At last–

One of my goals for coming to Taiwan has come to pass… I swore in Taiwanese in the middle of an English conversation!

There’s more to this, but I’m insanely exhausted right now, so I’ll fill it in later…


So, I don’t really seriously swear at all in English. It’s kind of just a habit and a distaste for bad language, though honestly, I think American swearing, where there is only a variety of maybe 4 or 5 naughty words that get combined, swapped, and modified to fit into every possible part of speech is really quite silly, often misogynistic, certainly overused, and somewhat insipid. British swearing seems to have a good more variety, but I really have very little idea of what most of the slangy words mean and their level of badness (shocked my British cousin by accident once).

So why swear in Taiwanese or Chinese?

Well, my parents, as most married couples seem to, do squabble on occasion, and it is generally in Taiwanese when they get their dander up. However, in the past maybe ten or less years, they’ve taken to sprinkling their arguments with swear words in English (generally addressing the topic and not each other personally).

(sidenote: I found an ancient copy of Love Story in the basement once with unknown words underlined in red.  Alongside words that were multisyllabic and obviously challenging for the ESL reader my father was, were all the swear words, which he never found in the dictionary.  Thirty years later, and it’s interesting how language changes…)

So anyway, I’d hear a bunch of what was barely intelligible and then some swearing in English. Being the uptight Victorian priss than I am, I’d scold them for swearing in English and tell them to swear in Taiwanese if they were going to argue in Taiwanese, which would be an effective means of diffusing said arguments with laughter. My parents would tell me that no one really swears in Taiwanese, because Taiwanese curses are actually wishing bad upon the person, and Taiwanese swears are soooo bad no one ever says them…. My mother told me that Taiwanese swearing is reserved for the low class. Being an American egalitarian, I suspect this to be very unfair.

So, I figure, if I swear in Taiwanese in an American conversation, it’s not really an assault on anyone’s sensibilities, while providing the emotional outlet that naughty words seem to provide people.

Finding people to teach me to swear in Taiwanese was initially difficult. My parents outright refused (it’s interesting to think about language that everyone understands but a certain contingent never utters). A friend who went to Taiwan and worked briefly with construction workers refused (see what kind of friends I have??? sniff.).

So I had to wait to get to Taiwan myself, then in the middle of a quiet conversation I couldn’t understand (this happens quite a bit hanging out with Taiwanese people who are fairly proficient in English but naturally get into the flow of chatting in Chinese or Taiwanese with each other and I just sit by try to figure it out), I asked for a definition of a somewhat commonly used word in it. Laughter and initial hesitation showed me I was on the right track. After some cajoling and persuasion, I was able to get some instruction. So I now I have a mini-catalogue of naughty Taiwanese and Chinese curses that will probably not qualify me to be a construction worker or sailor anytime soon, but will successfully shock and amuse my parents.

Honestly, it does seem that Taiwanese and Chinese swearing is much less common than American swearing, which I think probably preserves its oomph. According to my instructors, said swearing is so bad that it’s not in popular mass media, the way that American swearing has infiltrated movies and television.

The little off-color vocabulary I have now though, actually turned into quite good prior knowledge when my children, whom I’ve recruited to teach me Chinese in odd moments during breaks, offered to teach me Chinese and tried to teach me naughty words without telling me what they meant, I was able to give them the shocked scolding they richly deserved.

The words I’ve learnt have meanings like “cry” or “cry because your father’s dead” or “cry from hunger” which I imagine originates from a time and group where things like mortality of fathers and hunger were much more present concerns. I’ve also learned the corollary for the f-word. Of course, my instructors have been amused at my proficiency and now whenever I’m introduced to new acquaintances and my language ability (or rather inability) comes up, I’m often asked to display my swearing abilities.

I’ve also learned the sort of insults applicable to children (these are generally picked up while hanging out with my friends who are boyfriend/girlfriend and being silly with each other), and I mangle these slightly occasionally.

Unfortunately, I’m much better at learning the really bad words than I am at learning ordinary ones. However, this seems to be somewhat universal. I’ve hung out with students who couldn’t say “How are you?” but would come up to me and shout an English swear word they learned from the movies. My friend will swear in English, though she’s much more comfortable in Chinese/Taiwanese.

Besides, truly bad words are easy to remember the tone for– they’re all 4th tone.


2 Responses to “At last–”

  1. 1 rayshiang
    April 7, 2007 at 7:41 pm

    No, they are not all 4th tone. But I agree, they are easiy to sound out because they all got the sort of “punch”.

    By the way, Mandarin Chinese has only 4 tones, but Taiwanese has 7 tones. To make it even more complicated, the 4th tone in Mandarin Chinese is equal to the 2nd (and 6th) tone in Taiwanese. Since you are talking about Taiwanese swear words, you actually mean to say they are 2nd/6th tone. (Sorry, I don’t mean to confuse you. The 2nd and the 6th tones are the same.)

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Free Rice

April 2007
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