Profanity and Hilarity: Crossing the Line

Saturday, January 5, 2008 at 10:08 pm 6 comments

Rikker’s post about the etymology of ทุเรศ reminded me of a phenomenon that all speakers of foreign languages should understand.

Foreigners cannot use profanity and nasty phrases to the same effect as natives. Attempting to do so only makes them look silly.

Most everybody can remember an event from back home where an irate foreigner started dropping the f-bomb or making up profane phrases on the spot. I think it’s fair to say that any time this happens, it’s pretty darn funny. And of course, when the foreigner realizes that people are laughing at him, then he will be angrier still. Recently, I watched Harold & Kumar Go to Whitecastle (I am not lazy: the ampersand is really part of the title). Harold has a slight accent while Kumar sounds native. The filmmakers clearly use Harold’s profanity for comedic effect. Another example from Hollywood is The Big Lebowski in the scenes where the nihilists use profanity to sound tough but only make us laugh.

The practical lesson here: if you are a foreigner somewhere and you become upset, do not resort to the dirty words you learned in your first six weeks here. It’s counterproductive. You want to raise your voice? Fine. You want to say something socially unacceptable? No problem. But if you use profanity, then you become a clown and that will not help you at all. You must learn that effective communication in a foreign language means profanity is off-limits.

Where is the boundary of counter-productiveness which we must not cross? Certainly, it depends on the country and culture. In Thailand, simply having the wrong color skin is enough, even with perfect pronunciation. In the United States, skin color isn’t important (native-born Americans are all colors already), but accent is.

For foreigners in Thailand, I believe that the word ทุเรศ represents the borderline of what foreigners can get away with without sounding silly to Thais. If you say ทุเรศ, you mean business, and it just barely cancels out the clown factor. Words stronger than ทุเรศ are out of reach, since the clown factor dominates over the word’s meaning. A rule of thumb: borderline words are words which parents discourage their small children (under age six) from use. โง่ is another borderline word. ไอ้บ้า ผัว เมีย กวนตีน ห่วย and all the words more profane than these are inaccessible to foreigners wishing to communicate effectively.

Entry filed under: Nailing Thai. Tags: .

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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Zackxx  |  Wednesday, September 10, 2008 at 5:29 pm

    Agree totally! Telling jokes and swearing in another language is a thin red line.

    Living in Thailand I often ask about Thai swear words more so to understand what is being said around me rather than to actually use the word myself ;). The response is often cautious preferring farang to remain ignorant of such words whilst they themselves are quite happy to use English profanity they pick up from film, song and written media. Double standards?

    Reply
  • 2. Jason  |  Wednesday, September 10, 2008 at 7:10 pm

    Hi, Zackxx. I’m glad you agree. Yes, there is a double standard in every culture and every language. Foreigners simply can never use the full expressive range of the language because the really mean stuff just sounds silly.

    Reply
  • 3. zackxx  |  Friday, October 17, 2008 at 11:32 pm

    If as you suggest “words stronger than ทุเรศ are out of reach” for farang then what do you think crosses the line for Thai: ‘shit’?

    Check out the profanity and hilarity in both languages in this vid:

    Thai Alphabet ( ก เอ๋ย ก ไก่ )

    Reply
  • 4. AlbinoAsian  |  Tuesday, February 3, 2009 at 1:34 am

    hey mate,
    I don’t like it at all when Thai’s try their hand at English profanity… I don’t really like it much when native speakers do that either.

    I have lived in Thailand for 4 years, and my formal Thai training in the Thai language, I would never call someone else โง่ but I have called myself that when I’ve done something stupid. Also have joked about too late becoming ทุเรศ but the others you mentioned I wouldn’t go near, I don’t think I understand their conotations plus I try not to get into gutter speak

    Thanks for your great blog by the way

    Reply
  • 5. Andrea Eickelmann  |  Tuesday, August 16, 2011 at 2:51 am

    I understand what you are saying and generally agree but looking at the words you list at the end I see some words that are actually quite common to me. Maybe its because my peer group is much younger because words like ไอ้บ้า & กวนตีน are thrown around quite casually with my friends. Obviously I understand their appropriateness is dictated by my social ties to those around me and I think that is something important to include in your post. There are a lot words in Thai that when used with people not in your friends circle are most definitely insults and should not be said. But when used between friends actually denote how a certain level of familiarity and friendship. I bring this up because classifying these words as only profanity does a disservice to people who learn Thai and have friends that are Thai because it could very well cause them to mistake a friendly use of an otherwise profane words as an insult.

    Also I would add another reason as to why foreigners should not use profanity list. This is because foreigners can rarely understand the true impact of profanity in another language since they don’t have the cultural background to understand how insulting or hurtful it actually is. It is similar to when you hear Thai people use the word nigger and you (if you are American) cringe and sometimes might feel offended. Thai people only see that word as descriptor of black people, they don’t understand the social context that makes it such a negative in English, thus they say it with impunity. I have met foreigners who do the same thing with different Thai words and never truly realize how offensive they are actually being because they have no social context. Therefore it better in general to just not use them.

    Reply
  • 6. tzthib  |  Tuesday, April 17, 2012 at 9:05 pm

    Sorry to resurrect an old discussion, but I have been thinking about this some lately, so I quite pleased I happened here by accident. Can anyone say serendipitous in Thai?

    I do not subscribe to this whole “a farang can never know Thainess” philosophy, which I believe is what everyone here seems to be proposing; albeit in a slightly modified version. So, because I wasn’t born here I am somehow incapable of understanding the nuances of a word like กวนตีน ? Poppycock! Sure, these words may be more socially complex than average, but I think we are doing our language abilities a disservice by arbitrarily placing boundaries on what we can and cannot learn. Besides, don’t we all strive to master not only the language but the social contexts in which it exists?

    Of course, one should use extreme caution when using swears. The words are complex and it is almost always in poor taste. Plus, learning course language just because we can seems a tad sophomoric. But these words are part of Thai, and I hope to one day not only speak Thai like a native but understand all the nuances that come with the language. Perhaps I will never get there, but I am certain I never will if I mark a sizable portion of the language off as “too complex for a simple white boy like myself”.

    Just my two cents; probably less.

    Reply

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