"Hebrew has no swear words":True?

While reading the thread on what “chickenshit” would be in Hebrew, it reminded me of the claim Hebrew has no obscene words. Instead, Hebrew speakers must use Arabic/English/Yiddish to swear. It strikes me as odd that any language more a generation old wouldn’t develop its own native obscenities. So does Hebrew really not have any swear words, or is this just misinformation?

I believe “YHVH” is generally considered a taboo word.

Well most (all?) swear words in most (all?) languages have literal meanings, but become swear words when used in a figurative sense to express annoyance, disgust, contempt, or whatever. In time the literal sense may become secondary, or even disappear.

So the claim that “Hebrew has no swear words” would mean that Hebrew speakers who wish to use words figuratively to express annoyance, etc, either switch to other languages or borrow words from other languages.

There could be a degree of truth in it, in that Hebrew was for a long time a liturgical/scholarly language used in contexts in which the need for swearing didn’t often arise, and all Hebrew speakers were (at least) bilingual and had a non-Hebrew linguistic corpus on which they could call to express their more vehement opinions. But now that Hebrew has been a vernacular language for a couple of generations, and the vernacular first language of a fair number of people, I’d be very surprising if some Hebrew swear words hadn’t developed. But the non-swearing sense of those words might not have disappeared yet.

I’d have to say this site shows that Hebrew does have swear words. I found it with a quick web search.

Modern Israeli Hebrew, which I don’t speak, but which I’m a little bit familiar with, because several relatives speak it, is not like French, in that every new concept must have a fully Hebraic word. When Hebrew became a modern language abruptly in 1948, new things that have been invented, concepts that had been developed, etc., since the last time people spoke Hebrew as a daily language, were filled in with other-language loan words. A lot of them are English, many are Yiddish, some are Russian, some are German, and Hebrew has continued to use loan words, although sometimes old words develop new connotations-- but the the word for “telephone” is, well, “tele-FON,” which is also pretty much the same word all over Europe (and much of Asia, I’d wager). And by the way “telephone” is not a Greek word. A German named Johann Philipp Reis coined it in 1861, for an impractical device that could transmit indistinct sounds, and which Alexander Graham Bell vastly improved, and retained Reis’ term.

If enough Hebrew speakers consistently use the same word the same way across situations, and everyone understands it, then it is a Hebrew word. Does anyone want to argue that “cherub” isn’t an English word? It’s a word of Hebrew origin, but it’s firmly entrenched in English (also, pronounced nothing like the way it’s pronounced in English). Are shlock, shtick, klutz, nosh and bagel in any way not English words because they are also Yiddish words?

If Hebrew speakers commonly use shtup, drek, shmuck, fuck, shit, and “piss off,” to the point that everyone know what they mean, then they are Hebrew words.

On the other hand, if adults use them so children won’t know what they are saying, that’s another thing. It may be that adults consistently switched languages to swear for this reason, and since Israel is a country of polyglots, something like this is going on, and it has slowed the development of native swear words, but I doubt it. It would probably just encourage children to make up their own swear words, so that within a generation, there would be indigenous swear words. If Yiddish and English words are being used, then they are probably loan words.

This sounds like arguing that Latin has no swear words because you when you switch to Latin it magically stops being a swear word. Somebody just called you a fucking shit-cock? Correct them by saying you’re a copulating feces-penis, and suddenly you sound polite. I suspect this works because we associate Latin with science and medicine and scholarship so anything with Latin roots sounds sophisticated compared to English words with German or Greek roots.

I can totally see the same thing happening with Hebrew. There’s a mythology surrounding it which carries heavy connotation of serious religion and scholarship. Therefore nothing in it could possibly be considered rude or offensive.

The entire concept of vulgar words is actually a subtle form of racism. When we want to be polite, we imitate people who have a reputation for civility. When we want to be rude, we imitate people who have a reputation for barbarism.

BTW, barbarism is itself a subtly racist word. It comes from the idea that foreigners talk funny and to our ears they all sound like they’re saying “Bar bar bar bar bar”. Think about how Rosie O’Donell got in trouble a couple years ago for making fun of the way Asian languages sound to European ears.

Everyone’s a little bit racist.

In every language, there are multiple options about how to say things, and social discourse will gravitate to a point at which one way is preferable to another in polite company. Swear words evolved through this process, and I cannot imagine that any culture or language would have any characteristic that would impede this process.

Hebrew in its modern form as a contemporary language began to be revived in the mid-to-late 1800’s and early 1900’s, in tandem with (and as part of) the Zionist movement of that era. One of the more prominent proponents in that time was Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. To this day, one finds Hebrew (or English-Hebrew) dictionaries named after Ben-Yehuda, just as we find English dictionaries so commonly named after Noah Webster.

In deliberately reanimating a largely dead language, they obviously needed lots of new words. For this, they did their best to invent new “Hebraic” words following traditional Hebrew patterns, e.g., the standard tri-literal root with numerous related words based on that root; words with common vowel patterns (e.g., nouns with the “segol-segol” pattern), and so forth.

Of course, this does not stop anybody from adopting loan words as RivkahChaya says. That goes on continuously. My brother, who lived in Israel for some years, states that the Hebrew word for “headlight” (as in a car) is “seelb” (kind of wild guess at the spelling: סלבּ ) derived from the English phrase “sealed beam” (seelbeem) which in Hebrew is “obviously” the plural. Hence, singular is “seelb”. (Not seeing it in a google search. Maybe this was a colloquialism of 40 years ago that has died out.)

Well, summagun! I had no idea. Thanks. Ignorance fought.