Fuck you, Sir!

Since today seems to be national piss off this guy day, I find myself in the cafeteria downstairs. I need a hotdog. I need the meditative nothingness that comes along with eating bemustarded mystery meat in a crunchy bun.When I am eating a hotdog, I am nothing, I am all, I am One.

I open the door and find myself facing a line of young men. 12:15. Damn. Middle of lunch hour. They are clad in overalls that announce the wearer as a blue-collar worker. No doubt these guys are students at the tech school on the ground floor of the building.

I have no idea what kind of skills are taught by this particular school, but three of its major areas of study must be cursing, spitting, and smoking. Because when I arrive at school in the morning, the area outside is heavy with clusters of their little cliques doing those three things in unrestrained abundance. By the time they leave the area at 8 am or so, the ground can serve as a DNA testing site for future archaeologists.

Brutish cretins though they appear to be, on the whole they seem nice enough and ignore the university students and teachers. But today, they are in close proximity when I will have to speak Czech. Linguistic humiliation is nothing new to me at this point, so that’s no problem. The issue is that they will know or will be reminded that I am not Czech. And then it starts.

The cafeteria guy wears a permasmile and is actually a very friendly chap, standing out from others of his profession as a sort of Gandhi of Czech cashiers. “Hey man!” he says. Then, his English lexicon exhausted, I begin my own modest foray into his language. I order my hotdog and the cafeteria guy dances off to make it. From the line behind me I hear a volley of Czech punctuated by “Hey man, fuck you!” and then a series of giggles. “Fucking…piss man.” I keep a poker face, I know they aren’t speaking to me, they are speaking near me. “Hey, fuck. Fuck. Fuck!”

I apply the words to an imperative context and enjoy an inward laugh.

As a second language Czech speaker, the first words in Czech I picked up were how to get food and alcohol into my body. Then there were numbers, street features, basic verbs, phrases for how to ask for directions, and how to tell a doctor what hurts. And then there were the curses.

Curses are fun to learn because they are usable. They show your (or other’s) dissatisfaction while offering insight into a language’s idiomatic tendencies. The Czechs enjoy vulgarizing genitalia and putting foreign objects in them. Plus curses in a language can also make a native speaker laugh. If I make a mistake in class, I often bust out a “ty vole!” which is a light epithet meant to convey “dude” or “man!”

But a non-native speaker must be careful with his second language’s vulgarities. They mean nothing to him other than the theoretical concept of something bad or naughty. As you know from your language, curses carry with them degrees of profaneness, and this is something a non-native speaker of your language has no grasp on. At the language school where I once taught, I heard a very mild-mannered American moan in a good-natured manner “kurva” (whore) as a humorous exclamation of aggravation. He was obviously joking, but every Czech eye in the room widened and every face got red.

Conversely, if I say “fuck” it doesn’t necessarily bother my students. They know what it means, they understand the various uses and degrees of harshness, but it’s not part of their native language so it doesn’t affect them in the gut. Were I to use the Czech equivalent, there would be a serious risk of highly offending my students.

But when it happens to me, I try not to take it too seriously. I once spent a night around a campfire with a bunch of people speaking English and one hammered Czech guy whose only English resided in the various forms of the word “fuck.” Forms he built entire sentences upon (fucking fucker fucked fuck). Alarming though it may sound, I can’t really blame him. He was put in a scenario where he was frustrated by a lacking ability to communicate. So, ridiculous as it sounds, his only avenue of open communication relied on the word “fuck.” A friend of mine once drank with a Czech guy whose only English word was “Mornin’!” Mind you, not “morning” but rather “mornin’!” as though he was heartily greeting a new day to a friend in Montana.

These guys were just trying to communicate. If I or my friend had spoken any Czech then or those guys had spoken better English, no doubt the depths of their intelligence would have been more vastly explored.

Today, I decide to eat my hotdog on the fly. As I head out, a few more “fucks” spill out here and there. And a round-faced young boy looks at me with genuine pleasure and mumbles “Fuck you, sir.” With a broad smile, I reply, in the spirit of intercultural development and communication, “Well, fuck you too, young man.” They all laugh, but we all know that communication has been achieved.

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