Monday, November 06, 2006

Part Deux: Swearing in Alien Tongues

Is everything okay?

An innocuous question; one posed daily, if not hourly in our society. Yet several years ago, answering that question almost put a friend of mine in the midst of a full-blown melee.

You see, he was in a restaurant in a foreign country and was asked by the restaurant owner (via an interpreter) if “…everything (meal, wine, service) was okay.”

Not being fluent in the local language, my friend responded by making the good ol' American 'okay' sign: his thumb and index finger forming a circle, the other three fingers extended.

As the proprietor bellowed and tables almost overturned, my friend realized he'd evidently made a big mistake. He had. In his present locale, that hand gesture was synonymous for a lower body orifice, and not a pleasant orifice at that.

For all intents and purposes, he'd just called his host an…well, you know what he'd called him.

When I write my science fiction romance novels, I think about things like that. Not lower body orifices, mind you. I think about what we in this country, on the planet, deem as insulting. And how that might translate to the culture I've built for my novels.

The first lesson I've learned from the above example is that profanity is not planet-wide. What's okay in America may well be a reason to riot in Rio. Though admittedly, it was what the gesture stood for, and not the gesture itself, that was found so offensive.

Which brings me to the question I always ask myself when I'm world building: Self, what would this alien culture find offensive, and why?

It's rather a nice question to ask yourself as well, as you embark on your SF&F world building. Because answering it will make your worlds and your characters that much more complete, that much more alive to your readers.

In general, those that reside on this planet we call Earth find the following categories offensive and fertile fodder for foul language: blaspheming a revered deity, excrement, sexual acts, illegitimacy, body parts relating to excrement and sexual activity, and sexual activity with culturally unacceptable participants, including oneself.

All fairly obvious and self-explanatory to us here on Earth (and if you want to explore the matter further, the tome most oft cited is Geoffrey Hughes' Swearing: A Social History of Foul Language, Oaths and Profanity in English, Penguin USA). But we're not writing about here on Earth. We're writing about Rigel-V and Tatooine and the Skolian Empire and Moabar. Or maybe the Vash Nadah or the Khalar.

So we need to understand what those people in those places value, or don't, in order to understand how they swear.

Couldn't they value the same things we do? Sure. But why stop there? Moreover, why would they value exactly the same things we do? If the fictional culture you're creating is a carbon copy of Freehold, New Jersey set but set on the planet Gryck-2, then, in my humble opinion, you're cheating your readers. People don't read SF because they want to be immersed in the common. They read it to explore the uncommon.

If you read C.J. Cherryh's Chanur series, you'll see that one of the most common insults the feline race known as the Hani has is to call another Hani “an earless bastard.” And it isn't the bastardy that's the serious part of the insult—it’s the earless-ness. Ears, and the adornment of ears, are symbolic of success. (Being owned by cats myself, I can confirm that ears and tails are sources of great pride.)

So what does your fantasy or sci fi culture hold dear, and what do they disdain?

If parentage is taken lightly, then calling someone a bastard will most likely not be effective (this is true of some aboriginal cultures here on this planet). If there are no restrictions on sexual practices or partners, then perhaps your character could start a fistfight by calling the bad guy a monogamist.

How would those who spend their lives in the space lanes—perhaps are even born in space—view those who've never left the planet? “Dirtsuckers” is a term I've used derisively in my books, showing a prejudice by the space-born against the planet-born.

The entire issue of prejudice fueled the culture, and many of the insults, in my Gabriel's Ghost. The Taka are a furred race that, for the most part, work only in the lowest-paying and demeaning jobs. Prejudice against them, by humanoids, is common in the world of Captain Chasidah Bergren and Gabriel Ross Sullivan:

Sully stepped up to the worker. “Pardon, brother. We seek a Takan brother with urgent family news.”

The man barely glanced at Sully as he ran his hand through his thinning hair in an exasperated motion. Chatter still came from the podium speaker.

“What’s that? Hang on, I got some religious guy here needs to find a furry.”

The term 'furry', inoffensive to us, is a slur here.

But the Takas aren't the only species looked down upon in Gabriel's Ghost, as Chaz knows when she's speaking to Captain Philip Guthrie:

[Guthrie]: “No. The Farosians. With a Stolorth Ragkiril. We know that. How you would get involved with them, how you would get involved with that I cannot understand.”

‘That’ meant a Stolorth. A Fleet-issue sentiment of disgust.

As readers of Gabriel's Ghost learn, Stolorths are feared. Takas are simply dismissed as lesser beings. But both are recipients of prejudice, and often out of prejudice are insults born.

Blasphemy is born out of devotion. What gods or goddesses do your characters revere? What edicts has their religion placed on them? Is there a place, like hell, that your characters long to send their enemies? Or, if your characters are star-travelers, is it sufficient simply to sneer, "Oh, go suck dirt!" in order to be insulting?

A caution on using invented words: Oh, grzzbft! tends to sound more comical than threatening to English-acclimated ears. That doesn't mean you can't utilize your alien language in order to create alien profanity. Just try to anchor it to something the reader can identify with—an alien word or concept already used in the story, for example. Or use the 'comparative' method I noted in my previous article on constructing alien languages.

I used both methods in my upcoming Games of Command—which is, by the way, considerably lighter in tone than Gabriel's Ghost—so I wasn't quite as worried about the giggle factor:

She heard the smart click of the cabin door lock recycling. She dove under the desk, fitting her small form into the kneehole, and shoved her com badge down the front of her shirt. If it beeped now, she was toast.

Cabin lights flicked on. Heavy footsteps moved across the carpeted floor as the door swooshed closed.

Damn! Shit! Sonofabitch! Sass ran through every swearword she knew in five languages. Frack! Grenzar! Antz-k’ran! Trock!


“I’d love to launch a raftwide mullytrock, but then we’d have every other damned jockey in straps burning bulkheads. ’Course, that would work too. RaftTraff wouldn’t know which one of us to send the sec tugs after first.”

Mullytrock. Definitely Lady Sass. He remembered Ralland at fourteen getting his mouth washed out with soap for saying that.

Don't ignore the foul-language factor when creating your world. Take some time to see how and why and when we on this planet swear and integrate that knowledge with your alien or fantasy culture. Your readers--and your characters--will thank you. After all, your heroine does need something appropriate to say when she drops a sonic-wrench on her toe.



  1. great site! Thanks for tips I'll use in upcoming writings...

  2. Oh, yes, this is a very important area.

    It's not enough, in SF, to do futurology on the hardware and software -- you also have to do futurology on the "anthropology" -- learn the principles of culture scholars have unconvered for humans and extrapolate (not in a straight line) to non-humans.

    In my Sime~Gen universe, "shen" is a swearword you can't translate into English at all.

    In my Kren Universe (MOLT BROTHER and CITY OF A MILLION LEGENDS) the absolute worst -- never said in polite company -- is "self-expression."

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  3. Anonymous8:40 AM EST

    Holy Grabjfts, Captain!

    Very well-written and thought-provoking. Not that I'll be writing a scifi
    anything, anytime soon.

    It's SO interesting and intriguing to hear how your brain works.

    Interesting...and sometimes very scary. *eg*

    Carla : )