Monday, August 25, 2014

in which I consider the way in which English profanity is borrowed into Slovak and Danish

On or about July 23rd, as I made my way through the local supermarket, I passed a guy about my age with a daughter who was about five or six. They were apparently engaged in the usual "buy me this - no, I won't" tug of war and just as I got within earshot, the dad concluded the discussion by saying the following:
"... pretože je strašne šitné a hneď sa zlomí." 
because is terribly šitné and immediately REFLEXIVE break.FUT. 
Yes, you are quite right: "šitný" [ʃitni:] (of which the form given above is the neuter) is an adjective derived from "shit". I guess we can now add it to the growing list of English borrowings which made it into mainstream Slovak (as opposed to geek speak), but what's more interesting is the pragmatic aspect: by using the word with his pre-school daughter, the dad apparently doesn't consider the adjective vulgar or profane, it's just another way of saying "of bad quality".
I was reminded of this incident last week when I was visiting Copenhagen*. Being who I am, I naturally intended to partake of the offerings of local bookstores, however, due to time constraints I only had the time to visit Politikens Boghal and only for a few minutes. This turned out to be enough, because just as I entered (and passed Tom Rachman discussing his latest book), I ended up right under the "New arrivals" section which included a book titled Dansk i skred. 52 sproglige opstrammere (roughly: "Danish in a downward spiral. 52 linguistic eye-openers"). "Linguistic and current, perfect, even if happens to be just your standard peevology tome," I thought and proceded to the counter to make the purchase with just enough time to make the flight home.  When I finally sat down to read it, I quickly found out that my fears about the nature of the book were unfounded. First, its author is an actual linguist and and an accomplished one at that - someone who wrote Udtaleforskelle i Danmark: Aldersbestemte, geografiske, sociale ("Pronunciation variation in Denmark: Age-determined, geographic, social") just knows too much to be a peevologist. Second, the Foreword includes this explanation of the title:
Bogen hedder “Dansk i skred”, ikke fordi sproget er ved at miste fodfæste, men fordi det hele tiden tilpasser sig nye udtryksbehov og derfor må udvikle sig.

This book is called "Danish in a downward spiral" not because the language is losing its footing, but because it constantly keeps adapting to new needs for expression and therefore must evolve.
And in fact, the same Foreword includes this example of such an adaptation and its effects (pardon my translation) that has direct bearing on the "šitný" incident described above:
... For både sproget, stilen og tabuerne ændrer sig. Danmarks Radio laver temaudsendelser i primetime med titler som Kussen, Pikken og Røven, uden at nogen tilsyneladende tager anstød af det. På den måde afmonterer man tabuerne, men man støder også en hel del fra sig, og de grænsesøgende må søge nye veje, fx gennem import af kraftudtryk som fuck og shit, som heller ikke har bevaret deres kraft i moderne sprogbrug. Når en 13-arig pige til sine bedsteforældre kan sige "fuck, hvor er jeg glad for den kjole", har det for barnet samme valør, som når man tidligere sagde “nej, hvor er jeg glad” eller "gud, hvor er jeg glad." Men sådan opfatter de ældre generationer det ikke.

... Because both the language and style as well as taboos change. The Danish Broadcasting Corporation makes primetime shows with titles like Cunt, Cock and Ass, apparently without anybody batting an eye. In this way, taboos are destroyed but, one also removes a large part of oneself. Those wishing to push boundaries must then look for new ways to do so, such as importing profanities like fuck and shit, which, however, did not retain their vulgar status in modern use. When a 13-year old girl says to her grandparents "fuck, I'm so happy about the dress", to the child it is the same as when one used to say "oh I'm so happy" or "God, I'm so happy." But the older generation doesn't see it that way.
This has happened before, this will happen again and I suspect only more so once English is spoken as widely in Slovakia as it is in Denmark.

* If you ever go, make sure to wear comfortable shoes and visit La Glace for a piece of HC Hat.