A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, October 1, 2012

Profanities on Turkish Language Institute Site?

Hurriyet Daily News had a piece over the weekend, translated I presume from the Turkish original, lamenting (or perhaps sensationalizing?) the fact that "Profanities [are] Listed as Idioms on Turkish Institute's Website." It seems the Turkish Language Institute (TDK in its Turkish acronym) website has a section on "Proverbs and Idioms" which includes profanities. According to the paper (all asterisks and other censorship are theirs, not mine):
Numerous swearwords and slang terms have been listed in the "idioms and proverbs" dictionary on the Turkish Language Institute's (TDK) official website, daily Hürriyet reported today.

The institute spelled out uncensored versions of numerous profanities on its website – which is frequented by grown-ups and children alike – providing definitions for the slang terms under the category of "idioms."

Two expressions on the website casually featured the "F-word" without any warning to visitors on the nature of the foul language. The slang terms "F*** it" and "to get the f*** out of somewhere" were listed as idioms and were given explanations on their meanings.

One proverb on the website also contained strong language, reading, "One does not go into the bridal chamber with a stranger's d**k," which meant, "One should not make future plans trusting the resources of others," according to the TDK.
I must remember that last one, but seriously: "grown-ups and children alike" frequent the TDK website?  A national language institute? Kids that precocious probably already know all the words. My seventh-grader assures me Middle Schoolers are pretty profane these days.

Although I speak no Turkish at all, it would still have been interesting to have a link. The TDK main website is here, but my lack of the language keeps me from finding the (allegedly) offending page (assuming it's still there). If a Turkish-speaking reader wants to post a link in the comments, please do. [UPDATE: Commenter "benedict" has kindly posted, in the interests of scholarship, the (un-asterisked) Turkish from the TDK site in a comment below.]

Without knowing more about the TDK website, I have no idea how much this is or is not news. I'm reminded of the old story of the lady who complimented Dr. Samuel Johnson on the absence of "bad words" in his dictionary; Dr. Johnson responded that she must have spent a great deal of time looking for them. If the profanities page is one of only a few dozen on the TDK site, that's one thing; if it's one of hundreds, Hurriyet must have spent a great deal of time, or else Googled for them.

First, profanities are idioms. In many languages they are among the most frequently used idioms. Since I don't know Turkish I can't comment, but Arabic is quite rich in profanity, both classical and colloquial; Persian I know only slightly but it can hold its own. Hebrew was ill-served in this regard by the creator of the reborn tongue, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, but has made up for it by re-purposing some Classical Hebrew (Amos Oz has a wonderful tale of Menahem Begin and the old and new meanings of lezayen which I'll tell someday if I get up the courage), plus adopting profanities as required from Arabic (which has many), Yiddish (also well-supplied), and in recent decades Russian, which I am told may lead the world in this area.

There are questions about whether language students should learn the profanities, cusswords, and obscenities. My own feeling is they shouldn't use them — understanding the exact linguistic register of a bad word takes a long time to learn, and if you misjudge it you can get yourself knifed — but it does help to know when you're being insulted. (This question of linguistic register is an interesting one: in a post earlier this year on revolutionary graffiti I noted that many of the graffiti used four-letter words in English but that the equivalent (usually three-letter) words in Arabic were less frequent. In many languages words that are taboo in English may be used in mixed company by non-native speakers as the taboo does not carry over.  I'm told that in Quebecois French fucké — which means just what you think it does — is acceptable on broadcast TV, while Tabernak (from "tabernacle") is considered horribly offensive. Blasphemy, you see.

Without having seen the offending "idioms" or knowing Turkish, I don't find a serious scholarly institute of language listing profanities as "idioms" terribly offensive. If you're an outsider learning the language, one can add a warning that the word is vulgar or obscene, but if its existence isn't even recognized, how does the learner know it's even objectionable? Although the traditionally taboo English word "fuck" (which, surprise surprise, is what Hurriyet means by "the F-Word" in case you assumed it was "fish" or "frog" or something) has been in use since Elizabethan times, it disappeared from dictionaries after 1795, appeared only (usually with asterisks) in specialized dictionaries of slang, and though it began to appear in literature frequently after the Ulysses and Lady Chatterley cases in the 50s and 60s, did not reappear in mainstream dictionaries until the late 1960s: in the US, not until the American Heritage Dictionary of 1969, and that itself provoked a firestorm. But how would a foreign learner read the countercultural literature of the 1960s if a frequently used word in that literature was not in the standard dictionaries? (Nor does it usually appear here except in direct quotes, but it seems germane here.) You can euphemize the translation if you like (I've seen "copulate" (vulgar) used in Arabic-English and Persian-English dictionaries for the appropriate — or inappropriate? — words in those languages, which conveys both the meaning and the warning.) Acknowledging that profanity exists does not mean you are encouraging its use. Nor, I suspect, was that the intention of the TDK. Lighten up, Hurriyet.


benedict said...

I completely agree with the assertion that recognising obscenities etc. is an integral part of learning a language.

With the aim of furthering my own education on the topic I managed to locate all three examples cited in the Hurriyet article with a single search on the TDK website. I am pasting them below for interested readers of this blog:

§ el sikiyle gerdeğe girilmez
başkasının olanaklarına güvenip gelecek için girişimler tasarlanmaz.

§ siktir et!
1) “aldırma, önem verme!” anlamında kullanılan bir söz; 2) “kov, defet!” anlamında kullanılan bir söz.

§ siktirip gitmek
başını alıp gitmek.

benedict said...

I also noticed that despite Hurriyet's outrage over rude words in dictionaries, their site currently has a link to the following rather unpleasant story, containing a graphic description of bestiality:


Michael Collins Dunn said...

I'm sure my readers are grateful for your contribution to scholarship.