Language Unbleached: Talking Shit

You're Screwed, or Are You?

Languages are not all that friendly. They're coarse, they're mean, they're gross, and (worst of all) they're fluid. Schools, on the other hand, strive to be none of those things. They're refined, they're kind, they're formal, and (worst of all) they're stagnant. In the field of foreign-language learning, most people complain about schools' formality. Linguists have known since Chomsky that we don't learn our first language by being taught grammar explicitly. SLA research since then has shown that we don't seem to learn foreign languages that way, either. So, what gives? More importantly, what needs to give?

This blog will be full of info on where and how schools, language centers, and the like drop the ball, so what gives is coming piece by piece.

What needs to give, though, is your attitude, and it needs to give in at least two areas.

"What a misfortune it is
that we should […] let
our boys’ schooling
interfere with their education!"
-- Grant Allen
(You were probably taught
in school that it was Twain.)
First, you need to abandon all faith in schools' teaching you most of what you need to know about languages. Schools are great for learning formal procedures, and they're designed to help people be "good citizens." The problem is that natural languages are not formal procedures. They aren't Markov chains. They aren't "sentence patterns." They aren't syntax trees. They're not what makes it into dictionaries or grammar books. What's even worse is this: Languages give two shits about "good citizenship." Languages belong to everyone, even drifters, criminals, and assholes. Schools often pretend that what you speak "out there" should not be what they teach "in here." And, unless schools break free from these biases (they won't), they will only give you as much language as their "educational culture" allows. Maybe you'll become fluent and comprehensible, but you're going to sound foreign and robotic as fuck.

Second, you need to branch out beyond your comfort zone. Learners often hear this and think only of a language's complexity. Being comfortable with reading or hearing longer sentences with rarer words is a worthwhile skill. However, it risks becoming a comfort zone, but one of kind instead of degree. News reporters speak like news reporters. Novelists write like novelists. But, you probably don't want to speak like a news reporter or write like a novelist. Chances are that you just want to be yourself, just in the other language. And, if you've ever struggled to express your true feelings or reactions in a foreign language, you understand that this discomfort is one of kind, not degree. Unless you want to be the "good citizen" as schools have defined that for you, you're going to have to be yourself elsewhere.

You'll have to make friends in places you never thought you'd go. You'll have to be "the foreigner" in the crowd. You'll have to have to risk pissing people off.

Classes only train you in aspects of languages that avoid doing these things, because "educational culture" aims to be inclusive and politically correct. Thus, schools are prescriptive in the semantics that they teach. Also, schools must appeal to a standard to grade work, and that makes them prescriptive in the syntax rules that they teach. And that prescriptivism means that you won't learn some key parts of speaking natively in any classroom. I am going to focus on three: talking shit (insulting speech), talking dirty (sexual speech), and talking street (up-to-date slang). Since Fantasdeck is not a school, but an avenue to learn all of a language, not just the whitewashed bits that schools are willing to teach, I'll light a path for you that most teachers never will.

What's the value in talking shit?

Do you love everyone? Do you go out of your way to make sure all of your words are kind and sweet? Or, are you a normal, sometimes insensitive, human being?

The truth is that most people feel hate, if not for whom people are, then at least for what they do. Insulting people for what you perceive as bad about them is not bad in itself. The world is full of backstabbers, gold-diggers, pricks, cunts, wannabes, pity whores, and fags. But, many of these words have dimensions that most translation dictionaries will not teach you.

A 2001 interview with Eminem summarizes this point nicely:
NYRock: There has been much controversy over your liberal use of the word faggot and what people perceive as gay bashing. It's put you right in the line of fire from gay and lesbian groups the world over.
Eminem: I'm not gay bashing. People just don't understand where I come from. Faggot to me doesn't necessarily mean gay people. Faggot to me just means [something like] taking away your manhood. You're a sissy. You're a coward. Just like you might sit around in your living room and say, "Dude, stop, you're being a fag, dude."
NYRock: But you can see how it would insult homosexuals?
Eminem: Yeah, but it does not necessarily mean you're being a gay person. It just means you're being a fag. You're being an asshole or whatever. That's the way that the word was always taught to me. That's how I learned the word. Battling with somebody, you do anything you can to strip their manhood away.
And he's right. Homosexual epithets are used among straight males in the US to emasculate them. It does not directly indicate straight males' views on homosexuality. Also, calling something "gay" does not imply that it's homosexual in character. Rather, it just means that it's inferior in some way.

These subtle senses and uses take time and exposure to really use "appropriately." For instance, it makes no sense to call women fags in the above sense, because women are not expected to be masculine in the first place.

"Everything looks good,
but her face." Get it?
An even bigger mistake would be to attempt a direct translation from your native language to the target language in these cases. If a Chinese speaker of English calls a woman a "rear-view killer" (背影殺手), that will mean nothing to a native English speaker. We use the word butterface to refer to such women.

Or, if you want to say in Chinese that a plan or idea "sucks ass," Chinese speakers will be both puzzled and disgusted by the response, "我覺得會吸肛門." That means, "I feel I will suck some ass." And I know this, because I've texted this to a girlfriend.

But, what if I'm a saint?

Perhaps you never will be talking shit about people; but, that doesn't mean that people won't be talking shit about you. Learning the ways in which people can be rude with their words is also a matter of defense.

Bigots and racists are real, and they're all over the world. So, failing to learn this aspect of language is no better than burying one's head in the sand. Sure, there's a brief comfort in not understanding that someone thinks less of you, but there's much less comfort in trusting in or relying on those who do. Without covering this aspect of whatever language you study, natives of your target language may feel free to speak ill of you. So, if you plan on using the language you learn with native speakers, you owe it to yourself to catch and call out those who would try to give you a bad rep.

Where can I start my trash-talking journey? 

Diss Tracks (Rap Music)

As I've hinted above, we can start with a thank-you to the United States' entertainment industry, since it has exported the rap genre to the whole world. That means that there are rap albums available in every major language.

As well as being a good source of slang in general, rap music also offers plenty in what are known as "beefs." A beef is a public grudge, and rappers can't seem not to step on each other's toes. What results is mud-slinging to a beat, diss tracks.

Finding these tracks will take some research. But, once you find them, take them in and spot how rappers craft their insults. You'll often find some common themes, even common morphemes, and they provide a template for how to construct slurs in the target language.

Films Featuring Criminals

The more, the better! When writers write dialogue for criminals, they often make sure to display how crude and harsh they can be to each other. A natural result of this is a wealth of hateful speech, or even outright hate speech.

If you know of such films in your native tongue, you may be able to find those same films with translated subtitles. However, I would recommend that you not use them to learn this kind of language. The issue is that there is rarely a good correspondence of epithets between languages, and translators, pressed for time, usually just pluck one that is close enough to match a general mood. Translators are not racking their brains trying to render the word asshat perfectly into Russian or Swedish. They have deadlines. Instead, let native writers show their prowess for shit-talking, and work out meanings from contexts that way.

Forums and BBS's

The trolls, feed them!
They're basically
free insult machines.
While many of the insults that you will read on forums will apply mainly to disliked elements in the online community, much of this language can extend to the offline world, too. The goal here, though, is not to follow forums on topics that you like. You'll be better off finding those sites where folks are free to be less than kind, and where clever insults win you respect, so think 4Chan and FYAD.

Social media boards that deal in controversy are also a good source of put-downs. And, if you venture into politics or public policy, you'll learn a good bit about the divides in those landscapes at the same time. So, don't be afraid to say something unpopular. Good or bad, you'll be getting useful language; and, in the end, that's what you're there for.


Chinglish Explained: Yang Jia Cheng's
"Chinglish (中式英語)"

First, Mr. Yang's Two Cents; Then, Mine

What Is Chinglish?

Basically, any non-standard language that comes from foreign influences wins its own portmanteau. English speakers name theirs by mashing each first syllable of the foreign language into -nglish for its second. So English names Spanglish, Franglish, etc. For short, I'll just call them glishes. These refer either to a foreign language that English has influenced or to English that a foreign language has influenced. This post is about the latter, English that Chinese has influenced.

These latter glishes usually have to show that English is not the glish speaker's native language. A glish can't just be English plus some loanwords or code-switching. Foreign phonemes, morphemes, lexemes, and syntax all have to be there. A lot of foreign-language natives also have to make the same kinds of "errors" when attempting to comprehend or use English.

The word "errors" above belong in quotation marks. "As long as people can understand what the hell you're saying, then […] it's good English." In fancier terms, Mr. Yang defends linguistic descriptivism over prescriptivism. The difference? If an utterance doesn't fit an English description, English natives won't be able to recognize it as English. If, however, an utterance doesn't fit an English prescription, snooty English natives won't be willing to recognize it as English. Now, there are reasons to care about prescriptions. Sometimes we have to fit in with the snoots or produce clearer utterances. Mr. Yang's point, however, is that most foreign English speakers don't.

You can explain some Chinglish give me?

Mr. Yang's snapshot of Chinglish lightly pokes at Chinese English learners' failed acquisition of some standard English phonology and syntax. However, he funnily treats Chinglish as an argot which native English speakers can learn. What's interesting, however, is not that they "go wrong," but where specifically they "go wrong."

Chinglish Phonology:

How Mr. Yang puts it:
  • "Lesson 1: Pronounce every word extra clearly and with a weird tone."
How a phonologist might put it:
  • "Lesson 1.1: Speak English words by vocalizing all stop consonants if they are written in the language's orthography."
  • "Lesson 1.2: Break the final coda from the English word, and then add /ɤ/ to the dangling onset, or remove the dangling onset, whichever matches a Mandarin syllable more closely."
The results?
  • First, pronounced /ˈfɜrs⟨t⟩/ in English, becomes /ˈfɜrsɤˈtʰɤ/ in Chinglish;
  • Yes, pronounced /ˈyɛs/ in English, becomes /yɛˈsɤ/ in Chinglish; and
  • Right, pronounced /ˈraɪ⟨t⟩/ in English, becomes /ˈraɪ˧˥/ in Chinglish.
How Mr. Yang puts it:
  • "Lesson 2: Randomly put letters in words."
    • "We never pronounce the ⟨th⟩."
How a phonologist might put it:
  • "Lesson 2.1: If a consonant immediately precedes /i/ in the final syllable, replace it with /eɪ/."
  • "Lesson 2.2: Replace /ɪ/ with /eɪ/."
  • "Lesson 2.3: Replace /θ/ with /s/."
  • "Lesson 2.4: Replace /ʌn/ with /əŋ/."
  • "Lesson 2.5: Replace /mɪ/ with /mi/."
The results?
  • Sorry, pronounced /ˈsɒri/ in English, becomes /ˈsɒreɪ/ in Chinglish;
  • Lonely, pronounced /ˈloʊnli/ in English, becomes /ˈloʊnleɪ/ in Chinglish;
  • Carefully, pronounced /ˌkɛərfəˈli/ in English, becomes /ˌkɛərfəˈleɪ/ in Chinglish;
  • Ugly, pronounced /ˈʌgli/ in English, becomes /ˈʌgɤˈleɪ/ in Chinglish;
  • Fish, pronounced /fɪʃ/ in English, becomes /feɪʃ/ in Chinglish;
  • Something, pronounced /ˈsʌmˌθɪŋ/ in English, becomes /ˈsʌmˌsɪŋ/ in Chinglish;
  • Monday, pronounced /ˈmʌndeɪ/ in English, becomes /ˈməŋdeɪ/ in Chinglish; and
  • Miss, pronounced /mɪs/ in English, becomes /mis/ in Chinglish.
This is just a partial list of the rules that Mr. Yang is following. However, explaining it in full will have to wait for another day.

Chinglish Syntax:

Mr. Yang's Chinglish syntax lesson calls on us to "speak English with Chinese grammar." He then provides examples of common word-for-word Chinese-to-English translations.

In some cases, Mr. Yang is actually pointing out how foreign-language learners assume that ellipsis works the same way across languages, so they translate the Chinese sentence before inserting the words that English natives would not have removed:

Example 1:
  • 怎麼說?
    → How to say?
Now let's show what the ellipsis cut out and see what we get when we translate it:
  • 【你】怎麼說【‘X’這個字】?
    :: How do [you] say [this (i.e. that) word 'X']?
    → How do you say that?
    (Note: The English auxiliary do has no exact match in Mandarin, so is highlighted above.)
Example 2:
  • 我很喜歡。
    → I very like.
  • 我很喜歡【它】。
    :: I very much like [it].
    → I like it very much.

    (Note: '很' can translate to 'very' and 'very much'. Also, when it refers to a situation or is a dummy pronoun, to insert a pronoun '它' would be a symptom of Westernized Chinese [歐化中文].)
Example 3:

  • 你壞壞!
    → You bad bad!
  • 你壞壞!
    :: You are (i.e. so) bad!
    → You're so bad!

    (Note: Reduplications of Chinese "stative" verbs can intensify them, similarly to how English does with the intensifier 'so' in adjective phrases.)
Sometimes, Chinese speakers simply translate terms wrongly, as in this example:
  • 我想跟你在一起。
    → I want to hang out together with you.

    → I want to play together with you.
    (Note: This may be the result of confusing two senses of '廝混', one meaning 'hang out', and another meaning 'play around' in a more flirtatious or sexual context.)
And, in some cases, Chinese natives receive standard English input. Then, they translate that English into their native Chinese. Finally, they try to translate that Chinese back into English. But, since Chinese and English indicate mood, tense, and aspect very differently, English verb conjugation often doesn't make the trip:
  • I have already eaten.
    → 我已經吃過了。
  • 我已經吃過了。
    → I already eat. / I eat already.
  • I already went there.
    → 我已經去那邊。
  • 我已經去那邊。
    → I already go there. / I go there already.
  • I had already met her.
    → 我已經見過她。
  • 我已經見過她。
    → I already meet her. / I meet her already.

What's Mr. Yang's beef with drilling vocabulary?

Were I a Chinese English student,
my first wish would be
for the sweet release of death!
He's telling it like it is: Vocabulary drilling is a waste of time, especially how Chinese English students do it. Their first move is to buy mini translation dictionaries known as "word books" (單子書). Next, they drill each page for a few minutes, turn the page, and lose whatever they learned the page before. It's a cramming method, and cramming methods don't lead to acquisition.

These books are not made to be read, anyway. Rather, they're made to be made to be read. The purpose of word books is to pass blame from teachers to students. Instead of language teachers' actually giving their students broader, firmer comprehension of fewer English terms, they force them to buy these mini-dictionaries and read them like chapter books. This allows Chinese teachers to "test" their students' vocabulary retention each week. But, what about three weeks from that test date? Their answer: "Who cares?" If a student gets a good grade, the teacher and the student look good. If a student gets a bad grade, though, only the student gets blamed. "He clearly needs to study more from this book." After all, it offers:
  • No spaced repetition, 
  • Hardly any context, 
  • Barely enough word senses, and 
  • No sense of pacing.
Clearly, the student must be at fault…

Mr. Yang and I agree on this point: Honing all of one's efforts on any one aspect of a language will come at the cost of not attending to others. A sane language-learning method should engage as many aspects as it can at once, but not force you to cram any one aspect in its entirety. Like swimming, the coordination of parts from shallow to deeper waters is the best course I know around the Chinglish Channel.