No way to curse in Japanese?

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John Berenberg writes:

An article by Joan Acocella in the February 9, 2017 issue of The New York Review of Books makes a 'no word for X' claim about Japanese and goes even further by quoting a native speaker who happily reports that learning to swear in English and Spanish allows him to say things he otherwise can't.  The full article is here.

The relevant paragraph:

Japan, curiously, does not have swearwords in the usual sense. You can insult a Japanese person by telling him that he has made a mistake or done something foolish, but the Japanese language does not have any of those blunt-instrument epithets—no ass face, no fuckwad—that can take care of the job in a word or two. The Japanese baseball star Ichiro Suzuki told The Wall Street Journal that one of the things he liked best about playing ball in the United States was swearing, which he learned to do in English and Spanish. "Western languages," he reported happily, "allow me to say things that I otherwise can't."

The Language Log Establishment received wisdom cautions us that 'no word for X' by no means implies 'no way to express X' or 'no concept of X'.  Does the opposite seem to you to be the claim made in the article, at least regarding cursing someone out?

I asked Nathan Hopson what he thought of all this, and he replied:

Warning! Unedited rant below

The claim that Japanese has less foul language is bullshit, and it misses the damned point. Not only that, it's pretty fucking unimaginative. It reflects a prejudice in European languages for the creative linguistic use of sex and filth for emphasis or insult. The bizarre equivalency between the two makes it pretty fucking tempting to diagnose a Freudian obsession with bodily function. More than that, shit and fuck are hardly the only ways to emphasize something or insult some asshole. Regarding the latter, Japanese is so sociolinguistically indexed that you don't need to invent a whole separate shit-fuck-abulary to get the point across. A few choice personal pronouns and a verb ending or two will do the trick.

If I were to say that the concept of the second-person personal pronoun is really problematic in English because we only have one (or two, if thee/thou is included), most Americans would laugh and then make some remark about how fucking hard Japanese is. Yeah, that's some choice shit from the language of motherfuckers and douchebags.

I bring up the personal pronouns again because they do so much of the heavy lifting in Japanese. The difference between otaku, X-san, X-chan, X-kun, anata, anta, kimi, omae-san, omae, omē, temē, etc. is stark enough to a native speaker (especially when, as noted, paired with the right verb endings) that there's no need for any fuckery beyond that.

And here's Reina Scully in a video going at it in Japanese and English:  "How to Curse in Japanese".

Yes, you can swear in Japanese.  Here are the basics:

YouSwear.com

What are some Japanese insults and swear-words?

W.T.F. Japan: Top 5 most offensive Japanese swear words 【Weird Top Five】(RocketNews24

Note that the video stays away from this, the topmost offensive Japanese swear word, which W.T.F. Japan: Top 5 most offensive Japanese swear words puts last, after a large blank space, with a warning:

It's really nasty, especially for a woman, even Reina sensei.

For the record, here's what I posted on this subject more than two years ago:  "The paucity of curse words in Japanese" (9/4/14), with vigorous discussion in the comments.



52 Comments

  1. Carl said,

    January 24, 2017 @ 8:11 am

    Host in the tabernacle, the only language with really choice swears is Canadian French.

  2. Anthony said,

    January 24, 2017 @ 8:13 am

    Acocella's day job is writing about dance. But since she is a native speaker of at least one language she think's she's competent to write about language and indeed about linguistics.

    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3951

  3. Noscitur a sociis said,

    January 24, 2017 @ 9:01 am

    I'm not sure that there's actually a disagreement between Ms. Acocella and Mr. Hopson, though I agree she worded her point fairly poorly. I'm pretty sure I read the interview with Ichiro she's referring to (or an interview, if he's made the point more than once) and remember that he alluded to the phrase "hot as two rats fucking in a wool sock" as a favorite. If I'm understanding Mr. Hopson correctly, it sounds like he's agreeing that Japanese may not have an equivalent expression in both meaning and register. That's not a defect in Japanese as a language, of course, any more than the lack of close equivalents to the Japanese profanity offered makes English defective.

  4. Robbie said,

    January 24, 2017 @ 9:32 am

    Well, that's got to be embarrassing for Japanese people learning Esperanto, where "manko" is a fairly common word meaning "lack (of something)".

    At least English-speakers only have to deal with "farti" (to fare, be doing).

  5. Bill Benzon said,

    January 24, 2017 @ 9:42 am

    Those who have seen the TV series "Deadwood" know that the dialog is replete with standard-issue swearing on virtuoso display. David Milch, the writer and producer, has said that he really wanted to use epithets that were authentic to late 19th century America. The trouble was, though, that swearing then seemed more centered on blasphemy than on sex and scatology. Using such blasphemous language in the series would have seemed more quaint than authentic to modern ears. Thus, while the series was authentic in many respects, it have to give up on language.

  6. languagehat said,

    January 24, 2017 @ 9:44 am

    If I'm understanding Mr. Hopson correctly, it sounds like he's agreeing that Japanese may not have an equivalent expression in both meaning and register.

    But what on earth does that have to do with the absurd claim that Japanese "does not have swearwords"? I can give you bushels of Russian vulgar/obscene expressions that do not "have an equivalent expression in both meaning and register" in English, but I would not draw the conclusion that you can't swear in English. (I ranted about Joan Acocella's utter ignorance myself a few years ago.)

  7. M.N. said,

    January 24, 2017 @ 10:19 am

    Reminds me of the hilarious urban legend/hoax that Finnish has no swear words and the thing that comes closest is the word ravintolassa ('in the restaurant'): http://www.finlandforum.org/viewtopic.php?f=9&t=1916

  8. raempftl said,

    January 24, 2017 @ 10:21 am

    @Robbie

    German also has the word "Manko " with this meaning.

    I'm going to meet a Japanese friend on Thursday. I will try to remember to ask her whether she knows it and how she feels about it.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    January 24, 2017 @ 11:40 am

    From Jay Rubin:

    Fascinating. Wish I had time to read some of the books.

    It seems to me I stumbled across a book on Japanese dirty talk in Seattle Kinokuniya or someplace not too long ago.

    I tend to agree with Ichiro. Japanese doesn't have highly-charged swear words, though finally this may be a reflection of the kind of company I keep.

    "Manko," which refers to the same body part as "cunt," lacks the c-word's visceral impact.

    Calling somebody a "kusottare" more or less literally says that he has unwiped shit clinging to his nether regions. It's pretty shocking stuff, but you can make it even stronger by adding the "-me" suffix, which can be used to curse anything or anyone by adding a distinctly male chauvinist note, "-me" being "female" and therefore despicable ("baka-me" is worse than a plain "baka").

    The tough-talking Aomame of Murakami's !Q84 uses the childish "o-chin-chin" when talking dirty to her one-night stand (Book 1, Ch 5, p. 113 passim / English hardcover p. 59). I couldn't translate it something like "wee-wee" without making her sound ridiculous, used "cock". I think I may have used a "fuck" or two in various works containing scenes calling for strong language in English where the Japanese was, shall we say, flaccid. Oh, yeah, "Fuck like crazy" a little later in Ch 5 is 思い切りやる. Ho-hum.

    The article mentions religion rather than sex or excretory matters as a source of early shocking language in the West. 畜生 might be cited in the Japanese context as more or less "goddam". That's kinda strong even now.

    Without the Christian prohibitions, sex words maybe don't have the taboo impact in Japanese they do in English.

  10. languagehat said,

    January 24, 2017 @ 11:54 am

    It seems to me I stumbled across a book on Japanese dirty talk in Seattle Kinokuniya or someplace not too long ago.

    You may be thinking of Japanese Street Slang by Peter Constantine; it's not focused solely on dirty talk, but it sure doesn't shy away from it.

  11. John Baker said,

    January 24, 2017 @ 12:33 pm

    @Bill Benson: It's hard to know just how much scatology there was in the 19th century, since such words were considered unprintable. We know from opinions of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals that the strongest insult available in the late 19th century was to call a man a mother-fucking son of a bitch. We know about this partly because of a Texas law giving a limited right of retaliation to avenge insults against a female relative; the court ruled, however, that this particular term was not an insult against a female relative, but the man addressed. Lacking such an idiosyncratic law, courts in other states may have felt it unnecessary to quote the exact insults.

  12. Bob Ladd said,

    January 24, 2017 @ 12:57 pm

    I agree with @noscitur a sociis that there's not a big difference of opinion here, and that the different ways of swearing and insulting and so forth in different languages really can be quite different without necessarily getting us into "no word for X" territory. On the basis of purely anecdotal evidence and my own experience, I have the impression that people who speak a language or languages other than their native language often find it curiously satisfying to swear in a non-native language. And that's basically what Ichiro Suzuki was saying ("allows me to say things I otherwise can't").

  13. Rube said,

    January 24, 2017 @ 1:02 pm

    I am intrigued by Ichiro's opinions on this subject. He had a lengthy career in Japanese baseball before he moved to the United States. I can't imagine that Japanese locker rooms are that different from North American ones. What would a Japanese right fielder say to a centre fielder who ran into him while chasing a fly ball, even though the right fielder has been calling for it the whole time? And what would the centre fielder, who has precedence if he calls it, say if he was sure that the right fielder had been too deaf or stupid to hear him call?

  14. Mark Liberman said,

    January 24, 2017 @ 1:36 pm

    @Bob Ladd: I have the impression that people who speak a language or languages other than their native language often find it curiously satisfying to swear in a non-native language.

    Could that simply be because L2 cussing is not semantically bleached in the way that L1 cussing is?

  15. jick said,

    January 24, 2017 @ 1:52 pm

    Italy also has a fashion brand named Boggi (with "soft g"), which in Korean has the meaning you're thinking about. I heard they have a problem penetrating the Korean market.

  16. BZ said,

    January 24, 2017 @ 3:38 pm

    @Rube,
    I've never seen "centre fielder" before (mixing a British spelling into a very American word). Do you mind if I ask where you are from? Canada maybe? Or is that how they spell it in Japan?

    Anyway, Hebrew is often claimed not to have curse words. Not sure how true that is.

  17. Rube said,

    January 24, 2017 @ 3:48 pm

    @BZ: Yeah, Canada. Just can't help using the "re" spellings, appropriate or not.

  18. M.N. said,

    January 24, 2017 @ 3:53 pm

    > On the basis of purely anecdotal evidence and my own experience, I have the impression that people who speak a language or languages other than their native language often find it curiously satisfying to swear in a non-native language.

    My own experience has always been the opposite. I can't bring myself to swear in languages other than English; it feels as though I'd be putting on a performance, or pretending to be something I'm not.

    However, I'm an American English speaker living in the US. If I moved to Germany and became a member of a German-speaking community, swearing in German might start to feel different than it currently does.

    Also, I'm not an instinctive swearer — if I hit myself with a hammer or something, I'd be more likely to yell non-verbally than to swear. That might also make a difference.

  19. Richard Hershberger said,

    January 24, 2017 @ 4:02 pm

    @John Baker: My hobby is researching 19th century baseball, which involved its share of swearing. Newspaper accounts sometimes provide enough clues to make clear what was said. Here is an example from 1887. John Roseman had come back from a debauch. Frank Bancroft, his manager, suspended him. Roseman had to be restrained by his teammates, as he wanted them to "let me get at the — — – —– 'till I hit him on the kisser" The format of the dashes are the paper's (The Sporting Life April 27, 1887) way of telling us he said "son of a bitch."

    Generally, the cursing is disappointing familiar. One might hope for exotic displays of creativity, but in practice "god damned" is the usual expletive.

    Then there is my personal favorite, from the Cincinnati Commercial of June 14, 1882:
    "Manager Simmons after the game yesterday was heard to remark: '!-!!-!!!-!!!!-***-(?).'"

    @BZ: Not really on point, but "centre fielder" is not uncommon in 19th century reporting. I assume that the British/American spelling divide was not yet firmly established.

  20. Rube said,

    January 24, 2017 @ 4:07 pm

    Also @BZ: "Centre" is also used for the position in Canadian sports journalism:

    http://www.sportsnet.ca/baseball/mlb/blue-jays-kevin-pillar-isnt-like-people-field-off/

  21. Kim said,

    January 24, 2017 @ 6:08 pm

    I think that people just don't swear as much is a factor here. In English you can casually use swear words in everyday conversation, for example "I'm so fucking tired today", and it wouldn't be terribly offensive. (At least to me, a British person in their mid twenties) Whereas I think casually slipping in swear words in Japanese would be unusual/shocking. I'm no native speaker, but I've been living and working in Japan for 4 years, and I've rarely if ever heard Japanese people swear words, especially the extremely offensive ones on that list like "manko"

  22. Chris C. said,

    January 24, 2017 @ 6:13 pm

    English "c-word"? I can think of several moderately naughty ones, but none so bad that they can't be mentioned in an article about swearing.

  23. Geoff said,

    January 24, 2017 @ 7:10 pm

    So when a Japanese home handyman hits his thumb with a hammer, what does he say?

  24. krogerfoot said,

    January 24, 2017 @ 8:03 pm

    I'm also having a problem pinpointing the disagreement between what Acocella wrote and what those calling her ignorant are asserting. Replying to "Japan, curiously, does not have swearwords in the usual sense," with "Sure it does, if you define 'swearword' in something other than the usual sense, fuckface" seems to bolster her point rather than refute it.

  25. Carl said,

    January 24, 2017 @ 9:52 pm

    @Geoff,

    Itai means "it hurts" and is also used as "ouch." It can be intensified by pronouncing it as itee instead. That would be pretty standard to say after hurting yourself. Other things to say include shimatta ("it unfortunately happened" literally) or chikushô ("realm of the beasts", the Buddhist equivalent of goddammit).

  26. John Baker said,

    January 24, 2017 @ 11:04 pm

    @Richard Hershberger: I don't get it. What did Manager Simmons say?

  27. Fedo Raadmin said,

    January 24, 2017 @ 11:05 pm

    That motherfucker Hopson laid down some hilarious shit on this (extremely serious) topic.

  28. Chris C. said,

    January 24, 2017 @ 11:12 pm

    @Geoff — He might say Kuso!, which is roughly "Shit!". (It's written くそ but I've usually heard it pronounced with the そ broadened out so it sounds more like さあ.)

  29. Bob Ladd said,

    January 25, 2017 @ 3:06 am

    @Mark Liberman Could that simply be because L2 cussing is not semantically bleached in the way that L1 cussing is?

    Actually, if anything, I think the opposite is true. Back in the days when one didn't say fuck in the classroom, even in a linguistics class discussing taboo words, I knew a non-native speaker of English – a very effective lecturer – who used to get quite a reaction from students by doing exactly that. It was easier for him to overcome the barrier to violating the taboo because he hadn't had a whole childhood to reinforce it.

    Be that as it may, swearing in an L2 comes pretty naturally to me and to various other people I know.

  30. RP said,

    January 25, 2017 @ 3:56 am

    Bob Ladd's theory rings true to me.

    My sister-in-law is Austrian and her family apparently regard "shit" as an inoffensive euphemism to use to replace the "real" word, "Scheisse".

    The same effects are seen interdialectally. Brits perceive "ass" as a weaker swearword than "arse", while Americans do the opposite. Specifically British swearwords such as "wanker" and "bollocks" are regarded as inoffensive by Americans even if they know they are swearwords in Britain. "Shite" is regarded by Americans as much milder than "shit", but in northern England it carries identical force.

  31. Richard Hershberger said,

    January 25, 2017 @ 5:47 am

    @John Baker: Oops. The commenting software screwed up the hyphenating. In the original, the length of the four words was indicated by the number of hyphens in each: 3, 2, 1, 5: son of a bitch!

    Oh, and it was Roseman, the player suspended for dissipation (as they quaintly put it at the time) who was venting his spleen. Note also that this was in April. I got a sense of exasperation that Roseman couldn't even hold off until the regular season started (later then than now) before going on his debauches.

  32. Zeppelin said,

    January 25, 2017 @ 8:01 am

    @RP: I can confirm "shit" as a milder alternative to "Scheiße" in a German context (at least in my urban social circles). I'd say it's about as offensive as "crap" would be in English, whereas I'd rate German "Scheiße" as somewhat stronger than English "shit". Probably because "Scheiße" isn't as freely used as a placeholder and so experiences less bleaching?

  33. Graeme said,

    January 25, 2017 @ 8:25 am

    Kim grasps the implicit cultural claim whilst the linguists go ape over a cheap all or nothing veneer.

  34. raempftl said,

    January 25, 2017 @ 9:36 am

    @ RP and Zeppelin

    But is it actually "shit" and not "Schitt"? I grew up in the part of East Germany where we were not able to receive any West German TV or radio (Upper Lusatia). So the swear words we used where not tainted by any knowlede of English swear words. But I'm pretty sure we used "Schitt".

    Maybe it's the Low German or Platt variant of "Scheiße" and feels milder because down South it's a foreign word.

  35. Thorin said,

    January 25, 2017 @ 11:23 am

    "Shit" is used pretty frequently in Konstanz/Konschdanz as a more emphatic way of saying "Scheiße".

  36. Guy said,

    January 25, 2017 @ 11:53 am

    @Chris C.

    "Cunt" is pretty close to unspeakable in American English, though it isn't as bad in the UK.. Part of the reason for this is that it pulls double duty as a "nigger"-like word in the US. In the UK you might call a man a cunt, in the US that usage would be slightly bizarre.

  37. Guy said,

    January 25, 2017 @ 12:01 pm

    @Chris C.

    For an illustration, see this comedy sketch.

  38. Victor Mair said,

    January 25, 2017 @ 7:34 pm

    From Frank Chance:

    Japanese language has no dearth of expletives and expressions, but none of them are quite as taboo as English and Spanish swear words.

    My best evidence for this is what you can hear on the rather conservative media in Japan. Though crude words for body parts (Peter Greenaway's "dirty parts and nasty bits") are rarely heard, that is more because they are crude than because they are forbidden. There is little sense of blasphemy since the culture is eclectic in its spirituality and generally not very interested in religion anyway. Finally, the wide range of speech levels allows insult without profanity—hyper-polite expressions can be as devastating to the recipient (raising them to YUUUGE heights, for example) as denigrating verb endings. So Japanese doesn't really need "curse words" in our sense. If you want to depict a low-class person in a TV show, you don't need to have them talk about shitting in your shoes or fucking their mother, because you can get the message across perfectly well with a well chosen pronoun (e.g. "temee") or verbal ending (e.g. "koroshite yarou!")

  39. jf said,

    January 27, 2017 @ 2:10 am

    I think we need to make a distinction between swearwords (which may be insulting) and inappropriate (offensive) words or expressions. Japan may have relatively fewer of the former, but it certainly has them (and enough of them) and more than compensates with the latter.

    I think it is also incorrect to say that manko is a swearword. It is highly inappropriate in most contexts, but if I were to try to insult somebody by saying kono manko yarou, they'd probably either be a little puzzled or snicker a little. It would certainly be rather lame as an insult, nowhere near the level of "cunt".

    How familiar you become with actual swearwords of course depends on your environment. Most people you're going to meet in ordinary circumstances in Japan are going to be educated, and have not been in circles where such words are commonly used. Because the words are hardly used in media either (unless you go out of your way to watch Yakuza movies or dubbed Western movies), it's not a surprise that people don't really realize such things are even possible to say in their own language.

    Reina-sensei's video is pretty good, although I must say I've never heard "ama" being used. Instead, the word bitch is borrowed as-is, "bicchi". Kusobicchi is probably one of my favorite words.

    Just because Ichirou is a native speaker, doesn't mean that he is capable of making accurate linguistic observations about his own language. In fact, in my experience most Japanese teacher aren't either.

  40. jonathan silk said,

    January 27, 2017 @ 6:42 am

    since baseball cursing was brought up, we cannot forget the absolute master (I think he even outdoes Earl Weaver): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fzjWQF1oP2M
    WARNING: this is NOT safe for work!
    One has to wonder what the newspapers did with this, if they reported it at all…

  41. languagehat said,

    January 27, 2017 @ 8:54 am

    Most people you're going to meet in ordinary circumstances in Japan are going to be educated, and have not been in circles where such words are commonly used.

    All this means is that the elite do not "commonly" use bad words, at least in public; I'm not sure why it's relevant to the topic of whether Japanese has such words.

    Finally, the wide range of speech levels allows insult without profanity—hyper-polite expressions can be as devastating to the recipient […] as denigrating verb endings. So Japanese doesn't really need "curse words" in our sense.

    If you hit your finger with a hammer, a denigrating verb ending isn't going to fill the bill. I continue to believe that this is a case of elite Japanese people pretending their language is somehow uniquely pure, and foreigners believing them (unless they hang out routinely with the sort of "low-class" [!] people who use them, in which case they're probably not writing scholarly papers).

  42. languagehat said,

    January 27, 2017 @ 8:55 am

    (Sorry, "use them" should read "use bad words" or the like.)

  43. jf said,

    January 27, 2017 @ 10:29 am

    All this means is that the elite do not "commonly" use bad words, at least in public; I'm not sure why it's relevant to the topic of whether Japanese has such words.
    FWIW, I don't disagree with you. Just saying that their lack of perspective (or lack of introspection) is what causes them (and people who listen to them) to think that Japanese doesn't have such words. *We* know that's not true. I was just pointing out the rather common fallacy of trusting a native speaker to be properly observant about their own language.

  44. languagehat said,

    January 27, 2017 @ 10:49 am

    Ah, gotcha. Sorry, I completely misread you!

  45. Chris C. said,

    January 27, 2017 @ 10:24 pm

    @Guy — I am, of course, aware of "cunt", but it's hardly the "Voldemort of swear words." That, as any fan of A Christmas Story can tell you, is "fuck".

  46. krogerfoot said,

    January 28, 2017 @ 2:07 am

    "I continue to believe that this is a case of elite Japanese people pretending their language is somehow uniquely pure, and foreigners believing them"

    I really have a problem with the idea that the Japanese are either oblivious or deceptive about whether they have what English speakers would consider "curse words." I've spent a lot of time over the past twenty years with monolingual Japanese speakers and they obviously appreciate the way certain usages signify anger, frustration, lasciviousness, etc., and they're well aware of language you're not supposed to use in polite company because it's coarse or disrespectful. Obviously.

    Japanese people who have learned enough of a foreign language quickly pick up on the fact that "cursing" is a feature that's notably absent in Japanese. By that I mean a class of words that are taboo yet incredibly common—things you're told never to say but you hear every day, that typically have a scatological, sexual, or religious origin. There just isn't much of that in Japanese, and it's NOT because people are uniquely saintly, prudish, inexpressive, or linguistically unimaginative here.

    It's hard to explain, even if you're utterly fluent in English, so it's not surprising that well-meaning people would leave it at "we don't have those kinds of words in Japanese," because it's true enough. As I said in an earlier comment, Joan Acocella may not be a linguist, but what she said in the quoted article is not wrong.

  47. chris said,

    January 28, 2017 @ 8:55 am

    @krogerfoot: So, what is unusual about English swearing is that that shit is all over the fucking place? And *that* is the kind of thing you can't say in Japanese?

  48. krogerfoot said,

    January 28, 2017 @ 9:46 am

    @chris: English swearing is a lot more like Spanish and every other language I'm familiar with. It's Japanese that's unusual.

    One point of comparison is the very entertaining "How to curse in Japanese" video by Reina Scully linked in the OP. Her examples are all fighting words, but little of the vocabulary is more than a bit off-color. As she says, temē is just a slurred 手前, and it means "you," but expresses such complete contempt that in English we'd have to reach for much stronger verbiage to convey the feeling. Same with fuzakenna, which she glosses as "don't fuck with me," but the verb ふざける is an utterly unobjectionable word meaning "fool around."

    So, to "curse" in Japanese rarely involves anything you couldn't say in front of your grandmother. Fuzakennayo, temē—baka yarō! is unmistakably inviting violence, but none of the vocabulary will get your mouth washed out with soap. "Knock that off, you! Dumb guy!" is about how strong the vocabulary is, but to express the same level of contemptuousness, to really get across the size of the barrel of ass-kicking that's about to fall off the truck, we'd need to spiff it up a bit in English—Yo, fuck's the matter with you, asshole?

  49. Andrew Usher said,

    January 28, 2017 @ 2:24 pm

    Languagehat is right when he raises the question of what a Japanese would say in anger if he hit his finger with a hammer -.because the more primary function of profanities is not to insult, but to express strong emotion in a way that no other words in the language are adequate for (at least not concisely); while one reason for expressing such emotion is to insult someone, it's hardly the only one and taboo words never derive their power solely from being used as an insult (that's why no one can consciously decide to invent a new swear word, unlike some other kinds of words, and be taken seriously).

    Krogerfoot: Obviously, every language has expressions that are 'coarse and disrespecful' without being obscene, and it's easy enough to invent an infinite number. That alone can't explain why Japanese hasn't developed cursing.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

  50. krogerfoot said,

    January 28, 2017 @ 8:33 pm

    @Andrew Usher: I have some ideas about why Japanese hasn't developed cursing, but I haven't addressed them here.

    Rather, "Japanese hasn't developed cursing" is the idea under attack in the OP and in the comments. That's pretty much what Joan Acocella said, and I don't see how any of the attempts to refute her have done so.

  51. Lane said,

    January 30, 2017 @ 5:44 am

    Acocella will have taken her point about the lack of Japanese taboo words from one of the books she was reviewing, Benjamin Bergen's "What the F?", which is outstanding and very serious. I wrote about the book here,

    http://www.economist.com/news/books-and-arts/21708207-most-swearing-perfectly-harmless-weapons-crass-construction

    Now Bergen is not an expert in Japanese; he's a cognitive scientist. But he did his homework, so if he got this point wrong in a well researched book about swearing, it's got to be a fairly hard one to get right. His point was not that you can't be rude in Japanese, but that there isn't a big class of words like most languages have that are taboo by their nature – can't even be said in isolation without causing a stir, since they are, simply, swear words.

    So I took him to mean that, yes, a sharply worded "Fool!" and the right use of the wrong pronoun can be highly offensive – no culture on earth has no way to offend. But that there just doesn't seem to be this big box of swear words that most languages have.

  52. jf said,

    February 3, 2017 @ 1:57 am

    And I argue that there is this big box of swear words in Japanese. It's perhaps not as big as with other languages but it is there. The difference is that in daily communication there are so many other ways to offend people (or, being relatively non-confrontative that the Japanese are, you tend to avoid it anyway) you don't really need to dip into the big box of bad words.

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