Tuesday, January 11, 2011

> Language > Place - for Thursday 20th January 2011

I Swear
by Matt Potter

I heard people, when I was living in Germany, swearing in English, when they would never swear auf Deutsch.
I once heard a woman when I was living in Hamburg in 2008, in her 50’s or perhaps early 60’s, say “Shit!” as she jumped on a train. Then listening to her conversation soon after, it became quite clear the few words in English she knew and used were all swear words.
Often the first words we learn in new languages are swear words. Sometimes this is amusing. Sometimes it’s not.
Swearing and cursing (are they the same?) hold different places in different languages. It is definitely worse to swear in German, or rather, in German culture, than it is in English-language cultures, in general.
Certainly it’s worse to swear in Germany than it is in Australia.
I swear quite a lot, at times, and often don’t even know I’m doing it. I would talk with Australian friends in Germany and we would be having a normal conversation, and German friends would look at us askance. The swearing peppering our conversation was just normal for us. Others thought we were angry. Or uncouth. Or maybe both.
In some languages swearing is always used when angry. In Australia, and perhaps in other English language cultures, this is not always the case. It would not be that unusual for me to say to an Australian friend – in Australia or in Germany – Can you pass me that shit, please? Which actually means, Can you pass me that thing?
Hence the askance looks.
I actually love using swear words in their proper context. Shit when you are talking about defecating; cock when you talk about penises; fuck when you talk about sex. (Half the Americans have stopped reading by now.) In these examples, you are actually using these words correctly.
(I once went on radio – admittedly community radio, a gay and lesbian cultural show – when I worked in the HIV / AIDS sector in Australia, and without even realising it, talked about fucking while on air. I used it to mean penetrative anal sex, which is the term used in the sector, in brochures, in leaflets, in campaign materials, in advertising, in fact, whenever HIV / AIDS prevention is mentioned. The presenter went white and off-air seconds later, told me I had said fucking on-air. My first thought was “And? …” … and then I realised. And then I thought, well, too fucking bad, if you want to get all prissy about it, good luck to you! No one complained about it later. And the world kept turning.)
And bilingual Germans will quickly tell you that yes, it is worse to swear in German than in English. Saying Schei├čekopf is worse than saying Shithead. Formal politeness is revered in Germany. This stiffness often gets me down. It means nothing – or little – and seems to be just another shield for Germans to hide behind. It’s not really about how others regard you, but instead about not allowing them to get to know you.
What I would really love to do is to take a poll in Germany. Which is worse: Du bist eine alte Fotze? Or, Sie sind eine alte Fotze?
Du bist is the familiar form of you are.
Sie sind is the polite form of you are.
So, if you were talking to an old woman on the street you did not know, you would normally say, Sie sind.
And just so you know, eine alte Fotze means an old cunt.
So which is worse, saying You are an old cunt using the familiar ‘you’ (du) or saying You are an old cunt using the polite ‘you’ (Sie)? Discuss.
(I think you can argue either way.)
Calling someone an old cunt in Australia is offensive too – actually, you can’t say much worse – BUT the word cunt can be used in an affectionate way. “Ah, she can be a bit of a cunt, but she’s okay.” It’s like saying, “He’s an old bastard, but I love him anyway.”
Of course, the circles in which you can say this – and in which it’s taken the right way – are limited. But it is possible.
I once spent thirty minutes of an English lesson teaching the various meanings of the word ‘fuck’. I was teaching Business English to a small work group in Berlin in 2009 – actually, I loathe teaching Business English, as usually it’s just made up on the spot, and so often taught by others who have absolutely no experience in the world beyond studying and teaching – and the youngest and hippest of the group of six men said, when talking about playing hockey, “That was before I fucked up my knee.”
I said, “You used the word fucked.”
The room went silent as the six men looked at me, wondering where I was going with this.
Fuck is a very versatile word, and we use it all the time in English, so let’s talk about how it’s used,” I said.
There may have been some blanched looks, there may have been some glottal gulps, but we talked about it anyway.
And its uses are varied and deep:
* as a verb, and especially as a phrasal verb – I am fucking, I am being fucked, Fuck me!, I’ve just been fucked, we fucked on the bed, I fucked it up, you fucked it up, I’m being fucked over, he’s fucking me over, I’m fucked off, I am so fucked up, Fuck off!
* as a noun – I need a fuck, that fuck was great, he’s a great fuck, he’s a real fucker!
* as an adjective – I’m a fucking arsehole, you’re a fucking arsehole, hand me that fucking thing, it’s a fucking nightmare, you’re a fucking mess, I don’t need that fucking shit, I’m fucked, that’s fucked, we’re all fucked, it’s just fucked, we’re all going to hell in a fucking handbasket!
‘To fuck’ auf Deutsch is ficken. And German-language online profiles will sometimes have the words Fick mich! (Fuck me!) on them, but interestingly, if the person with the profile speaks and writes English – which many, many do – they will usually use fuck and not ficken. There’s something open and gaping and sexy about the ‘u’ sound in fuck that is absent in ficken. ‘U’ sounds more like an orifice.
So, when I am swearing my head off and not even knowing I am doing so, I feel most at home in Australia. And while it is fun to shock Germans with my swearing proficiency, auf Deutsch und auf Englisch – okay, I rarely say cunt, because (1) it really is offensive and (2) I’ve never actually been there – it is nice to be not so soundly, roundly judged for the disgusting words coming out of your mouth.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

> Language > Place - for Saturday 15th January 2011

after this post was created for > Language > Place, I emailed the link ... and was advised that it didn't really fit the criteria, and would I like to write a new post. So I did - it's the post above - which is good because I also got the date of the blog release wrong!
by Matt Potter

I have just started a website. Actually it’s my second. I have three blogs too, though one is not used (I don’t know how to delete it), one is used (though not as a blog blog, but just for story challenges … like this), and the third is lost somewhere, having never really been born. (I abandoned it – not knowing how to delete it – and then set up my first website instead.)
So my past and present are littered with e-detritus. There is a purpose to all those I use, and that is, basically, promoting my own stories.
Although the most recent website, set up in early December 2010, was established to promote the works of other writers. I started it because (1) I was bored and thought it might be fun, (2) I have confidence in my own taste, and (3) I was pissed off with other fiction site editors who give no or almost no feedback when emailing you with the bad news: We can’t use your story. Or We don’t like your story. Or Your story is not for us. Or … well, you know the drill.
So I always give feedback, even about the stories I don’t like or feel are ‘not for us’. Always.
Anyway, it is much more work than I expected but the site has expanded exponentially which, if you knew me in person, you would have expected.
You can find the website by googling Pure Slush or Pure Slush fiction.
The Pure Slush tagline is flash … without the wank. If you don’t know what wank is, in this context, it means crap, or shit, or spin. I get tired of artistic, creative spin, and there does seem to be a lot of it in the flash fiction e-world. (To find out more about wank, once you have googled Pure Slush or Pure Slush fiction, scroll down from About along the top, ’til you get to Slush / Wank and click.)
There seemed to be a frisson of excitement amongst a small, small, small part of the flash fiction e-world which yes, actually was exciting, when the site went up on 6 December 2010, some of it because by stating it was anti-wank, therefore I was also declaring that some of the stuff out there is wank.
Funnily enough, saying that, in fact, is wanky (or full-of-spin) in itself. Saying Pure Slush is anti-spin, is actually a marketing (spin) tool. Which is amusing and in fact, I love multiple layers of meaning, wheels within wheels, spin on spin on spin sort of thing.
So cut to three weeks later and I decide it’s time to expand my e-empire and for Pure Slush to publish e-non-fiction too. So enter Real Time, the non-fiction offshoot. (Go to Pure Slush then click on Real Time.)
I know a lot of people all over the world now, having lived an expat life for the last three northern summers in Berlin, a city full of expats. And it’s so easy keeping in touch with them now via Facebook and emails, and given time zones, Australia is about a third of the world away from the west coast of the U.S., and a third of the world away from Europe. It works well.
So I have asked a slew of people to write non-fiction pieces for Pure Slush, and everyone has said yes so far. Who would say no, it’s so intensely flattering?! I know this when I ask people, and they probably know this too but it’s fun and it’s win – win and we all walk away (or turn our computers off) happy, egos stroked.
I have a tendency to remember people’s own stories – the quirky, the intimate, the sexy, the sad (which is flattering in itself) – so e-approaching people to write their own stories is a cert.
Here are some of the ideas I have proposed. I asked:
a friend of Austrian-German parentage who was born in British Columbia to write about being educated in a French-language school as a child.
a friend to write about the differing cultural experiences of having been married to an Italian woman (his ex-wife) and an American (his wife).
another friend to write about the English books she was given as a child, while growing up in East Germany, by the American husband of a West German relative.
and then to write about moving to Sheffield, England … and then again about observing the differing experiences of her new step-children, growing up in northern England compared to East Germany … and yet again about showing them Berlin. (Phew! She is busy!)
an acquaintance to write about being a bilingual comic – can you tell the same joke the same way in different languages, and expect or get the same reaction?
a writer already on the site, to write about why he left the States to live in Mexico … and what keeps him there.
and another writer already on the site re the same, except she lives in Canada.
an opera singer friend to write about performing in small German opera companies, and how does that compare to … well, anything.
a translator / interpreter / sub-titler friend to write about her job, particularly when dealing with legal bureaucracies: she has a great story about Swedish campers and an African who was knifed.
an Italian friend to write about being a renegade woman of a certain social standing living in Italy … or about the relationship she has to the US mid-West, years ago when she first went there as an exchange student, and recently, when she returned again, this time for a funeral.
I am still thinking of new non-fiction ideas, and digging friends up … so, if you are a friend of mine (or can pass for one) and have a multilingual / multicultural story to tell that is quite possibly amusing, revealing or both, email me at edpureslush@live.com.au … and let me know.