Cursing in a Second Language

Conchita Wurst, 2014 Eurovision Song Contest winner

Europeans cast their votes this week in a European Union parliamentary poll in which nationalist, Euro-skeptic parties are expected to do well—suggesting waning enthusiasm for the European project, and growing xenophobia.

I saw evidence to the contrary, however, on display two weeks ago in the final rounds of the Eurovision Song Contest. (Americans make fun of the marathon of mediocre music and canned camp aesthetics, but if soccer’s anything to go by, it won’t be long before Brooklyn hipsters are cramming into bars that screen the contest.) Sure, national and regional loyalties run deep, but the evening ended with an overwhelming victory for an Austrian drag queen, painting a picture of a tolerant and relatively united continent.

There are holes in this interpretation, of course, but I was less interested in political messages than in an exclamation made by one of the German commentators on the broadcast. After a flurry of fireworks exploded near his booth, he uttered several English-language profanities that, in the U.S., would have drawn the wrath of the Federal Communications Commission.

Perhaps he slipped into English so easily because he’d spent the evening listening to it. While the song contest still uses a fair bit of French—for many Europeans, the phrase douze points is deeply associated with Eurovision—English dominates these days. But it got me thinking more generally about foreigners’ embrace of English-language curse words. This is due in part to American entertainment’s export power and in part, I’d argue, to non-native speakers’ not quite comprehending the force of the curses. It would take more than fireworks to spur a professional broadcaster from the U.S. to use the English words the German fellow shouted. Conversely, the German broadcaster avoided an obvious German-language profanity, one that American tourists here fling casually.

Why don’t we fully appreciate the intensity of expletives in languages other than our own? We didn’t grow up being told not to use them, for one thing. But perhaps it’s also because curse words derive power by naming the thing a culture fears—and Germans fear sex less than Americans do, while Americans fear excrement less than Germans do.

Does this mean that adopting a language’s curse words leads to adopting a culture’s taboo topics? Or instead that by using those words in a casual way, non-native speakers chip away at the taboos? It’s a question that brings us back to politics, and the degree to which foreigners adapt to a new culture or change it.  I like that it goes both ways.  We’ll find out soon how many Europeans agree.

Return to Top