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Swearing/Cursing in Sanderson's Cosmere

Disclaimer: Firstly, I am in no way (other than as a slight hobby) a linguist and so take what I say here in regards to language evolution with a grain of salt. Second, this post contains strong language used in an educational and discussion-based context. Reader degression is advised.


A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with my writing group about Brandon Sanderson's "curse words" in his many fantasy worlds and how, often times, they are cringy to read or hear (if you're listening to the audio books). From The Stormlight Archive, there are words and phrases like, telling someone to, "storm off" or "storm this/that" or "storming" to replace just about any use of the word "fuck" (other than its sexual context, but with Sanderson, that's not something readers look for from him, anyway). He also uses "damnation" as a replacement for "hell" or sometimes "damn," and finally, there is the calling someone a "cremling" or talking about "crem" as a replacement for "shit." Let's not forget "colors" from Warbreaker. Just writing that made me shiver from the cringe!


Many members of my writing group (including myself) are often frustrated when authors do this, rather than simply writing the word that they are replacing. And why not? Why not just write some of the stronger swears especially when someone like Sanderson seemingly doesn't mind using other words like bastard, hell, or damn in Mistborn? (Yes, fans, I know he uses bastard in TSA, as well). In his Cosmere, short story collection, Arcanum Unbounded, the story, Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell (which is incredibly underrated, by the way. So if you haven't read it, do yourself a favor and do so) contains possibly the only time he's ever used "bitch" that I remember.


So why does he seem to tiptoe around swearing, when there are so many other popular authors out there who don't seem to mind it at all? Well, from an out-of-worldbuilding perspective, and possibly the easiest answer: Sanderson is Mormon and part of that culture is using language that is uplifting to the soul. But we're not here to explore one of our favorite author's religious motives, no. We are here to explore the brilliant worldbuilding that Sanderson does, even so far as to create really interesting (albeit, at times cringy) swear words for his worlds.


One of the main arguments that came up during the aforementioned writing group conversation was that Sanderson, and writers like him, need "to be tactful" when creating swears and then using them in that using "something as basic as 'stars' 'storms' 'suns'" or anything just as common cannot be offensive to a reader, and therefore don't carry the same weight as any of the swears we have. Yet the fact of the matter is this: the languages spoken on the worlds which Mistborn, The Stormlight Archive, Elantris, and Warbreaker are set, are not English, or any other earthly language that is known to us.


Naturally, it would make sense for a people from another planet who speak another language, who has an entirely different culture to have extremely different swears than we do here on Earth. And I say here on Earth because I acknowledge the fact that many languages have direct translations for swears (mierda (Spanish), merda (Italian), merd (French), scheisse (German), shit (English); cazzo (Italian), ficken (German), fuck (English); maldición (Spanish), verdammt (German), damn (although the Spanish maldición, can also be translated into "curse" and is less a swear and more like saying "darn" or "dang"). You likely noticed that Spanish doesn't have a word for "fuck" and that's simply because they don't exactly have one, at least not one that's universal to each country that speaks Spanish. But the same could be said for "hell?" So far as I know, English might be the only language that uses "hell" as a swear, as in, "What the hell?" or "Oh, hell!" and so on. In other words, some languages here on Earth don't have a swear that directly translates and, thus, translators have to use other words that only kind of work. For example, in the movies, hell as a swear is often translated into Spanish into one of the following: "diablos" (devils), "rayos" (lightnings), or "demonios" (demons) and never, "infierno" the literal translation for the place.


But we can't only look at translations as an issue here, because if we were to do that, then we could simply ask why doesn't Sanderson just do what other authors do and use the swears that we have in English and "translate" the words from Roshar or Scadrial into what we know and understand? Simply stated: because that's not how languages evolve. For this example, let's look at the word, "ain't." Originally, "ain't" was used by high society (yes, those snobby wanks from the palace up the road), it wasn't until the peasants started using it that the rich decided that it became considered uneducated to do so and so the lower class stopped using it, too and came up with snazzy rhymes to get their kids to stop using it, as well. "'Ain't' ain't a word, so I ain't gonna use it, say 'ain't' five times, and I ain't going to Heaven."


Similarly, we can can apply the same to swears like "hell," "damn," and "ass." Originally, all of these words were used as normal, every-day words and are still found in The Bible. Before they were swears, they were simply words, hell, a place, damn, a verb, and ass, an animal. It wasn't until people started calling other people asses to refer to their intellect (or lack thereof) that it started to become an insult and then a swear.


With all that said, let's return to Sanderson's swears. Now, I'm not gonna defend things like "colors" that one honestly has no excuse, and I agree with my colleague when they said that authors need to be tactful when making up swears in that regard. But when it comes to others like "storms/storm off," and "crem/cremling," I feel like, for the most part, these are acceptable (though, I'm still not a huge fan of "storm off") I can justify through speculation as to how Sanderson likely went about creating his own swears. By examining all that has been discussed, so far about the evolution of swearing and language, I believe that he likely did something similar as he was building Roshar and its many cultures.


High storms are not only a part of his world, but play a huge part in the cultures, architecture, battle strategies, travel, and yes, even swearing. For those of you who haven't read any of The Stormlight Archive, a high storm is basically a perpetual tornado that can last for hours and is essentially controlled by a god that lives within it. Something this terrible and devastating would definitely be turned into a swear word at some point, just as Hell, a horrible afterlife, made one for us. And, even though I'm not a huge fan of "storm off/you" I definitely think that getting caught in a high storm would be a lot worse than having sex, which, in a way, would make a far stronger curse than "fuck off/you." I would be surprised if something like the above didn't go through Sanderson's very tactful mind as he was creating his swears in any capacity.


As writers and worldbuilders, we need to be tactful in anything that we create, and we also need to be tasteful and the latter of the two should be at the fore front of our minds as we revise. But what do you think; do you like Sanderson's swears? Or would you rather he just use what we already have?

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