Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Discussion: Profanity and Censorship in Spec Fic

Nicola over at Alpha Heroes posted I Swear

These are the words that come out of a character's mouth when emotions are at the highest, when the action is peaking.  They can add period authenticity in historicals and subtly reinforce elements of a paranormal world.  In a contemporary, they can serve to peg the character into a class, region, or ethnicity.

Which got me thinking about the issue of profanity in speculative fiction. Made-up swear words aren't just for censorship. Profanity is an important and subtle element of world-building. The very word "profane" means contemptible or vulgar. What is contemptible in this specific society? What is taboo and sacred to these characters? When not handled well, made-up swear words come off looking like gibberish. But when handled properly, it's an insight into the heart and soul of your new world.

(Colorful language below the cut.)

In our world, most swears fall into four categories: scatological (pissed, shit, asshole), sexual (fuck, cunt, wanker), religious (damn, hell, oh my god) or heritage (bastard, son of a bitch, racial slurs).  The specifics vary by culture.  In Quebec, a region with a strongly Catholic history, swear words include "tabernacle" and "baptism".  When Pepe Le Pew exclaims "Sacrebleu!" he's swearing by the sacred blue robes of the Virgin Mary on Saturday morning cartoons.  In America, a country founded by Puritans with a long, bloody history of slavery and lynching, one of the most common swear words is "fuck" and one of the most deeply offensive is "nigger" (as an American, I cringe just typing the word; when my Brazilian immigrant uncle-in-law was first learning the language, he could not comprehend the sheer magnitude of the insult).

You can't transplant swear words wholesale from our world to another.  Words have meanings that derive from a social and historical context.  So if you tell me that your society is entirely sexually liberated and they don't have our world's unhealthy hang-ups and prudishness, then why is "fuck" still a swear word?  That's as logical as me yelling "Eat!" or "Mind your enjoyable business!"  It doesn't work.  The author needs to work out what's sacred and base the profanity around it; readers get to work backwards and use the profanity to figure out the sacred.

Which isn't to say that you can't draw inspiration from modern curse words.  "Fuck" seems particularly prone to being replaced with "fr--".  In Farscape, they say "frell", in Battlestar Galactica it's "frak", in Babylon 5 it's "frag".  All of these are conjugated the same way, like frelling and frakker.  In Red Dwarf they say "smeg", which sounds suspiciously similar to smegma, a personal body fluid, although the creators deny the connection.  But it makes being called a "smeghead" a very offensive occasion indeed.

Starbuck connected to other characters by lines labeled frak
The "Frak Map" from the Battlestar Galactica Wiki shows
the characters' sexual relations

Made-up cuss words should still sound like real cuss words.  There are no hard and fast rules, but here are a few generalities.  Many curse words have harsh consonants like plosives (p, t, k) and fricatives (th, f, the "ch" in Bach).  Many curse words are short, even a single syllable, as in the proverbial four letter word.  Active verbs are popular, especially if they can be combined with objects - fuck you, sod off, dammit.  And above all, swear words need to flow.  They need to leap easily to our lips and fall freely from them.

A common curse is to have the characters swear "by Merlin's this" or "by Torak's that".  There are real world swears along these lines  - "God's wounds" - but by and large it comes off as a clumsy convention, one mocked in Galaxy Quest with the line "by Grabthar's hammer, by the suns of Warvan".  Going back to my previous point, swears should be easy to say.  "God's wounds" was shortened to "Zounds", which reduced it to one syllable and eliminated the three consonants in a row (d-s-w) which slow pronunciation.

Lolcat raising a paw saying By Grabthar's Hammer

Curse words need variety.  In the young adult series Artemis Fowl, there's the all purpose curse "D'Arvit".  That's it; as far as I can tell, the next Gnommish curse word isn't introduced until book 6.  So why is this the only swear word?  Real languages have wide selections of curses for various contexts.  We curse differently when we stub our toe than when we're cut off in traffic, differently when speaking to our spouse than to a coworker.  We don't yell the same word every time.

Swear words should be more than just censorship.  Firefly often cursed in Mandarin Chinese; however, given that they rarely used the language for anything else and that it was near impossible to understand the specific meaning of the various words without translations, it came off as more censorship than world-building.  It's difficult to believe that when two cultures merged, the only remnants of the second language were the curse words.  Firefly also cursed using older English words such as "gorram" as a contraction of "god damn" and "rutting" as a reference to sex, which were much easier to understand from context.

Next week, I'll discuss books that connect profanity and culture.

What do you think?

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