Slang and Taboo Language:
An Analysis of Swearing Guides for L2 Japanese Learners
Volume 21, Issue 2 (Article 4 in 2021). First published in ejcjs on 16 August 2021.
Abstract: Slang, swearing, and taboo language are a marginalised and low priority area in most Second Language (L2) curricula. However, learners will encounter them and be curious about them. Some may wish to use them. One way for learners to access such language is through dedicated websites and commercially available guidebooks. In this paper we report our analysis of six ‘bad’ language guides produced for learners of Japanese as a Second Language. The analysis aims to evaluate the content and inform the development of classroom and self-access pedagogy. The study found that the guides have a potentially useful role in learners’ knowledge and understanding of such language, but that formal curricula should bear the responsibility for preparing learners to take a critical approach to their use. On the positive side, the guides introduce learners to a range of language which may otherwise be difficult for them to access or learn incidentally. They also inform about words by, for example, providing meanings and examples of use, by grouping and comparing items and revealing etymology. The study detected issues with accuracy and currency. However, the most notable shortcoming is the guides’ failure to address issues of context and appropriate use.
Keywords: slang, taboo language, Japanese as a Second Language, guidebooks, self access.
The research was conducted at The University of Queensland and Ritsumeikan University
In the teaching of taboo language there still exists what Liyanage, Walker, Bartett, and Guo (2015, p. 123) have referred to in the English as an Additional Language/Second Language (EAL/SL) teaching and research context as a “blind spot” where, for various reasons, “socially contentious language” is rarely formally taught or researched. Dewaele (2004, 84) notes that “Swearing is a very tricky speech act, for monolinguals and multilinguals alike” and in a further work, he maintains that slang and swearwords are essential elements of sociocultural competence that should be taught (2009, p. 238).
However, despite some interest in the teaching of non-polite forms (see for example Haugh & Chang, 2015; 2015; Liyanage, et al., 2015), slang and swearing remain a marginalised and low priority area of most SL curricula. Dewaele (2004, p. 84) asserts that swear words and taboo words, “rarely figure in textbooks and are never heard in the classroom because they are deemed too offensive,” despite the fact that tourists will certainly pick a few up while interacting with native speakers.
In response to this gap, in the Japanese as a Second Language (JSL) field a body of popular reference literature (see for example, Constantine, 1992/1994; Constantine, 2011; Fargo, 2007; Kasschau & Eguchi, 1995; Seward, 1991/2006; Yonekawa, 1992), as well as numerous Internet sites (see for example, A Beginners Guide to Japanese Internet Slang, Fluent Flix Ltd, 2019) devoted to slang, jargon, casual, and taboo language aimed at English L1 (first language) learners of Japanese, have emerged. The existence and considerable commercial longevity of these books (several of which are in reprint) and online resources are anecdotal evidence that learners perceive a need to inform themselves about bad language. Horan (2013, p. 291) warns educators not to leave taboo language to “the domain of light-hearted, humorous publications such as swearing dictionaries.” However, given the practical, logistical, and ethical issues that the teaching of such language poses, out-of-class, informal materials could potentially assume an important role in introducing learners to such language, particularly because learners have different real and perceived needs for it.
In the following, we provide a strong rationale for the teaching and learning of socially contentious language. We then examine books that are marketed to learners of Japanese as guides on taboo language, including slang, swearing, interjections, euphemisms, and in-group language. The analysis is aimed at investigating what learners are taught when they self-initiate learning through the guides. We then discuss the positive and negative values of the guides to inform the longer term development of classroom or self-access pedagogy in this area.
Language pedagogy over the past few decades has grown beyond the teaching of structures and vocabulary. Curriculum documents generally acknowledge the importance of sociolinguistic and pragmatic elements of language and the fostering of their understanding among learners. This means that there are opportunities to incorporate swearing and taboo language into the curriculum. However, these opportunities seem to be rarely taken up by teachers unsure of the acceptability of introducing the actual language into the classroom environment. However there are sound reasons to do so.
Swearing and taboo language play roles in emotional release, displays of solidarity, creation of intimacy or differentiation of identity, and in humour. Even those who choose not to use this language need receptive knowledge of it. Mercury (1995, p. 28) says that EFL learners in North America
need to understand what constitutes obscene language in North American contexts, why native speakers choose to use it, and what it signifies sociolinguistically.
Greer (2001, p. 16) argues that without knowledge of swearwords learners are limited in the “intensity of the emotional impact they have available to them” and may not completely comprehend the emotional intent in receptive language. This is likely due to the lack of exposure to the uses of these words in context and the highly “culture-specific” nature of them. (Dewaele, 2004)
Non-polite language may be more relevant to learners’ communicative needs than polite registers. A large number of current learners are drawn to the study of Japanese through their interest in popular Japanese culture of animation (anime), manga, TV dramas, and films (Norwood & Kinoshita Thompson, 2012). Many such students have no requirement for professional or service industry language, although, even if they did, their linguistic lives would still involve a spectrum of language, from polite and formal, to casual knock-around.
There are practical reasons for introducing aspects of socially contentious language formally to JSL learners rather than appropriating it to self investigation. First, learners have limited exposure to the variety of contexts in which Japanese is spoken by diverse groups of people and they will not come across this language with sufficient frequency to learn it independently. Second, much of it occurs in spoken language. Incidental learning requires noticing a word or expression, inferring its meaning, and remembering it. In an L2 spoken environment where the language variety (register or dialect) is unfamiliar, the likelihood of a learner noticing, correctly inferring, and retaining an expression could be extremely low. Third, the skills involved in making decisions about what is appropriate language to use can be particularly well illustrated by using the examples of taboo terms while also being relevant to all language use.
It is often erroneously claimed that Japanese is a “swearless language” (Kosugi, 2010, pp. 31-32), and native speakers can prove unwilling instructors of contentious language. Swearing is possible in Japanese, although the volume of items appears to be significantly smaller than in English, and it may be used less frequently, in a narrower range of circumstances. While acknowledging many differences in the use of taboo language in English and Japanese, we know of no comprehensive study on the topic. Some of the functions of swearing, such as insults in Japanese, can be effectively communicated through the manipulation of various markers of register rather than the explicit deployment of dysphemistic lexical items or expressions. Finally, our analysis of the guides below shows that there are serious shortcomings in these resources, and that learners need more reliable references to navigate this area of language use. This suggests that a formal approach to the teaching and learning of non-polite language is needed.
In this research we investigate whether or not the guides fulfil their potential roles in presenting taboo language items and making them meaningful, and in educating learners about the nature of such language, its use, and impact. Such knowledge can contribute to the learner’s ability to recognise and use it appropriately. We begin with an overview of the format, content, and currency of the guides. We then present our analysis of the books, which is focused on their communication of meaning, use, and form.
The formats of the guides differ considerably. The ones we examined focus on vocabulary items and multi-word items (expressions, chunks), and these are mostly presented as single items or in example utterances. Yonekawa’s (1995/2001) ‘dictionary’ structures each entry with a Romanised version of the word, followed by the Japanese orthography, the literal meaning, English definitions or equivalents, and example sentences with their translation. There are occasional annotations that can include information on form, meaning, context (who might use the word in what situation), origin, or degree of vulgarity. The Constantine volumes (1992/1994, 2011) and Kasschau & Eguchi (1995) couch their language samples within an expository style which touches on etymology and cultural context and practices. They compare near synonyms and words within semantic fields, taking a more objective and critical approach in commentary than other authors. Seward (2006) intersperses the introduction of language samples with personal anecdotes and contrasts cultural situations in Japan with American ones. As with other volumes, language samples include word lists of near synonyms, sentences, and short dialogues. Fargo’s (2007) guide consists of lists of single vocabulary items, multi-word items and example utterances in both Romanised Japanese and the Japanese scripts, with translations in English. Sections are linked by short paragraphs on the language, culture, and lifestyle of a young demographic which aim to be humorous. The information in these is often inaccurate. His commentary exudes an often troubling hyper male heterosexuality. His homophobic caution against being “construed as super gay” through the incorrect use of gendered pronouns is one such example (p. 11). Trivialising sexual violence by asserting that a burikko is a girl who “isn’t actually ditzy per se—she just pretends to be because her dad molested her as a kid” (p. 34), is another.
Taboo topics tend to contaminate language (Keith, 2007, p. 1055). So, unsurprisingly, there are sections relating to sexual activity and body parts and functions in all the guides. They also introduce the language of certain sub-cultural groups. Constantine (1994) focuses on in-group language, with three chapters on theft in which the author describes the modus operandi of Japanese criminal groups while introducing their terminologies, known as ‘hidden’ language (ingo 隠語 ). He also introduces language of the fish markets, the gambling scene, and “monkspeak.” Kasschau & Eguchi (1995) include chapters Underground and Yakuza-Related Language (pp. 153-206) and Young People’s and Vogue Expressions (pp. 207-246). Fargo (2007) generally focuses on the young. The chapters, Poppy Japanese, with sections on music, fashion, and gaming, and Hungry Japanese, with sections on food varieties and outlets, concentrate on neutral language rather than reflecting the title, Dirty Japanese. Seward (1991) presents sections on language functions such as threats, taunts, curses, and insults, and others on how to ridicule people’s appearance and personal traits. Kasschau & Eguchi (1995) include a chapter on Discriminatory Language (pp. 45-63).
We found brief notes on pronunciation, (Seward, 2006; Fargo, 2007), script, (Fargo, 2007) and the Romanisation of Japanese (Constantine, 1994). None of the guides overview Japanese grammar, but several address the principles of word formation. Constantine (1994, p. 12) mentions that new words are generally created by adding new associations to existing slang, by reversing the syllables in a word to disguise it, or through importation from a Japanese dialect or another language. In Constantine (2011), the author talks specifically about the formation of slang terms by using English words or parts of them (p. xi), and provides many examples of “KY slang,” which are acronyms and alphabet letters (e.g. p. 12), frequently, but not exclusively, used in text messages. Information about word classes and word parts (including affixes) is extremely scarce outside of the Kasschau & Eguchi (1995) and the Constantine (2011) guides.
The issue of currency is a challenge for authors as a large proportion of slang becomes popularised because of its novelty, and loses its appeal once it becomes mainstream. As all these volumes were initially written between 10 and 30 years ago, we should expect that much of the language will be dated. Because it is impossible for learners to identify out-of-date language on sight, currency is important.
The language in Constantine’s (2011) revised edition and in Fargo (2007) is more contemporary than that in the other titles. Constantine introduces learners to the transient nature of language use. In the entry on the word iketeru (cool), the author explains the generational tendency to institute new words for good or to reinstate older expressions. He illustrates this with English and Japanese expressions for good which have gone in and out of fashion over the last 40 years (p. 81). Constantine occasionally compares similar items for newness. This demonstration of the nature of timing and currency in word use teaches learners to be aware of the issue when they encounter and choose to use certain expressions.
The oldest volume, Seward (1991/ 2006), does not seem to have been significantly revised for its later edition. A large proportion of the Japanese and English expressions as well as the cultural content are therefore antiquated and appear as historical curiosities rather than relevant references. Many explanations stem from the author’s experience in Japan during the occupation years. Even the English in this text is sometimes stuffy and overly literal, and much is obsolete. Consider the following, for example: “The condescending attitude of that shameless fellow is damnable” (p. 94). This makes it unsuitable for current learners and users of the language.
Nation (2013, p. 49) classifies word knowledge into the categories of form, meaning, and use. We structure our commentary around meaning and use and include form where it overlaps in both areas. Our analysis was guided by the following questions.
1. How is meaning conveyed to the learner?
2. How are the uses of words/expressions conveyed?
Each book was read several times. The ways in which meaning, use, and formal aspects of words and expressions were conveyed were recorded. Below, we report on the categories of information presented, appraise its usefulness to learners, and show examples from the books.
4.1 How is meaning conveyed to the reader?
Authors on the teaching of vocabulary and expressions to L2 learners generally agree that the first step is conveying the general meaning (Jiang, 2004, p. 103). Jiang notes that in the initial comprehension stage the new word is mapped to existing semantic or conceptual representations, mostly linked to a concept in the L1. This is critical to the learner’s initial ability to retain the item as a part of the lexicon. In the second stage—the developmental stage—semantic restructuring takes place as the various meanings of the word or expression, as used in the L2, develop. This takes place over time, with repeated exposure, and is often an incomplete process (Jiang 2004, p. 101).
In the guides the meaning of the Japanese language samples are initially conveyed with English glosses. However, in total, we identified five strategies used by authors to convey meaning-related word knowledge. These are the provision of the following:
i. translated English equivalents
ii. example(s) of the item in use
iii. juxtaposition with other items (e.g. synonyms, antonyms, mode of delivery)
iv. etymological information
v. orthographic information
4.1.1 Translated English Equivalents
In handbooks such as these, difficult as it may be to find English equivalents for the sample language, it is incumbent on the authors to find a means of conveying meaning to the reader. All the guides we examined give English translations for the Japanese language samples which immediately connect the Japanese items to something familiar to the reader. This strategy works well with common nouns like the names of body parts. However, the translation of language representing less concrete phenomena, which may be seen differently through various cultural lenses, is not so straightforward and annotation is needed. Inherent in slang is the use of culturally specific symbolism and metaphor that can be meaningless in the other language if translated literally. On the other hand, learning to understand this symbolic cultural and linguistic knowledge is important. Seward (2006) has a chapter entitled Use of "Living Creatures as Animal Insults," which discusses the characteristics assigned to animals in Japanese culture, and exemplifies how they are used in metaphors, similes, and proverbs.
In the books we analysed meaning is conveyed either by translated equivalents, annotation, or both. Seward (2006, p. 19) claims mostly to use figurative translations “because literal ones often fail to get the offensive ideas across.” He occasionally adds a literal translation as in the following.
Kusai meshi wo kuu 臭い飯を食う
To serve time in prison (lit., to eat smelly rice) (p. 91)
In some of the guides, the authors have apparently prioritised entertainment over accuracy in their translations, selecting language to draw the attention of the reader and amuse or shock, rather than accurately reflect the attributes of the Japanese (or English) item. There are many examples of such mismatched translations where the English is far more extreme than the Japanese. For example, in Fargo (2007, p. 97), the colloquialism … は頭にくるわ (…wa atama ni kuru wa) is not an impolite or offensive statement and it would usually equate to the English “makes me angry.” However, the English translation appears as “gets my tits in a wringer,” which is a less polite expression used with less frequency and in a narrower range of circumstances than the Japanese it is purported to mirror. Below we discuss several other examples of rather neutral Japanese utterances and Fargo’s (2007) English translations which contain less polite, salacious, or taboo language in contrast to the Japanese.
頭を冷やしとけ (atama wo hiyashitoke)
Don’t get your panties all in a knot. (p. 100)
The Japanese could well be translated as a more neutral “Just cool down” or “Chill,” rather than the outdated but colourful imagery of the English.
アホか？！ (aho ka?!)
What the fuck? (p. 99)
This short Japanese phrase could be used in funny (e.g. “You idiot!”) and playful situations (e.g. “That’s dumb!,” “Don’t be silly”), as well as ones in which serious admonition or insult is intended, and is therefore inadequately represented by the translation. We would also argue that, in addition to a personal rebuke or negative appraisal of a situation, the English phrase “What the fuck?” also functions as an expression of astonishment over a situation rather than merely a personal rebuke or negative appraisal of a situation. The function of an utterance—what it is used for (e.g. to insult, to vent emotion, to boast, etc.)—is an important consideration when conveying meaning.
Some translation issues arise from semantic and pragmatic differences between languages, resulting in numerous mismatched translations. In the following example あいつはすぐキレルもん (aitsu wa sugu kireru mon. (Fargo, 2007, p. 97)), あいつ (the informal/derogatory pronoun for third person(s)) is the only part of the utterance that could be considered as slang or as having a derogatory meaning. あいつcan mark the speaker as ‘blokey’ and/or could be a show of disrespect toward the subject. As there are no such meanings associated with English pronouns, the translator has chosen to translateキレル kireru, a neutral expression for “to get angry” or “to lose (one’s) cool,” into the slang expression “loses their shit” to convey such meanings. The problem here is that the English expression seems to carry significantly more intensity and be acceptable in a narrower range of situations than the Japanese counterpart. In the absence of further contextual information, the reader/learner would be unable to grasp this.
4.1.2 Example(s) of the Item in Use
Most of the authors exemplify the use of vocabulary items in phrases, collocations, utterances, sentences, or dialogues. This is of use to learners in several ways. First, it demonstrates the working of vocabulary items as parts of speech with affixes and inflections. Second, it encases an item in a context that has meaning and gives meaning to the item. This can contribute to the learner’s developing knowledge of the meaning(s) and environments in which it is used. Nation (2013) maintains that native speakers draw on their contextual knowledge of words—situational, topical, and local (i.e., other words in the vicinity)—when they speak (p. 83) and knowing which words co-occur with others facilitates language use and fluency (p. 138).
Kasschau and Eguchi (1995) make the point that in different collocations the same word can differ in the positive or negative connotations it takes on. They exemplify this with expressions involving the word kuso (shit, excrement, feces), contrasting the rather innocuous “hana kuso (lit. nose shit, i.e., snot)” and the use of kuso as an intensifier in “kuso-majime (absurdly serious)” (1995, p. 64), with the curse “kusokurae (go eat your own shit)” and in vulgarities such as “kuso o suru (take a shit)” (p. 65). They also introduce neutral words related to defecation, used in talking with children and in medical situations. Similarly, Seward (2006, p. 38) provides a list of several high frequency words that collocate with the noun mushi (bug/insect), allowing the learner easily to obtain several useful and easily retained expressions. Examples include yowa-mushi (weakling) and naki-mushi (crybaby), which are used as taunts.
4.1.3 Juxtaposition with Other Items (e.g. Synonyms, Antonyms, Mode of Delivery)
Juxtaposing words with similar or contrasting meanings is a good strategy to help learners differentiate words and understand the boundaries and overlapping of their meanings. This is done in some of the guides. Constantine’s (2011) presentation of vocabulary for rape is nuanced and conveys the word differences through multiple means, including English translation, reference to the formality of expressions, frequency of use in conversation, and perceived directness. He maintains, for example, that, “Gokan is one of the few formal but direct words that can be used in standard speech when referring to rape. Still, many people believe that it is too strong to be tactfully usable” (p. 51), and that, “Nowadays… the English-derived rēpu is the term most frequently used in conversation” (p. 52). He introduces the term osowareru, (to get attacked), which avoids direct reference to rape and is “the most commonly used euphemism” (p. 52).
In Constantine’s entry for ‘(KETSU. Ass.)’ (2011, pp. 96-98), the “proper word for posterior,” dembu, is introduced, followed by equivalents to the American use of bottom or ass (“shiri or the slightly rougher ketsu”) (p. 96). Later, he notes that “crasser words that have gained popularity on the streets” and words with their origins in regional dialects are introduced. There are a number of single sentences, utterances, or proverbs involving bottoms that are deemed to be “socially acceptable.” The contrasting of near synonyms and the indication of the level of politeness of these words is helpful to learners.
Seward (2006) also groups together near-synonyms in bilingual vocabulary lists. There are, for example, ten entries each for calling someone an “idiot” and for “lazy, no-good so-and so’s,” and multiple entries for criminals. The expressions for “lusty men” (p. 47) and “loose women” (p. 52) all denote negative sexual behaviours despite the approving title for the male list and derogatory one for the female counterpart. The Japanese items are differentiated mainly by the English translations of them, although a small proportion is then exemplified in utterances. In some cases, however, they appear merely as lists of undifferentiated words which learners would then need to investigate themselves.
Kasschau and Eguchi (1995) mention that the delivery of spoken language influences its meaning. Baka (stupid) means something akin to “goddam you bastard” when spoken in tones of anger, but is more like “you poor thing” when used sympathetically (pp. 13-14). Further to this, they address the issue of delivery, mentioning that the effect of the commands urusai, its tougher sounding form urusē, and damare, which all mean ‘shut up’, is “immeasurably enhanced by rolling the r” (p. 188). Constantine also mentions that change in the pronunciation of the second person pronoun omae (which he characterises as “masculine and familiar to the point of roughness”) to omē, “makes it even rougher” (2011, p. xxiv).
4.1.4 Etymological Information
The provision of etymological information such as the origin, parts, formation, and development of a word as well as its use in a range of expressions teaches learners to look for clues to meaning through core word parts, and can also make words more memorable (Nation, 2013, p. 410). Constantine (2011, p. 39) does this with ero, explaining it to be a popular word on the Japanese street since the 1920s that is “short for erochikku, ‘erotic’.” He lists over twenty examples of expressions in which it is used such as “Ero anime. Porn anime” and “Ero chatto. Sex chat (online).” Kasschau and Eguchi (1995) discuss sound/meaning symbolism in their entries. For example, in discussing words that relate to “gehin” (indecent or vulgar) (pp. 84-85), they write, “Gehin-nakotoba, then, are vulgar words or gutter talk. Gebita and gebirashii are close synonyms. A feeling of vulgarity is definitely expressed with the ge sound.” They also mention that, “ge is written with the character meaning under or lower” (p. 84), an image which readers of Japanese could invoke in their interpretation of these words, but they do not show the character下which limits the effectiveness of the explanation for learners. We discuss orthography later.
Boers, Demecheleer, and Eyckmans. (2004, p. 55) argue that the language of figurative expressions and idioms is not arbitrary and can give learners insight into the new language and culture. Several of the analysed texts canvass how human traits are often expressed through reference to animals. Fargo’s (2007, p. 87) reference to “dead fish maguro (a girl who doesn’t take an active role in lovemaking)” is one such example.
4.1.5 Orthographic Information
The orthographic representation of a word is an important component of word knowledge (Nation, 2013). This is particularly so in Japanese, where ideographs known as kanji (Chinese characters) are an immediate clue to word meaning and have an important role in memory and recall. The katakana script, used for the convention of writing words of foreign origin (gairaigo), also signals a possible route to meaning via English (or another language). Constantine (1992/2011) uses only Romanised Japanese for the language samples in his books. This denies learners the opportunity to connect with the written word form and its meaning, and to link it to their existing knowledge system of words and semantics, a strategy for transferring new information into the long term memory (Schmitt, 2000, p. 132). The absence of the Japanese scripts is particularly puzzling, as Constantine explains the origin of some expressions through their representative character and its reading(s)/pronunciation. However, by not showing the written Japanese forms, the opportunity to facilitate learners’ incorporation of the language item into their lexical system through the meaning-rich orthography is missed. An example of this is his explanation for a street term for money, ru, as follows, which does not include the character for nagare (流（れ）).
The word that inspired ru was nagare, meaning “flowing stream” or “current” (the idea being that cash can flow like water). The ideogram for nagare has more than one pronounciation; nagare is the kun yomi, or native Japanese reading, while the on yomi, or Chinese reading, gives us the obscure ru, a perfect candidate for a discreet code (p. 50).
Kasschau and Eguchi (1995) do not accompany any of their Romanised Japanese language samples with Japanese script, despite frequently referring to the character that represents the core meaning of a word. Their useful explanation of how the literal meanings of the characters which comprise the word manuke (idiot; 間抜け) contribute to the meaning of the word would be enhanced by display of the characters themselves. They write,
Manuke is another synonym for baka. The kanji for ma can also be pronounced aida, and here means a pause between rhythms or actions in Japanese music or dance. Nuke comes from the verb nukeru (to miss or lack). Manuke (without modulation), then, signifies a person who somehow lacks a normal sense of what he’s doing, a half-wit or dunce (p. 17).
Seward (1991) and Fargo (2007) present all Japanese language samples in both Romanised and Japanese orthography. This means that learners are presented with the image of each character and with its phonological realisations in the particular context. Fargo does not include etymological explanations regarding characters, and there are only a small number of such entries in Seward’s guide.
The meaning represented by kanji is not the only useful information for learners in the written word. Inflected verb endings which are in the hiragana script indicate part-of-speech as do honorific affixes on nouns, verbs and the copula. They also clearly define parts of the word which are useful in memory, vocab learning strategies, and the relationship between word family members (Nation 2013, p. 390). The written forms of Japanese play a part in deciphering meaning, grammatical function, and memory, and should therefore be considered a serious omission in the guides that have chosen to represent the Japanese in Romanised form only.
4.2 How are the uses of words/expressions conveyed?
Notions of appropriateness in using language are strongly related to understanding the connotative meanings of language (Keith, 2007, p. 1056) which express the community attitude to it (p. 1048). They are therefore highly relevant to learners’ understanding of language and their judgements about whether to use certain terms. We have seen above that in some of the guides, terms with the same core meaning take on different connotations which make them suitable for use in either a broad or narrow range of social contexts. Factors that drive language choice in specific circumstances are contextual factors related to identity (e.g. gender, age, region, class) and social relationships of power and intimacy. Location, the occasion, and who is present may also constrain language use.
Learners gradually acquire knowledge about the appropriate use of words and expressions through multiple encounters with them in a range of contexts (Pavičić Takač, 2008, p. 17), but they may not have the opportunities for such exposure to taboo language and slang. So, it is important that guides alert learners to the features of the contexts in which the language samples might be used. We looked for general statements in the guides that would alert learners to the factors which influence language choice, and for elaboration of information regarding specific language samples. Our discussion here focuses on the features of interlocutors—age, gender, and intimacy—outside which we found little to no evidence of discussion.
In Japanese, age is a constraining factor on language use which generally means that polite forms are used to (or about) older people while less formal/more casual forms are used to (or about) younger.
Fargo (2007) contains a blanket disclaimer referring to age and familiarity on the very first page of the guide—“What you say depends on who you are speaking to”—and warns readers against saying any of the language in the book “to someone older than you, or to a stranger of any age” (p. 1). Whilst this warning is not inappropriate, learners deserve a more detailed explanation about the influences of age and intimacy than is provided here.
Constantine’s (2011) introductory chapter contains a section entitled “The Grammar of Rudeness.” It includes the occasional note on age (e.g. washi, the first person pronoun “preferred by older men” (p. xxiii), and kimi (you) which might be used to “a younger male subordinate” (p. xxiv). The author also describes the proliferation among young people of acronyms for Japanese words keyed in text messages and Internet forums using the Latin alphabet. He notes that these expressions “are comical, short, fun—and often quite hurtful” (p. 12). Examples include, BKB (Bakabakashii, ludicrous), BKNN (Baka Nakuna! = Stop crying you idiot!) (p. 12), UD (Usotsuki na Debu, A lying fatso; DK: (Debu Kyapuru = a fat couple (p. 35). In general, however, the lack of information about the relationship between age and appropriateness is striking.
In his preface, Yonekawa (1992) offers a general caution about context, mentioning that “[a]ll words require care in use” and that some of the phrases contained in the volume “require precisely the right moment and situation” (p. 9). Some entries contain notes relating to age. For example, the entry for chibiru (lit. to do something a little at a time, i.e., to pee (wet) ones pants) contains the note “small children” to highlight the fact that the term can used with toddlers (p. 55).
The preface of Kasschau and Eguchi’s (1995) Using Japanese Slang offers no explicit comments about age. There are the occasional notes regarding discriminatory terms for the elderly (e.g. “iijiwaru bāsan (mean old woman)” (p. 53) and the somewhat humorous “me-ha-ma (lit. eyes-teeth-cock)” list of body parts to be checked in aging men (p. 55). In general, however, no instruction is offered about who can say what to whom with respect to age. Neither Seward (2006) nor Constantine (1992/1994, 1992/2011) make extensive reference to the ways in which age affects language choice in Japanese. We conclude therefore that the volumes do very little to foster any consciousness of age as a constraining factor in language use.
Inducting learners into the gendered nature of language is important, although it is only by experience that learners grasp the often playful ways in which gendered language is used and the purposes to which it is put. Language that is tied to gender (or other identity markers) is stereotypical in nature and actual use may not conform to a strictly gendered schema. Therefore, a prescriptive approach to gendered language cannot be taken. Sullivan (2018 p. 21) makes the point that although learners of Japanese need to know about the pronouns, sentence final particles, sentence final forms, and request forms that are associated with masculinity and femininity, a lot of Japanese speakers choose to use neutral forms. Fraser (2018 p. 118) contends that when gendered language is used it is used in “deliberate and complicated ways” and that it overlaps with other factors such as age. This is an appropriate warning to learners that a gendered label is only one of the multilayered and fluid elements involved in meaning. However, this kind of commentary is infrequent in the guides.
Effective learning materials should inform the learner about the implications of gendered usage and assumptions others might make about the speaker using it. The guides that we analysed generally failed to give learners information about the gendered constraints on language. Constantine (2011, p. xxv) introduces the subject in relation to the use of particles, and correctly asserts that gendered use refers to general tendencies which change in usage in reality. He observes, for example, that the sentence end particle no “in casual speech is generally considered feminine, but nowadays is becoming more unisex” (p. xxv), and that “[i]n slangy informal speech, men frequently end their sentences with the copula da plus an emphatic ze or zo, as do assertive women” (p. xxvi). These remarks touch on issues which are important for learners to know—that so-called male and female language is a nuanced phenomenon, that the language speakers choose expresses identity, and that language is changing.
Several of the authors mention pronoun use. Constantine (2011, p. xxiii) lists and annotates a number of first, second, and third person pronouns linking their use to gender, formality and politeness, region, age, and tone (assertiveness, aggression, and roughness). He contrasts the second person pronoun kimi when used by speakers of different gender and in different contexts as follows:
Kimi Masculine, casual, and familiar in tone when used among men, and with a rough edge when used by men to women. And a very assertive edge when used by women to anyone except children. A female manager, for instance, might use kimi to a younger male subordinate (p. xxiv).
In Fargo (2007), a number of first person pronouns are listed (p. 10-12) and briefly characterised as in “I (boyish) boku 僕.” As men also use boku in a non-self assertive manner and girls use it in playful ways, the characterisations are incomplete. In this volume the incorrect observation is made that “girls can use male pronouns without any innuendo,” (p. 11). In Seward (2006) too, an explanation on pronouns begins appropriately with “the choice of pronoun can determine the degree of politeness or rudeness.” But the attributes of the first person pronoun 俺 (ore) are inadequately characterised in the explanation of it, which reads, “a haughty word for ‘I.’ Its use often suggests that you feel superior to the person you are addressing” (p. 20). It neglects to inform readers that the term is almost exclusively deployed by male speakers, and that its use portrays rough masculinity.
In general we have found that apart from the focus on pronouns, there is little in the guides to advise learners on the issues related to gender and language use.
The guides only briefly mention how intimacy and familiarity between speakers influence language choice. Fargo acknowledges the different use of language depending on the context and participants. He states, “One thing about the Japanese language… it’s very, very contextual.” He advises that his “book is meant to be used in the company of friends,” and warns readers from using the language in the book to “someone older than you, or to a stranger of any age” (p. 1). Later the author asserts that, “What is acceptable to say depends on who’s around. When you’re with friends, you can say some of the stupidest shit possible and be loved and forgiven. But even with friends there are different levels of intimacy” (p. 21). There are no further insightful comments or annotations to the language samples on how the uses of specific words or expressions are tied to levels of familiarity or intimacy.
This paper set out to find out what motivated learners of Japanese could discover about slang and taboo language through six commercially available guides to bad language in Japanese, and to determine what role they could play in learners’ independent learning. Although we have critiqued many aspects of the guides, where accurate and reasonably current language and translation are presented, the guides fulfil a useful role for learners. It is important to note that single vocabulary and multi-word items are acquired gradually over time through multiple and varied encounters with them in either formal learning activity or during use of the language. Nation (2013) says that “we should expect only limited learning from single meetings with a word,” and that “a small positive step forward in knowledge, such as being told the translation of a word… should be seen as a useful step in the cumulative process of learning a particular word” (p. 119). Given this, the guides are worthwhile in that they do provide a wealth of ‘meetings’ with language which may otherwise be difficult to access or to learn incidentally.
The guides are one-way informational media. Collectively, we have found that they have value in informing and raising consciousness about words by
· conveying meaning through translations
· providing examples in sample phrases, sentences and utterances
· grouping items and comparing them with near synonyms and associated items
· examining the etymology words and grouping words with similar parts
· analysing the parts of words and their meanings
· discussing kanji and word meanings
· showing how modified pronunciation and delivery of a word contribute to its meaning profile
Not all of the guides did all of these things and when they did it was sometimes inconsistently applied, incomplete in explanation, or inaccurate. However, the positive cases stand for replication in the planning and production of new resources.
Nation (2013) maintains that “discussion and cross-cultural comparison” are the best ways to introduce learners to the various constraints on item use (p. 84). In analysing discussion on the subject of when, with whom, and where certain language might be used appropriately, we found that there was scant coverage in the guides beyond the occasional warning to refrain from using the language outside one’s peer group. The system of honorifics which is integral to conducting human interactions in Japanese was briefly raised in two volumes but was inadequately explained. Without such coverage learners could wrongly assume that appropriateness is determined similarly in Japanese and English-speaking cultures. Dewaele (2008) argues that appropriateness should be part of the FL curriculum (p. 247). We contend that once formal learning has raised learners’ awareness of the ways in which context conditions language use, it is possible and desirable for the guidebooks to reinforce and exemplify the principles. Yonekawa (1992) goes some way to doing this with labels indicating gendered and age-related usage and degree of taboo. The labels may not be absolute or always consistent, but they do give learners criteria for consideration when they encounter a language item, and are useful in that regard. We believe that it is possible to insert commentary into the text which alerts learners to issues of use and appropriateness while not driving prescriptive language use or reductive stereotyping. It gives learners a useful starting point for their subsequent work in getting to know a word or term.
Another important role for the formal curriculum is in that of raising awareness of learning and communication strategies regarding slang, taboo language, and its use. By doing so, learners will be empowered for the ongoing task of learning new words and acquiring knowledge about them, their meanings, and uses. A proportion of this should be allocated to accessing, learning, and use of taboo language in particular. Teachers keen to avoid directly introducing explicit language samples in the classroom should introduces less extreme samples and illustrate the kinds of knowledge that learners need to make judgements about when, where, and how words are used appropriately. Such education will result in the critical approach that needs to be taken by learners when self accessing resources such as the guides we have analysed. This approach involves, at least, a wariness about accepting the translated meanings at face value, understanding that meanings of words may have evolved or gone out of usage completely, understanding that words have core meanings but the context gives meaning to a word as an extension of that, that words have degrees of taboo, and that not everyone has the same beliefs and opinion with regard to appropriateness.
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Article copyright Lachlan Jackson and Belinda Kennett.