaking" in Damascene dialect. This one-word sonata puts Welsh-speakers' amusement at the surname Cotsen to shame.

Important work is being done on Russian sweariness by, for example, Vadim Mikhailin and Alexei Plutser-Sarno. I can only hope that progressive scholars elsewhere will follow them in wresting frame semantics from the pallid paws of the academy. Not only because it is amusing to call someone an "Armenian plugnut", but because it can aid international understanding.

I recommend watching this clip, in which a young Russian has translated the popular Soviet children's puppet show Krokodil Gena into Swearish:

You may not understand the words, but I am sure that you will know exactly what he is saying. Language planners like that weed Zamenhof and his flaccid Esperanto missed the point. We need less reason in discourse analysis, not more.

I believe that if United Nations debates and all diplomacy were conducted at the level of the primary-school playground we would be well on the way to universal peace and fuckyourmotherhood. Пиздец!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Dim chwyd, dim byd

"Not much fighting at this disco, mun."

Thus is any sluggish social gathering, from wake to soirée, condemned in the colloquial English of Swansea. (Or "Ffwc ddim cwffio yn y disgo 'ma, chav," in the Welsh of Dolgellau). Again the loamy demotic wisdom of the Welsh gwerin cleaves the encrusted caulk of crach convention.

A Welsh can earn no greater honour than to raise a sub-par party, whether wedding feasting or Quaker monthly meeting, to the status of "brilliant sesh" by judicious two-fisted intervention.

I'm proud to say that I have managed this feat on two occasions. Once I "chinned" a doctor, turning the opening of a new ward or something at Central Middlesex Hospital into a minor riot. He had denigrated the shorter poems of Alexander Pushkin, so what else could I do?

But the greater moment came when I reached Maimonides's first and highest degree of charity by helping another, and an English at that, to elevate a college girl's birthday party into a window-buckling festival of water sports.

Matt was my neighbour at Swansea University (formerly Sketty Miners' Institute) in 1984. He led a life of near satori, being happy with his middle-period Simple Minds albums, crates of hair gel, white jeans and total lack of self-awareness.

All he lacked was female companionship. This went heavily with him, as he irritated men and women alike with his Teeside manners, non-narcotic chemistry course and vocal admiration of landsman Paul Daniels - Wales has always been for Ali Bongo.

His agony was doubled by hubris, as his acute object of desire was Delyth. A petite, dark and sweetly addictive Welsh-speaker, Delyth could often be found reading French and German literature in a nightingale Solva accent.

She was polite and understanding to him but, like all young ladies of her age and station, what she wanted was cock. And not some kinked, North Country pizzle, either, but a veiny hank of Celtic capstan that she could barely close both hands around.

There were ample lengths of the latter on offer at the Swansea University Rugby Union Club, doled out by both types of player: vicious, stubby flankers, and props - walking walls of dread whose heads were composed of the impacted remains of other men's skulls.

Delyth batted back and forth between the two like a dazed humming-bird, leaving Matt little chance to impress her with his disdain for Wales and ignorance of all sports, real or invented. Still, she responded to his persistence by inviting him to her birthday party, kindly pointing out that it would be thronged by jealous, drunken full-backs, as would she.

"Aaaargh I dunno watta do shes lovely but I dont standa chance wergh, wergh, wergh!" ruminated Matt down the bar at the Hendrefoelan student ghetto the night of the party.

"Here, drink this," I suggested, with approving nods from the meeting of the Meibion Glyndŵr (Killay & Clyne Valley Chapter) that he'd crashed. I offered him three pint of Felinfoel, seasoned with the Indian whisky that Gwil Goll had brought back from a fundraising mission to Goa.

Forty minutes later Matt felt ready to party with Delyth and the most violent group of men not yet to have joined the South Wales Police Minority Liaison Unit.

At about three o'clock the following morning I awoke to the sound of someone banging a sack of stoats against our front door. Ray the foulmouthed Chinaman opened it only to be struck silent by a lurching belch of bile and booze that had once been Matt. It squelched up the stairs in a cloud of ammonia and recrimination, not to emerge until lunchtime.

Matt eventually surfaced for a pint of kaolin & morphine and a review of his recent social life. I had spent the morning gathering intelligence at the launderette, having decided it was likely to have seen brisk après-sesh trade.

"All I remember is turning up at the party and asking where Delyth was," whispered Matt from beneath the pound of frozen sausages he'd taped to his forehead. "'She's upstairs', they said. So I went up to wish her happy birthday. Next thing I know it's three in the morning and I'm lying out front on the lawn, aching all over and soaking wet. Then I came home. What went wrong?"

"Nothing - you did splendidly!" I cried. "First, you roared into the party like a bad Brendan Behan impersonator, firebreathing ethanol. You barracked the scrum-half about Delyth's whereabouts for a good ten minutes until , in an access of malice, he told you she was hosting the front row in her bedroom.

"Undaunted, you marched upstairs, barged in and, once she'd disentangled herself from Slab, "Billy Goat" Griff and Dai Substantial, you proceeded to babble nonsense and booze fumes all over her at high speed. Delyth had stayed the Wrath of the Morlocks with a familiar flick of the wrist, but lost her natural poise when your stream of consciousness turned seamlessly into a stream of vomit.

"Griff said that, on reflection, it was a textbook display of the 'throw-in', but peformed with your stomach contents instead of a ball and straight into Delyth's face. The most striking detail was that you didn't stop talking before, during or after the manoeuvre.

"It was literally one fluid motion, and Griff said he would have mentioned you to the selectors if you hadn't been English or maimed beyond recognition. Maimed by being hurled through the first-floor window by a lovelorn Slab, who had vaulted across the room on his still proud manhood."

"Oh," noted Matt.

"And Slab would have got away with it - manslaughter, that is - if it hadn't been for the pesky warm weather, which had prompted Delyth to leave the window open - that and her native exhibitionism, of course. Your fall was broken by the muscle-relaxing properties of the ale and a temporary shutdown of your nervous system courtesy of Da Sousa's 10-Month-Old Reserve Hogmanay Malt," I continued.

"So why was I all wet? Even I can't soil myself that much," inquired Matt.

"No false modesty, please," I reassured him. "But this time you're right. After comforting Delyth individually then as a team, they found the time and inclination to hose you down in a sort of Amsterdam lap of honour. Subsequent partygoers did likewise, especially as a lager-drinker had barricaded himself in the toilet."

"The shame!" he sobbed.

"Not at all!" I beamed. "The party had been a drag - just some morose flankers bumping their knuckles on the furniture while the props took turns to congratulate Delyth upstairs.

"Then you turned up, and within minutes there was full-frontal vomiting and defenestration, highlights that you normally wait hours for. Word spread fast. By one in the morning they were running buses in from Bridgend.

"'Look out for the piss-stinking dead Englishman on the lawn, bois bach!' the police would tell drunk drivers from Morriston to The Mumbles. Best party anyone's had in years. Iechyd da!"

I cracked open a can of Brains, at which Matt encored the previous night's performance. The Cymru Rouge Outreach Programme and Assassination Bureau voted to award him posthumous Welsh citizenship then and there, but Matt decided that the price was too high.

There, for one shining moment, he was as close to being a Welsh as an Englishman can ever come.