Category Archives: maledicta

Closeness of Slavic languages. Najebać.

The special position (splendid isolation) of English within the Germanic language group seems to cause peculiar interest of some Anglophones with the supposed closeness and mutual intelligibility of the more knit-together groups of IndoEuropean like Romance or Slavic. You know, English is so out-of-place, so unlike any other, that the very idea of people understanding a foreign language without proper training just because it’s closely related to their own seems fascinating.

Now, I won’t deny that there’s something to the supposed Slavic intelligibility. Lots of words are common, a lot of grammar seems intuitive, in short – it’s a piece of cake for us to learn another Slavic language and we don’t have to start from scratch – there’s always some base to build on. However, despite what other Poles may tell you, it’s not like we don’t have to learn the other languages to be able to communicate. We do. Even with a language as close  as Slovak (nevermind Kashubian or Silesian – all speakers of these know Polish anyway) if you take “is able to communicate” as something more than “can order beer in a pub”. I mean, it was easier and less awkward for me to talk to Slovaks I met in Tehran in English. We tried for a while our respective languages (with a hint of Russian thrown in for a PanSlavic effect) but it just didn’t work well.

Now, since I know two and a half Slavic languages and had short stints with a couple more, from time to time I will talk here about what’s funnily different between them. You know, like the words which are innocent in one language but very vulgar in another. For starters, one widely known and one less known example.

Everyone knows that:
In Polish, “szukać” means ‘to look for, to search’. Its Czech and Slovak equivalents – “šukat” and “šukat'” mean no less than ‘to fuck’

Not everyone knows that:
A derivative of another very common Slavic verb for ‘to fuck’ serves a surprising function in Upper Sorbian:

“najebać” is “to fuck somebody up / to beat somebody up” in Polish (and similarly so in Czech&Slovak), but in Upper Sorbian (which belongs to the same sub-group of Slavic as the other three) it means, innocently, ‘despite’.

I had a ROTFL moment when I learnt about it.

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Because there’s no jam!

Even if I were a real linguist I would still abhor fine-tuning X-Bar grammar or Optimality Theory or any other highly formalised framework relying instead on gut feeling and common sense. And I sure wouldn’t focus on written language (you see, even today there’s a written language bias in academic linguistics), as a lot of things which interest me a great deal are only rarely committed to paper.

You’ve probably noticed my fixation with profanity. After all, if I get any traffic, it’s mostly people who want to know what “kurwa mać” means in English. But there’s a couple more things some people forget about when thinking about languages and cultures.

One of them is the language and culture of playgrounds, kindergardens and elementary schools. Children play a lot, and what they play quite often involves a sort of language game. You know, nursery rhymes, counting out games and the like. If you look at them more closely there’s quite a lot of interesting stuff – first everyone knows them, second they’re transmitted almost exclusively orally, not formally learnt, yet they don’t change much from generation to generation, third – the Polish ones (and I infer that the others as well) contain a lot of ‘nonsense’ vocabulary which may not be that nonsense at all, but a corrupted borrowing from old-fashioned slang, cant, or language of itinerant people like Romani. To wit: “Ene due like fake torba borba ósme smake deus deus kosmateus i morele baks”

The reason I’m writing this longish piece is that I want to share a kind of silly childish language game with you. See, when I was in kindergarden or elementary school we had this way of answering questions we thought annoying or boring with rude (sometimes vulgar) rhyming replies. I think these are quite stable across Poland, but I may be wrong.

Examples:

Kogo? “whom?”  is answered with – Misia Gogo “Gogo the Bear”

Actually the trick was to ask somebody Znasz go? “Do you know him?” or Widziałeś go? “Have you seen him?” in hope that he or she wouldn’t know whom do you mean and ask back Kogo? “whom?” which would give you opportunity to say Misia Gogo

Co? “what?” – pstro “spottedly/colourfully” or jajco/jajeczko “egg/small egg (or testicle)”  or just gówno “shit”
Czego? “what (do you want)? – gówna psiego “(a bit of) dog shit”
Czemu? “why?” – Bo nie ma dżemu “because there’s no jam”
Która godzina? “what’s the time?” – Wpół do komina “half to chimney”

A success (of sorts)

Exactly as predicted, putting the word “whore” in the title of the previous entry proved to be a brilliant strategy. It has already brought me my first genuine spam comment and the first hit from google search engine (yeah, the guy typed in “whore” and ended up here).

Oh, joys of blogging.

UPDATE: and now it’s not only “whore” but also “kurwa mać”. Sweet.

The whore-queen of Polish maledicta

… or some diversity in profanity. Isn’t that a catchy title?

First let me explain. Some posts ago I promised to devote the very next post to Polish maledicta (that’s proper English for “bad words” if you didn’t know; also the title of my favourite scholarly journal). That promise wasn’t fulfilled then, which teaches you never to trust what strangers write on the Internet. However, it’s going to be fulfilled now, which teaches you to trust me, because I am a nice chap who delivers -sooner or later- on his promises.

Enough distractions. I begin my series on Polish vulgar/obscene/blasphemous/otherwise unappropriate vocabulary by paying tribute to all Poland’s favourite swear – the lovely word “kurwa” [coorr-vah if you like retarded approximations of foreign pronunciations]. So brace yourself for what I have to say (if you don’t want to read profanity, stop reading now)

1. Literal  meaning

“Kurwa” means literally “whore” (see, that’s why I could call that word “a whore-queen”!). Or actually it doesn’t. It means what “whore” would have meant if it was as vulgar and unacceptable-in-polite-company as “fuck” or “cunt”. Truly, if you compare Polish and English bad words, you’ll see that the supposedly equivalent words differ a lot in their potency.

But anyway, what I’m trying to say is that “kurwa” is the most vulgar of Polish terms for “a prostitute, a whore, a streetwalker, a hooker” and that English really lacks an equally strong term for members of that profession.

2. But it has some other uses.

However, apart from its main/original/a bit bland meaning (“whore”), the lovely “kurwa” (I’m tired of typing this all over again, henceforth “k-word”) is also used in a couple of interesting ways:

a) it serves to express strong emotions: pain, disgust, disbelief, amazement, irritation, anger… anything, really. It’s what you say when you drop something on your toe, or when you miss your bus to work, or when you learn that they promoted that idiot instead of you, or when you see something so awesome that you can’t really say anything else…

b) it’s a filler-word, it fills all the gaps in your wordflow. Just imagine someone saying “And I go there, whore and I am whore like whore where’s my money, whore” and that’s more or less what you hear from 15-year-olds in trams. Or a parent to a child “How many times have I whore told you not to whore eat anything you drop on the floor”. Just translate to Polish switching “whore” to the “k-word” and you’ve got what many people speak here.

So actually the uses a) and b) are the reason why the word “kurwa” is so omnipresent. It’s not that, say, the parent call their kid “a whore”. They don’t really do that, even if they do utter the word, what they do is just speak to the little one using the K-word in every other sentence, because that’s how they naturally speak, especially when they are angry or distressed.

3. The pragmatic difference between the two usages

Witness the following pair of sentences:

i. Zamknij się, kurwa! = shut yourself(imperative) whore (uninflected)
vs.
ii. Zamknij się, kurwo! = shut yourself(imperative) whore (address form)

What is the difference?

In i. the k-word is used uninflected, which points out that it’s an expletive, an intensifier, but not a noun, it serves just to convey speaker’s emotions and has no meaning of its own.
In ii. the k-word is inflected into so-called address form, which means it’s a noun, used in its original meaning to insult the addressee.

In real terms, i. expresses annoyance/ anger, it’s what you could say to a colleague whose babbling doesn’t allow you to concentrate. In contrast, ii. expresses aggression and willingness to harm. The (imperfect) English equivalents would be:
i. Shut the fuck up!
ii. Shut up, you fucking slut!

4. The social context

As I said earlier, a great lot of people from all backgrounds use the K-word. Teenagers in love, mothers to their children, MPs when they think the mic is off… you name it, you have it.

The frequency of usage (esp. usages a) and b)) makes “kurwa” a functional equivalent of English “fuck” and “fucking”. There are however some important subtleties… Both Polish and English words are not normally used on TV but can be heard in movies,  there’s however an interesting difference when it comes to satire and internet (and probably many other usage fields, but I’m going to talk about these two).
I don’t know of any Polish comedian/satire website which would use “kurwa” the way cracked.com uses “fuck” (that is very liberally) Also, while expressions such as “What the fuck?” are quite frequent on American fora, their Polish equivalents I could think of  (“Co jest, kurwa?” – ‘what is it whore’ / “Co jest do kurwy nędzy” – ‘what is it to the whore poverty’ / “O co kurwa chodzi?” – ‘What the whore is going on’) are all too rude to use without starting a flamewar.

5. The mother of  swears or witness the power of Polish morphology

One of the nicest things about Polish is that it gives its users a very efficient word-building machine. Bring your basic (“root”) word with you and it gives you means to derive tens if not hundreds of related words on the spot. And there are hundreds of words created from the one we’re talking about. A small half-random sample:

skurwysyn – “of-whore-son” the closest we have to “motherfucker”
skurwiel – as above, only derivation is opaque
kurwić – “to use the k-word a lot”
kurwić się – “to sell yourself” (on-going process) both literal and figurative senses
skurwić się – “to become a whore/ a sell-out / an immoral person” (completed process)
wkurwić – “to make someone very angry” as in:
lepiej mnie nie wkurwiaj – you better not piss me off / don’t fuck with me
wkurwiać – as above but the process is ongoing/happens repeatedly
…on mnie wtedy wkurwił… –  he pissed me off then (on one occassion)
vs.
…on mnie wtedy wkurwiał… – he’d piss me off back then (more than once)
wkurwi(a)ć się
– “to become angry, irritated or nervous”
wkurwiony – “angry, pissed off”
wykurwić – “to throw out” or “to hit something/someone”
wykurwić się –
“to trip and fall”
zakurwisty
– “being great in some respect”
kurewski – “whore-y; of whore; related to being a whore” “being bad”
przykurwić – “to hit hard”
kurewsko – “very, a lot, much” (intensifier)
zakurwiście – “great, excellent” (adverb)
kurwica – “state of extreme anger, agitation or nervousness”
kurwiszon/kurwiszcze/kurwidło – “whore” each time with a different derogatory sounding suffix attached

So, as you see, the k-word is really like a mother to a big family of swears…

6. And speaking of mothers…

… we turn to another interesting phenomenon. When used in the “hammer-on-finger-swear” sense the k-word is sometimes shouted out in expression “Kurwa mać!”

Now, this is interesting because “mać” is the old Polish word for “mother”. The one we use now, “matka” is really a diminuitive of “mać” (that is “matka” meant “little mother” at first). “Mać” itself is never used as a stand-alone word in modern Polish and some Poles don’t know what it means. The only contexts it is used (that I can think of) are in the expressions “kurwa mać” “kurwa twoja mać” (twoja = your) and “jebana/pierdolona mać” (fucked). That is, profanity is the last hideout of our old word for “mother”.

To illustrate this situation better, let’s make a parallel with English. Some people, I hear, already use the word “mother” as a short form for “motherfucker”. Suppose this catches on, and everybody refers to their mothers as “mom” or “mama” or “ma” only, because they associate “mother” with swearing. That’s sort of what we have here. Since ages.

7. The regional context or how to define Central Europe

One last thing I wanted to tell about the k-word is that it is very cosmopolitan. It’s not only us who have it and use it. Allowing for minimal variation in orthography, pronunciation and usage you can find it in (at least): Czech, Slovak, Lithuanian, Latvian, Yiddish, Hungarian, Serbo-Croat, Romanian, Albanian, Bulgarian and western dialects of Ukrainian (some info firsthand, some from online sources, mistakes may happen).

Now, come to think of it, in my part of the world we constantly argue about the geographical definitions of Central and Eastern Europe (we want to belong to the former so hard). Drawing boundaries of territories where the k-words flows from mouths would result in the Central Europe as we would like to see it – with us and everybody around, but Germans and Russians not invited.

So, I hereby submit my proposal for a new regional organisation/talk format: the Kurvopean Union.