Sunday, December 10, 2006

Oh Tabernacle!

Via Don Jim this really fascinating article about swear-words in Quebecois French ... In French-Speaking Canada, the Sacred Is Also Profane - washingtonpost.com
"Oh, tabernacle!" The man swore in French as a car splashed through a puddle, sending water onto his pants. He could never be quoted in the papers here. It is too profane.

So are other angry oaths that sound innocuous in English: chalice, host, baptism. In French-speaking Quebec, swearing sounds like an inventory being taken at a church.
You know, I was always curious about this ... the article seems unaware that the phenomenon is not limited to Quebec ... I recall a very devout student who went to study-abroad in Spain being shocked by the way terms associated with Catholic ritual were used ... "I can't believe they swear by saying '¡hostia!'!" I'm sure there are various sociological reasons for these developments ... for instance:
"When you get mad, you look for words that attack what represses you," said Louise Lamarre, a Montreal cinematographer who must tread lightly around the language, depending on whether her films are in French or English. "In America, you are so Puritan that the swearing is mostly about sex. Here, since we were repressed so long by the church, people use religious terms."

And the words that are shocking in English -- including the slang for intercourse -- are so mild in Quebecois French they appear routinely in the media. But not church terms.
But surely, parts of the Church were experienced as oppressive in other parts of Europe too? And scatological/sexual expletives seem universal ... in Spain, they're used (as they are in Spanish-speaking America) ... though yes, they don't seem to have the same level of opprobrium attached to them. (I was rather surprised to see the Spanish equivalent of the f-word appearing in the dailies over there quite routinely ... ) There's got to be other things at work too, right?

Of course, Quebec is hardly Catholic anymore ... the so-called "Quiet Revolution" of the 60's saw to that, when the Quebecois just simply defected from the church, en masse, very quietly without any fanfare. Yet, these terms survive, it seems. The Church is trying to do some catechesis:
Last spring, the Montreal Archdiocese commissioned an advertising campaign that erected large billboards in the city intended to shock and educate. Each billboard featured a word like "tabernacle" or "chalice" -- startling swearwords on the street -- and offered the correct dictionary definition for the religious term. Such as: "Tabernacle -- small cupboard locked by key in the middle of the altar" containing the sacred goblet.
I'm not sure how effective this is ... though maybe for the younger generation that has absolutely no clue as to what the original referent for "Tabernac!" is, this may be of some value. Seems like it's a losing battle though ... Who knows what it will take to re-plant the faith (one trusts minus all the oppression) in these once-Christian lands.

4 comments:

Dogwood Dell said...

How to replant Christianity? Slowly over time.

Quite surprised at the use of the oppressive language. Thanks for the culture lesson.

assiniboine said...

Hard to believe I haven't told you about this before but a relief that my entire repertoire of anecdotage isn't absolutely familiar to my entire acquaintance. I did discuss this disjunction between anglophone and francophone emphatic locutions many years ago with friends in the New Guinea Islands; it led to vastly amusing discussion about such language as a demonstrative of differing cultural mores and taboos. In a context where traditional dress was complete undress (and, like Catholicism in Quebec, now gone in the practice but amply recalled in many otherwise puzzling social customs) you can perhaps imagine how it goes. Are you SURE we haven't discussed this before? I have that awful feeling....

Gashwin said...

Hmm ... you know Mac, I really don't recall what story you might be mentioning. So, if you did mention it, I don't remember. Which means ... do tell! :-)

assiniboine said...

Can't recall what brought it up but we were talking about the highly variable repertoire of expletives in our various backgrounds -- always lots of room for entertaining discussion of cultural quirks when you've got a wide range of backgrounds at hand, and that is usually the case in a place where there are so many. I brought up the very thing in francophone Canada that your blog entry was describing; both the Catholics and Methodists found it a mite puzzling but they took the point. Whereupon a New Irelander, amid much guffawing, mentioned the WORST thing you can say to a New Irelander....no, come to think of it, this really does have to be communicated in private....