Supposedly delicate topics, especially those relating to bathroom functions, death, disease, sex or "taboo" parts of the human body, have often been difficult to express in language. One fairly clever way to solve this problem has been for cultures to adopt foreign equivalents of daring native words as 'euphemisms'.
In Japanese, the language of choice is English. A New York Times article entitled "Japan's Favorite Import From America: English" states that "English words are particularly useful as euphemisms, serving the Japanese preference for approaching delicate topics indirectly...the Japanese use sekkusu when discussing sex, and if they have trouble achieving sekkusu tashi (sex ecstasy), they can consult a sekkusu pato (sex expert. A young woman who wears daringly tight clothes is described as bodi-kon garu (body-conscious gal)." (See article about Japanese and English here.)
In traditional Jewish languages such as Yiddish, Judeo-Italian, and Ladino, words of Hebrew-Aramaic origin, with connotations of high culture and refinement, are often used as euphemisms when referring to such taboo subjects as death, certain body parts, and bathroom functions. For example, "Hebrew-Aramaic words for bathroom functions in Jewish languages are typically quite euphemistic. mashtin zayn 'urinate', nekovim gedoylim and nekovim ketanim 'big holes and 'little holes', geyn af gedoylim and geyn af ketanim "to defecate' and 'to urinate' are indirect and learned ways to avoid saying kakn or shaysn and pishn." (Read essay about Yiddish here.)
A Serbian user of the online language resource www.reference.com remarks that Greek may serve the purpose of a "cleaner language" for some South Slavs. The user posts that "Generally, in spite of having rich assortment for different nuances of "dirt", seems that Slavs are inclined to adopt foreign words as euphemisms. For example, in "children language" of Balkan countries we mostly use Greek word "kaka" (bad, unpure, like in "cacophony") for excrement, with derived verb "kakiti" or "kakati", but the adjective "kakan/a/o" means "dirty, not good for touching." (See discussion about Slavic and Greek here.)
English is not immune to this phenomenon, and we English speakers tend to use French or Latin when we wish to mention the unmentionable. French seems especially useful when discussing sex or taboo body parts, Ménage à trois, derrière, and au naturel seem, to some users of English, more acceptable and "classier" than "threesome," "butt," and "naked." Latin and Latin-based words appears to be helpful when discussing sex, having lent such terms as copulate and coitus interruptus, as well as certain awkward medical conditions, such as carcinoma (instead of the harsher-sounding "cancer"). Similarly, a woman who was inspecting was, in the past, often described as enceinte (directly from French) instead of "pregnant" (curiously, also of French origin). Interestingly, I was once told that the Spanish cognate encinta is a more delicate alternative to "embarazada" ("pregnant)."
(posted by language fan and friend Silas McCracken)
Don’t you think that there is a difference between the Japanese case and the other cases of borrowing you have mentioned? I mean Jewish languages, Southern Slavic languages and English borrowed words from languages that are related to them, linguistically, geographically and historically. English and Japanese, on the other hand, have very little in common. I personally see some danger in borrowing from very distant cultures, even though I have not been able to determine that danger yet. What do you think?
Thanks, Mohamed, for reading and for your comment! It's an interesting question. I'm not quite sure if there is that much of a difference in the actual act of borrowing. It is true that Japanese is a non-Indo-European language that has borrowed from an Indo-European language (English). However, strictly speaking, Yiddish (another example listed above) is an Indo-European language that has borrowed from a non-Indo-European language (Hebrew). Although French and English (as well as the South Slavic languages and Greek) are all Indo-European languages, they are often (if not usually) not mutually intelligible. If you are an English speaker who knows no French, an unrecognizable French word will be just as foreign and puzzling as an English word would be to a Japanese speaker who knows no English. In both cases, speakers replace a familiar local taboo word with the "exotic" foreign euphemism.
Do you mean culturally similar? True, the English and French, for example, both have "European cultures," but for centuries the two groups were bitter enemies who often distrusted each other politically and culturally and thus would probably not have considered themselves to be culturally similar. In contrast, due to globalization, many Japanese speakers are bombarded with culture from English-speaking nations, and a considerable number of these Japanese speakers apparently embrace and imitate it to some degree.
As for the greater danger in borrowing from a language of a more "distant" culture, I'm not quite sure what the danger would be. Would you please elaborate? I presume that much of the danger would depend on how threatened a member of the borrowing culture felt by it. Languages and cultures have borrowed liberally from each other throughout history. Globalization, facilitated travel, and the resulting increased exposure to more distant lands and their cultures has meant that many cultures and languages now have the option of borrowing from a wider range of sources.
Oops, that should be "have meant"...
I was talking about how distant both cultures are. I think that sometimes borrowing words from distant cultures allows one to say and do things that are deemed unacceptable in his/her own culture. This may lead to mental colonization and social confusion. This is perhaps why some people say that they dare not say certain things in their native language, because they will be deemed inappropriate. It’s all about connotations.
I’m not against borrowing words. I’m against borrowing cultural concepts that cannot work for one reason or another in certain countries.
It’s true that the English and the French were enemies. Their cultures may have not been similar, but their degree of foreignness cannot be compared to that of, for example, the US and Japan. Most European nations have a lot in common, even when they don’t, or didn’t, like to admit that. A Japanese and an American have, culturally speaking, little in common, even though their countries have been allies for quite some time now.
Thanks, Mohamed, for your insight and for your opinion.
While Japanese culture is likely more thoroughly foreign to most English speakers than most continental European cultures would be, cultures have also always borrowed from each other. While a Japanese young person may listen to British rock music, eat Australian cookies, and watch American sitcoms, an English-speaking young person may sleep on a futon, watch anime, and eat sushi. As for what may work and what may not work for a particular culture, I suppose that it is up to each member of the culture (or each culture as a whole) to decide. Cultures are usually not static, but adapt and evolve over time, rejecting and embracing elements from other cultures, especially nowadays. Interestingly, prior to the mid-19th century, Japan did try to isolate itself culturally from the rest of the world but found that this was simply not sustainable and would ultimately be more harmful to Japan and the Japanese than cultural interactions with foreigners would be.
Mental colonization would involve a relationship of power and force. It may be argued that this has occurred with minority Celtic languages and cultures in the United Kingdom, to the extent that the Welsh are even tending to see certain colors differently due to the influence of English. I don't doubt that mental colonization can be harmful to people and cultures, but I would doubt that any of these examples of euphemisms would qualify. In these examples, the foreign culture isn't forcing its ideas or words upon the borrowing culture but is rather conveniently available to fill a basic practical need when people occasionally have to discuss "unpleasant subjects." Perhaps the foreignness of these euphemisms makes them less psychologically stinging on a personal level and thus less threatening to use. An English speaker, for instance, who chooses to refer to "coitus interruptus" (when the subject needs to be discussed) rather than the English equivalent is likely doing so because the English might appear too personal and revealing and probably not because he/she is being mentally colonized by a Latin-speaking influence. The same appears to be going on in Japanese, Yiddish, and the South Slavic examples I mentioned.
Thanks again for reading!
I agree with you that cultures are not static, but the degree to which they change is not static either. It can be controlled, manipulated and successfully engineered. Members of a culture can decide how much they want to borrow from another culture, especially from a distant one. This largely depends on how strong the borrowing culture is and how much self-esteem its people have.
Most of the cultural products that are borrowed nowadays are not simply available by chance. They are made available and attractive enough to be adopted. Of course, we cannot blame those who promote them as much as we blame those who blindly accept and adopt them without pondering on the long-term consequences.
It seems to me that there is a huge difference between 'coitus interruptus' and a loanword like 'sekkusu tashi'. The former is a scientific Latin-based term used to make conversations sound formal and thus less nasty. It was most likely introduced into English by some learned people. In contrast, sekkusu tashi is likely to have been borrowed by laymen to express something that would sound too bold in Japanese. I don't speak Japanese. So, I don't know what kind of connotations the fully-Japanese equivalent would raise in the minds of Japanese people (please tell me if you speak Japanese(.
In many Arab countries the average Arab does not believe in being friends with someone from the opposite sex. It is, for example, difficult for me to tell fellow Arabs that an Arab female friend of mine is my friend using the Arabic word for friend, because this can draw a smile that reads: "Your friend my ass. I bet both of you were just doing it", which is a taboo in Arab countries. I have a friend who, when asked about the nature of his relationship with a girl, always uses the English word 'friend' instead of its Arabic equivalent. It sounds less offensive and most importantly helps my friend to a clear conscience. A simple word makes him feel that he is not doing anything wrong (unlike in other parts of the world, premarital relationships in most Arab countries range from being discouraged to being a taboo). Such use of an English word can create problems in societies whose cultures are fundamentally different from English-speaking cultures. Here is where the degree of foreignness comes into play.
This is what I meant by connotations. Again, I'm not all against borrowing words; I'm against doing so blindly and in a way that destabilizes societies.
Thanks for reading and for stimulating my thoughts!
Interesting insights once again, Mohamed. Thank you!
I certainly agree that words do have a lot of power and can be used to manipulate situations. I disagree, though, that people will be enticed into certain behavior only because there happens to be a convenient word for it. While the use of an English word for "friend" may be a convenient euphemism for Arabic speakers who engage in premarital sex, I doubt that the phenomenon was completely unknown prior to the introduction of the English word. I have a feeling that, foreign word or no foreign word, those who choose to engage in a taboo will do so and will find some way to refer to it, if only by using a roundabout phrasing in the local language (an example in English is the use of the roundabout term "lady of the evening" instead of "prostitute"). I've never heard of anyone, after admitting to some daring or shocking transgression of societal norms, justify this action by saying "I did it because there's a clean word for it."
A comparative example may be the English use of the French term "ménage à trois" instead of the English term "threesome" for a particular sexual activity. The former term sounds, to some people, less nasty precisely because it has a foreign, "sophisticated" ring. Somehow I feel that this activity was practiced prior to the introduction to the word and would have been practiced by certain members of society regardless of the convenience of any loan word.
Something in your post also made me think. You wrote that "It seems to me that there is a huge difference between 'coitus interruptus' and a loanword like 'sekkusu tashi'. The former is a scientific Latin-based term used to make conversations sound formal and thus less nasty. It was most likely introduced into English by some learned people. In contrast, sekkusu tashi is likely to have been borrowed by laymen to express something that would sound too bold in Japanese."
Is this likelihood based on the presumption that Latin sounds educated and would thus be introduced by learned people? This is precisely the effect that the euphemisms attempt to convey.
The term "Coitus interruptus" (considered "New Latin") was actually coined in 1900 by unconventional British sexologist and social reformer Havelock Ellis. Although he had a medical education, he never practiced medicine and was known for being an expert on sex! Indeed,though, the term, with its Latin ring, sounds educated and "scientific" and is thus perceived by many as a cleaner term than the English equivalent. Similarly, I am guessing (but may be wrong) that "sekkusu tashi" may have a similar "cleaner" sound because it may sound foreign and more educated (especially as English and other Western languages are often perceived in Japan as a languages of knowledge) than the local Japanese equivalent. Indeed, much of the effectiveness of a foreign euphemism depends upon how the language being used and those who have mastered it are perceived. (An interesting article on how foreign languages are perceived in Japan is available at http://iteslj.org/Articles/Blair-EngJpn.html).
Thanks again for reading and for taking the time to express your interesting impressions on these subjects. They've made me think, too!
thanks a lot for your reply!
It is certainly true that language is not the only cause of social change, regardless of whether they are positive or negative. After all we are human beings and we are capable of distinguishing right from wrong. Yet this capability is certainly reduced when people interact in a foreign language, because many of them simply cannot master that language to a native-speaker level. They lack Sprachgefühl and therefore, can hardly be good critical discourse analysts (check out this blog entry of mine: http://languageandglobalization.blogspot.com/2008/11/hollow-english.html ).
My friend uses the word 'friend' because he knows that in English-speaking countries a man can be friends with a woman without engaging in any sexual activity. This act is not usual in Arab countries, because men do not befriend women in the first place. It is mostly those who are westernized that can befriend someone from the opposite sex without having sex. These people speak English quite well and are likely to have visited an English-medium school.
I agree with you that the practice of having pre-marital sex does exist and has always existed in Arab countries. We are after all humans and no human being dislikes sex. It is completely natural. However, the use of a foreign language helps create a milieu in which pre-marital sex is seen as normal. The use of foreign words helps legitimize the practice and lessen the society's opposition to it. That can destabilize the society.
I have not yet read the article on English in Japan. But I read about English in Japan and in other countries from many other sources. English in Japan is a language of knowledge, as you have mentioned, but it is also the language of Anglophone cultures, especially that of the US. I doubt (and I may be wrong too) that sekkusu tashi was borrowed from a sexology book or journal written in English. It is likely to have been borrowed from American movies because it is used by laypeople to talk something too delicate to discuss in Japanese (I suppose).
In the end all people will have sex and sex ecstasy anyway. That is normal and human. I'm just concerned with the way each culture performs this act (read this blog entry of mine if you have time: http://languageandglobalization.blogspot.com/2009/04/culture-english-and-balls.html ).
Thank you very much for your comments and ideas! I hope we have not been talking past each other.
Hello there, Mohamed. I have also appreciated our "back-and-forth" and your thoughts, and of course I thank you for reading the Metrolingua blog.
I would agree that certainly there are many ways a word can enter a language, sometimes "top down" (if it is introduced by academics, the aristocracy, or other figures of respect and then imitated by those who wish to emulate them) or "bottom up" (introduced by "common people," often due to exposure to foreign media, and then gradually trickling up through most levels of society). On the subject of "sekkusu," it could have entered the language through the "intelligentsia" via foreign literature or academia. Or perhaps it entered by everyday, "non-elite" Japanese exposed to foreign media. One dissenting website even suggests that the origin of the word "sekkusu" is not English, but Portuguese (from "sexo"), although this is perhaps unlikely. It is also unclear when the word entered the Japanese language. Japanese, like English, has absorbed a large number of foreign words (from Chinese, English, French, and so on) used in a variety of spheres, and each absorption likely tells a social, cultural, and historical story.
With regard to the example of your friend and his "friend," certainly there are cultural borrowings that can change behaviors. Certainly if your friend has attended an English-medium school, especially if it is Western-style, he would be exposed to a number of foreign cultural norms in addition to the English language, just as native English speakers who are educated mostly or wholly in a language other than English are likely to have a cultural/social outlook that is a bit different from their "English-only counterparts" because the entire school system and what is taught would probably reflect educational values of the non-English culture and have a different focus. I would suggest, just as you seemed to suggest (and I apologize if I've misinterpreted you), that the word itself is not the root cause, but is part and parcel of a larger phenomenon of foreign cultural influences (to which relatively few cultures on this globe are likely immune!) and whether they are perceived as enriching or subverting a culture. All this might be more of a question for sociologists and cultural anthropologists, though!
Thanks again, Mohamed, for your valuable input and for giving me food for thought.
Thank you very much for your comments and for the information on the word ‘sekkusu'.
My friend, the one who uses the word ‘friend’ in the way previously explained, did not go to an English-medium school. He attended an Arabic-medium school. He speaks English, but his English leaves a lot to be desired. It is rather ironic that he borrows words from a language that he hasn’t mastered. I am aware of the fact that the word ‘friend’ is a basic word and that it is one of the first words we learn in English. Yet one of the hardest parts in foreign language learning is to learn when a word is used (connotations again). A friend in, for example, the US is not the same as a friend in Sudan.
I agree with you that borrowing words from other cultures is something that has occurred throughout history. Nobody is immune. But it seems to me that there are people who are more prone to borrowing than others. Certainly, there are certain factors that influence the extent to which a culture borrows from another culture. We should study these factors to find out why English borrowed a huge number of words from French, while Spanish borrowed a comparatively a low number of Arabic words despite the presence of Arabic in Spain for a long period.
We are not immune to foreign influences, but foreign influences are not immune to independent thinking. We can always come up with better vaccines. Linguists love to point out that change in a language through foreign influence is normal. They take history as their guide, but they forget to measure the differences in the degree of acceptance of foreign influence. Some time ago I came across an interesting blog entry (http://blog.ueber-setzen.com/?p=479) about how the Fruchtbringende Gesellschaft in Germany managed to germanize many foregin words. The article shows that language engineering is possible, even if it is not 100% successful.
Some people may argue that the era we currently live in is different. We are more exposed to foregin cultural influences more than ever becasue of communications technology. They forget that channels of communication can be used to transmit the lcoal as much as it transmits the foreign. If we are mentally conolized, it is mostly our fault.
Thanks again for your ideas! I aplogize if I drifted away from the original discussion.
Interesting post. I think part of the problem is that words mean different things to different people even within a culture or subculture. To my neighbor, a "friend" could be anyone he knows. To me, a "friend" means someone I have known for a considerable amount of time and whom I trust to a decent degree. Someone I have known for less time and on a much more casual basis I would term an "acquaintance." Other rather intangible words like "love," "success," "smart," and so on may also have myriad meanings that are influenced by culture, society, education, personal experience, and so on.
Spanish has quite a few words of Arabic origin, and I would suspect that even a number of Spanish speakers would not be aware of these roots. Furthermore, they are relatively common words ("almuerzo" for "lunch," "almohada" for pillow, etc., suggesting that the Arab influence, at least in terms of language, was fairly far-reaching). As for the French influence on English, you're right that there is a very significant influence. In fact it is tricky for many, if not most, Modern English speakers to read Anglo-Saxon (i.e. pre-Norman Conquest) English because the French contribution revolutionized the language. I have heard (but I'm not an authority on this bit of history, so I apologize if I am incorrect) that French was very much encouraged among the English aristocracy (and not to mention the French rulers) and that some simply could could not speak Anglo-Saxon. So English "morphed" into an Anglo-Norman hybrid that led to Middle and Modern English. I suspect that the level of absorption of foreign words depends on many factors, including sheer necessity (trade, ability to communitcate, etc.) and the social status of the foreign language in the borrowing society.
Language engineering-now that is a subject for debate. It is true that some nationalist movements have led to a "nationalization" of languages. Romania comes to mind, although curiously, it pushed for the Latinization of Romanian (including adoption of the Latin alphabet instead of the Cyrillic) in order to reflect Romania's distant Latin roots.
There have been attempts to revive languages to reflect the "soul" of a people better, often once again tied to nationalization movements. The success rates have varied widely. On one hand, Israel has been extremely successful with the rebirth of Hebrew, after having been used as a liturgical language almost exclusively for thousands of years. Quebec has also, through extensive legislation, protected and promoted its form of Canadian French, to the extent of discouraging foreign loan words that have even been accepted in France!
On the other hand, however, the example of Irish Gaelic has been less successful. Irish Gaelic was backed by a rather enthusiastic revival movement and became one of two official languages of Eire. It is a required subject in school. The Irish government has put tremendous effort into promoting Gaelic as a living language. Yet most Irish are either monolingual English speakers or have only a limited command of Irish Gaelic. The other Celtic languages, spoken primarily in the United Kingdom (Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Cornish, and Manx) and France (Breton) have had similarly grim fates, although some inroads have been made with Welsh.
And the fate of engineered language change involving "man-made" languages has also been somewhat underwhelming. For instance, despite considerable promotion and resources allocated to it, Esperanto has not caught on as an international second language.
Some degree of language engineering (or I would probably say "language guidance") can be successful, but only if the timing, resources, politics, economics, and, most of all, the will of the speakers are all favorable to this alternative to natural language change. I qualify this with "some degree" because I doubt whether language can ever be entirely regimented. Even in Israel and Quebec, some foreign influences creep in "below the radar." And of course many of us have a tendency to rebel somewhat against language prescriptionists (as I remember groaning when English teachers sternly said things like "never ever end a question with a preposition" and "passive voice is bad!").
Again, Mohamed, thanks so much for reading and for contributing your thoughtful insights.
Thanks a lot for the wealth of information you have provided. I apologize if my replies are a bit late. I don’t have internet connection in my room. I’m a slow thinker too.
I agree with you that words may mean different things for different people. I had a country mate who believed that being a friend with someone entails spending as much time as possible with him, regardless of privacy and whether that friend is free. Thank God, I’m no longer friends with that guy, because my definition for ‘friend’ is totally different from his.
You are right about the influence of Norman French on English. Over 50% of English words were actually derived from Norman French and Latin i.e. over half of English words are non-Germanic in origin. As for the influence of Spanish, I read on this page (http://www.cervantesvirtual.com/servlet/SirveObras/mcp/01350531966682286190680/p0000001.htm) that Spanish borrowed no more than 8% of its words from Arabic.
This is something that linguists should address. While all languages borrow words, some apparently borrow less, while others borrow more. The question is: WHY? There are, as I mentioned before, a number of factors that determine the degree of openness to other cultures, their words and their cultural products. These factors can sociological, psychological, economic, historical and geographical.
Singapore is a country that has English as its official language. It inherited English from the British colonial administration (an historical factor). Its leaders say that English is crucial for the country’s economy (an economic factor). Its population consists of at least three ethnicities, which do not share a common language (a sociological factor). Singaporean leaders and people have a strong belief in the importance (perhaps the superiority) of English (a psychological factor). Perhaps the size of the country is also a geographical factor that leads to the adoption of English as the official language (I think small countries, in terms of population of course, often find it difficult to almost exclusively operate in their own language, unless that language is spoken by others in some other big country or in a number of countries).
One last thing. We should not forget that borrowing too many words from other languages sometimes disconnects us from our past and history. It may be more difficult for you to read the English in which Beowulf was written than it is for me to read Arab poetry of the 6th century.
Thanks again for your comments and fresh ideas!
Thank you, Mohamed, for this very interesting information.
The insights regarding Singapore are very telling. At university I had a roommate from Singapore. He was ethnically Chinese and grew up bilingual. In practice, he felt much more comfortable speaking English and recently told me that he felt that he was forgetting his Chinese, which struck him as strange because it was one of his native languages. Then again, he has lived outside Singapore for many years, so that is obviously a factor.
The percentages about absorption of foreign words reminded me of the interesting case of Maltese. It is a Semitic language (descended from the form of Siculo-Arabic, which is the form of Arabic once spoken in Sicily and Malta), but it is written in the Latin alphabet (the only Semitic language to do so). What is so surprising is that about 50% of all words in Maltese are Romance (of Italian or Sicilian origin). Maltese also has a significant percentage words of English (Maltese is a former British colony) and French origin. Only 30-40%of Maltese words (a clear minority) are of Arabic (Semitic) origin. So clearly the majority of all Maltese words have been borrowed, although Maltese grammar is decidedly Semitic (just as English grammar is arguably Germanic despite a heavy influx of foreign loan words).
"The historical source of modern Maltese vocabulary is 52% Italian/Sicilian, 32% Siculo-Arabic, and 6% English, with some of the remainder being French."
Malta has been occupied by several flags and has been exposed to a number of groups of people due to politics, culture, society, and trade. This would undoubtedly make absorption easier.
I can see your point about how too many loan words might make us forget the 'roots' of our history, but I would rather think that these loan words help to give us a more balanced view of our history. True, I can't easily read Anglo-Saxon, but the loan words in English remind me of very real events in the history of English, such as the Viking and Norman invasions/occupations, trade within Europe and overseas, movement and intermarriage of English speakers with members of other linguistic groups, cultural influences on English-speaking people over the centuries, and so on. English (like Maltese and many other languages) did not develop in isolation among an isolated people, and I feel that the richness of the lexicon, including its many borrowed elements, are a fascinating testimony to this fact.
Thanks again for taking the time to write and share your ideas.
Thanks a lot for the info you gave me on your Singaporean roommate and on Maltese.
You are right when you say that loanwords give us a glimpse into history. I personally knew about the Norman Conquest through a book on the history of the English language. I actually made a mistake when I used English as an example, because our discussion has been about borrowing words from cultures, while the large number of Norman French words in English should be attributed to a large extent to direct face-to-face contact with Normans who settled in England.
By the way, a Chicago-based linguist called Salikoko Mufwene has written many papers on the diffusion of language through settlement and through other ways. You may want to check out his website at: http://humanities.uchicago.edu/faculty/mufwene/
Thanks again Silas!
Thank you, Mohamed, for your response and for that interesting link. I'll certainly check it out!
Actually, your inclusion of English (as enriched by Norman French) was quite an appropriate example. Languages and cultures interact in a number of ways, from media diffused across borders to face-to-face contact (including occupation and settlement). Obviously, in 1066, the diffusion of media across countries was extremely limited (to say the least), and literacy was relatively low. Hence, intercultural linguistic influence at that time would have almost necessarily had to result from face-to-face interactions (trade, wars, etc.). It is curious how the influence has gone both ways, how both the languages of occupiers and occupied peoples have enriched each other (though often in uneven ways)through these exchanges.
Thanks again, Mohamed, and keep on reading the Metrolingua blog! :)
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