A common Indian swear-word
Posted: 20 December 2010 11:31 PM   [ Ignore ]
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In many of the languages of the Indo-European family some swear-words are derived from the synonym of god or the specific name of a particular god. Goddamit and godawful are apt examples in English. Most of the Indian swear-words in modern IE languages had been used—in some form or the other—in the vast annals of lay literature in Samskrta and various forms of Prakrta and Abahatta, mostly in plays. But the commonest pan-Indian swear-word is shala in the eastern tongues (or sala in the Hindi belt). Literally the word means brother-in-law, derived from the Samskrta shyalaka and Prakrta syalaka. It became a swear-word perhaps because of the I-sleep-with-your-sister connotation.
No matter how hard I looked up (but I am by no means a Samskrta scholar), I never found it in any pre-Islamic local literature. I did ask my erudite friends—one of them of National fame—but they too could not point out any such use. That in itself is curious. My personal research, if you would call it that, yielded the following.
1. That the swear-word starts appearing about a century after Islamic occupation, with increasing frequency for another century or more, before social prudery restricted its use—rather suddenly.
2. That its early appearance is anachronistically in its modern form, shala.
3. Ergo, I inferred that it had an Islamic root.
I did not have to look far and wide. Moslems then (as they do even today) used to swear in the name of God: Insha Allah. To untutored Indian ears it must have sounded like shallah. The rest is history.
My linguist friends are not impressed but, then, they are not committed to dig out the etymology of swear-words. Can members of Wordorigins comment either way?

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Posted: 21 December 2010 03:14 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Your reasoning appears sound, but I don’t know enough about the languages in question to comment on the specifics.

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Posted: 21 December 2010 06:32 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Not that this helps, but I am reminded of the Spanish ojalá, which is borrowed from the Arabic, and means “hope to God” or just “I hope”.

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Posted: 21 December 2010 08:07 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Sounds dubious to me, but I’ve posted about it at Languagehat; we’ll see if anyone has anything useful to say.  I also quoted your excellent comment from the monkey thread, and I add my hearty welcome!

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Posted: 21 December 2010 12:33 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Welcome, Aniruddha Sen.

I am intrigued by your use of the expression “swear word”. In my lexicon, “swear word” implies some kind of imprecation. Your examples Goddammit and Godawful certainly convey this sense - they are words which my mother would never have allowed anyone to use around the house.
In my part of the world (the ME), the Arabic expression Insh’Allah is in no way an imprecation, and I would never call it a swear word. It will fit comfortably into the vocabulary of any pious person, meaning more or less “God willing”. A similar expression in Spanish is si Dios quiere --- “if God wills it”. Very few mothers, I think, would take exception to the use of these expressions by members of their family. You appear to be using the term “swear word” to mean any word or phrase (whether pious or profane) which includes the name of God. Would you please clarify this?
I am not questioning your theory as to the origin of the word shala as a term of abuse in Indian languages. On the contrary. It is easy to suppose that after the Islamic conquest of much of India, there would have been no love lost between non-Moslem and Moslem Indians, and that a pious expression frequently used by Moslems might very well be used derisively by non-Moslems - in the same way as an Englishman may be referred to insultingly by a Frenchman as un gorblimey.

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Posted: 21 December 2010 02:26 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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But in the absence of any evidence for that unlikely development, it is much more plausible that it is in fact “the I-sleep-with-your-sister connotation” that is involved; that is an extremely common source of curse words around the world.  (I speak as someone who literally wrote the book on curse words!  All right, a book.)

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Posted: 22 December 2010 03:51 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Oh, I entirely agree. My suggestion was no more than light-hearted speculation...... Congratulations on your choice of a stimulating subject for a book. Even if it’s not the book, you’re in good company - the only other book I know of about swearing is by Robert Graves (thanks, by the way, for reminding me of that - I’ve always wanted to have a copy, and now I’ve discovered that I can buy a first edition on the ‘Net for just a few dollars). A little browsing reveals, by the way, that in fact, several books have been published on the subject of swearing. I’m sure yours is well worth reading.

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Posted: 07 January 2011 11:05 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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In my part of the world (the ME), the Arabic expression Insh’Allah is in no way an imprecation, and I would never call it a swear word. It will fit comfortably into the vocabulary of any pious person, meaning more or less “God willing”. A similar expression in Spanish is si Dios quiere --- “if God wills it”. Very few mothers, I think, would take exception to the use of these expressions by members of their family. You appear to be using the term “swear word” to mean any word or phrase (whether pious or profane) which includes the name of God. Would you please clarify this?

(Lionello’s words).
It took me this long to check up with some of my linguist friends without much success, but I have a hypothesis. ”Insh’Allah” is used by some Muslims in India (and neighbouring Pakistan and Bangladesh) many times, much more than necessary, in course of casual conversation—no impiety meant—but as a matter of speech mannerism. I presume that the mannerism has a long enough history. The locals picked up the expression from their lords and masters and started using it themselves. It shed its meaning (and a syllable) over a period till, through thoughtless repetition and by word-association, it became an Indian swear word.
Is it possible? Are there any parallels?
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Posted: 08 January 2011 05:01 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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I don’t know of any parallels with other swear words, which tend to be native or at least well-assimilated into the borrowing language before they become swears, but it is not unusual for words to have radical shifts in meaning and usage when passing from one language to another. There is no reason why a Hindi speaking community should use an Arabic word in the same way as an Arabic-speaking one. There is no pressure to conform to traditional usages.

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Posted: 08 January 2011 10:13 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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donkeyhotay - 21 December 2010 06:32 AM

Not that this helps, but I am reminded of the Spanish ojalá, which is borrowed from the Arabic, and means “hope to God” or just “I hope”.

You do well to be reminded of ojalá, which is taken directly from Iberian Arabic in xa Aláh, or <<inshallah>> if you prefer a modernized spelling.
See the RAE 1884 dictionary for the first notation (by the RAE) of the actual Arabic spelling.  The RAE has made the earlier editions of the dictionary a little difficult to find from the home page, so try this link: http://buscon.rae.es/ntlle/SrvltGUIMenuNtlle?cmd=Lema&sec=1.0.0.0.0.

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