Why Japanese has so few swear words

In my last year at Montana State University, I had an open space in my schedule, and decided to fill it with something that had always interested me but had nothing to do with my chosen major: the Japanese language. This spur-of-the-moment choice resulted in a year of study in Japan, a further year of work as English teacher there, and a continuing fascination with the language (even as my skills atrophy with disuse.) One thing stood out to me in my studies, and I intend to explore it here.

I’m sure that people who study English as a second language are impressed with the florid variety of swear words available. I will refrain from recounting any here, but I’m sure the reader can think of dozens of examples without much effort. Young people garnish their conversations with them, popular movies are filled with them, and skilled use of them can propel someone to a position of prominence among friends. Mastery of swear words is a vital prerequisite to a true mastery of English.

I was surprised, therefore, to learn that there are very few comparable swear words in Japanese. Further, what few swear words exist are mild enough to be said frequently in children’s cartoons. The best example, and one with which students of Japanese are probably familiar, is くそ(kuso), meaning roughly “poop.”

Why so few swear words (especially considering that the similar language Korean is peppered with them)? Allow me the attempt to take you through my theory on the matter.

One thing students of Japanese notice early is the language’s many politeness levels. When speaking to someone unfamiliar, or to someone higher on the strictly regimented social scale, one must speak polite Japanese. Speaking plain, casual Japanese in such a situation would be taken as an insult. When speaking to close friends or family, one must speak casual Japanese. In fact, if the conversation partner is very close, polite Japanese may be seen as an insult, or at least as rather silly.

What cleared up the swear word question for me was the realization that such politeness levels are not unique to Japanese. English has them too, though they may be more subtle. Almost no one speaks to a person they have just met, particularly an older person, or a boss or political leader, the sme way they speak to close friends. And therein lies the explanation.

When speaking to close friends in English, especially among young people, profanity is not uncommon. Use of profanity by close friends is often a way of cementing bonds, of establishing the comfort people within an in-group feel with each other. In this sense, profanity is an important part of casual English.

Japanese does not need elaborate profanity, because its regimented politeness levels provide a casual vernacular for closely-knit in groups to use. English has no such politeness levels, and so profanity provides one way for in groups to express their familiarity.

Finally, this idea raises an interesting question. Many older Japanese people complain that young people are forgetting the traditional ways, and among them the most polite forms of speech. As these forms of speech are forgotten, and the differences between polite and casual Japanese fade, will stronger forms of profanity evolve to fill the void? Time will tell.

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6 Responses to “Why Japanese has so few swear words”

  1. mitchell joshua francia Says:

    i think this was a good speech / rant and i think what u have wrote is interesting but i have 1 question for you …….. see im learning japanese and all the words im learning are formal and polite is this a good think to talk to all ppl except to friends and family fomral/politely all the time ? please email me at : southparkx@live.com.au again good speech/rant !!!

  2. Maureen Says:

    As with Korean and Japanese, they are the same language base. The problem with your reasoning is that Korean, like Japanese, has different politeness levels. You are also incorrect – Japanese has many swear words but they aren’t generally published or substituted in English-based movies.

  3. Teruhisa Arai Says:

    To develop comfortable relationships with friends, peers, and even subordinates, it is very important to learn casual speech as well. Many Japanese learners mistake appropriate casual speech for insulting or profane speech, and resort to all-formal-all-the-time. But there are countless daily situations, especially within families, among close coworkers, or teaching kids, in which casual speech is preferred. Also, even in formal speech, verbs within a sentence often maintain the casual “dictionary form,” whereas the formality of the concluding verb at the end of the sentence actually sets the tone of the whole sentence.

    Example with three verbs: I *like* to *sit* at the bar and *eat* sushi is “Baa de suwatte, o-sushi wo taberu koto ga suki desu.” Suwatte is the “te form” which is acting like a gerund here, and in another context is used as an informal command; taberu is the casual or dictionary form of the verb to eat; and desu is the polite copula that sets the tone of the sentence as mildly formal.

    They always say it’s safe to stick with polite forms first, but the best way to develop natural Japanese is to carefully observe the specific social contexts in which polite (with out-group or to a “superior”) and casual (with in-group or to an “inferior”) speech are each used.

  4. soulbiscuit Says:

    The problem with your reasoning is that Korean, like Japanese, has different politeness levels.

    Did you read my post? A central part of my argument is not only that Japanese does have politeness levels, but that English does as well. I claim that, as politeness levels in Japanese are more explicitly defined than in English, Japanese speakers do not require as elaborate profanity as English speakers to form bonds of familiarity.

    You are also incorrect – Japanese has many swear words but they aren’t generally published or substituted in English-based movies.

    Further evidence that you did not actually read my argument. I mentioned quite clearly that Japanese does have swear words, but that these are milder than those in English.

    For example, shouting このやろう! (“kono yarou”) to a Japanese person may be as offensive as “You dirty mother trucker” (use your imagination) to an English speaker, despite the fact that the former means little more than “You jerk!”

  5. Japanese curse words | People, Fun and Other Cool Stuff Says:

    […] Why Japanese has so few swear words « Allusions of Grandeur […]

  6. caster Says:

    it is because of rational ^^
    http://www.nihonkogaku.com/content/report.cgi?co=42

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