Introduction - What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves - Benjamin K. Bergen

What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves - Benjamin K. Bergen (2016)


This is a book about bad language. Not the tepid pseudoprofanities like damn and boobs that punctuate broadcast television. I mean the big hitters. Like fuck. And cunt. And nigger. These words are vulgar. They’re shocking. They’re offensive. They’re hurtful.

But they’re also important. These are the words people use to express the strongest human emotions—in moments of anger, of fear, and of passion. They’re the words with the greatest capacity to inflict emotional pain and incite violent disagreement. They’re the words that provoke the most repressive regulatory reactions from the state in the form of censorship and legislation. In short, bad words are powerful—emotionally, physiologically, psychologically, and socially.

And that makes them worth trying to understand. To someone like me, a cognitive scientist of language and one with a pretty foul mouth at that, profanity is a gold mine. Where do these words come from? Why do we have them at all? What would a world without profanity look like? How do taboos about language vary across the world’s languages and how are they similar? What does exposure to profanity do to our brains? What does it do to our children’s brains? How do slurs like nigger and faggot acquire their unequaled capacity to cause harm? What if anything can be done to remedy their impact on marginalized individuals and groups? Can we ban, censor, or reappropriate our way out of harmful words? Addressed with care and attention, these guiding questions can lead toward a cognitive science of profanity.

Bad language deserves inspection on its own merits. But it’s also important for a second, perhaps slightly less obvious reason. Profanity is powerful, so it behaves differently from other types of language. It gets encoded differently in the brain. It’s learned differently. It’s articulated differently. It changes differently over time. And as a result, bad language has the unique potential to reveal facts about our language and ourselves that we’d otherwise never imagine. Studying profanity teaches us where language gets its power to shape minds and to shape the world, how our brains learn language, and how language must have evolved. Throughout its several-thousand-year history, the scientific study of language has, if anything, mostly tried to ignore profanity. But I’m prepared to make the argument that this has been to our disadvantage. In certain ways, you can learn more from four-letter words than from fifty-cent ones.

Perhaps I can make my case a bit clearer with an analogy.

Recently, my wife and I had our first child. I wouldn’t call us naive, but leading up to our son’s birth, we focused mostly on the positive things that soon-to-be parents often envision. Snuggling with a larval infant, a first smile, sharing giggling sessions, his first step, and so on.

Within minutes of the little guy’s arrival, however, we confronted a very different reality. The daily experience of parenthood, at least early on, predominantly entails the monitoring and containment of the child’s bodily functions. I’ll concede that a baby is by definition a human. But in practice, a baby is functionally a machine for converting milk into bodily effluvia. And an efficient machine at that. As a result, a large proportion of our time was quickly filled with figuring out the best way to clean a rug soaked in baby spit-up. Or a shirt covered in tar-like baby poop. Or a lamp shade drenched in baby urine. You get the idea.

The various substances that emerge from the infant are a nuisance, and they’re gross. At least, at first they are. The thing no one tells you about being a parent is that among the things that change (like the diameter of your waist and your tolerance for sleep deprivation) is your relationship to things that come out of another human’s body. And like many parents, we came to treat inspections of diaper contents as a diagnostic tool. If you haven’t been through this yourself, it might sound strange, but it actually makes a lot of sense. You see, infants are inscrutable. It’s hard, for example, to know how much milk a newborn is taking in. (Breasts don’t have volume markings on the side, and they aren’t transparent. Two more ways evolution has failed us.) But you can tell how much the newborn is nursing from the quantity and frequency of wet and soiled diapers. You even receive a chart at the hospital. In the first week of life, you’re told, look for six wet diapers and two dirty ones per day. Or here’s another reason to inspect the diaper—one for the real breast-feeding insiders. How do you know if the child is spending long enough on each breast? That’s right, it’s in the poop. If he’s draining each breast, he’ll be getting not only the lean foremilk, which will turn his stool green, but also the fat-rich hind-milk, which will turn it orange or brown. You’re hoping to find the latter in the diaper.

And here’s the thing. Once you get over the initial aversion, diaper contents actually turn out to be pretty darn interesting. If you love the child and are concerned about his well-being, it follows that you care about what goes in and, as a consequence, how it looks when it comes out. And that’s because there are things to learn about your infant by attending to the gross stuff that you just couldn’t know if you attended only to the appealing stuff, like smiles and cooing. Changes in his stool may be your first indication that he’s ill. And inspecting his vomit might be the only way to know definitively where that set of tiddlywinks went.

While the blissful, sanitized, halcyon ideal of parenthood that many of us begin with might be seductive (and in fact might be necessary to get any of us to willingly commit to it in the first place), the truth is that there is a dirty side too. And that dirty side is, in its own way, beautiful. OK, maybe beautiful goes too far, but at the very least, it’s revealing. You learn more about an infant—what he needs, what he’s eating, and how he’s feeling—by also looking in the diaper. And over time, you come to appreciate it.

# $ % !

I only mention all of this because what I’ve come to learn about babies is also true of language.

The ancient Sanskrit grammarians of the fourth and fifth centuries BC discovered and documented the patterns of sound and meaning that still form the basis for our modern scientific conception of language. And since then, philosophers, linguists, anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists have studied how language works—how people make new words, how they move their mouths to articulate sounds, and how words change over time. The subject matter is fascinating. Language is fascinating. But over the last twenty-six centuries language scholars have focused on a sanitized and saccharine type of language. For the most part, language scientists have only been talking about the pretty part of the metaphorical baby. And that’s a pity, because you actually learn far more by considering the dirty parts too.

Let me give you two examples—two ways in which dirty language reveals things about language that we’d never have suspected otherwise.

We’ve known for a long time that specific parts of the brain play special roles in language. The critical bit of evidence is that when these certain parts of the brain suffer damage, due for instance to a stroke, lesion, or trauma, people start to have trouble pronouncing or understanding words. But the same brain damage leaves other cognitive capacities unaffected. This tells us that these particular brain regions are important for language. But there’s a twist, and it involves profanity. Damage to language-supporting brain regions doesn’t impair all language equally. In fact, a lot of the time, even when brain damage obliterates most language, swearing still remains. And people with brain damage do swear. A lot. (They do have a lot to swear about, what with the brain damage and all.)

This fact usually gets swept under the rug in discussions of language disorders or how the brain encodes language. But it’s important because it means that the automatic, reflexive swearing that spurts out when you stub your toe or get cut off on the highway uses different parts of the brain from the rest of language. Language, we’ve come to find out, isn’t all localized in the same place in the brain. The story is far more complex and far more nuanced than that. But we only know this because of the shits and goddamnits that leap from the mouths of people with brain damage who are otherwise linguistically challenged.

Here’s another example. Words change their meaning over time. Sometimes they become more general. For example, in English, the word dog actually once referred to a particular kind of pooch, something like a mastiff. Now it’s used for dogs in general. It’s changed. Conversely, words can get more specific. The English word hound used to mean “dog” in general (you might suspect this if you know some German, where the word Hund still refers to any dog), but now hound refers only to hunting dogs, so it includes greyhounds but not poodles. Fascinating, sure. But why do old meanings go away when words change their meanings? Dog and hound provide no answer. But there are clues in the dirty underbelly of language. Consider the name Dick. I’m willing to bet that you don’t know anyone under the age of fifty-five named Dick. You know young Richards and young Ricks but no young Dicks. But there are plenty of old Dicks. Why? For exactly the reason you think. Once a word gains a new meaning (once dick came to refer to the male member), then it becomes problematic to use the same word with its older meaning. The name Dick is tarnished by the common noun dick. New uses of words push old uses out of the way as a natural part of generational language change. But you wouldn’t really understand why words shed their old meanings if you didn’t consider where all the Dicks have gone.

# $ % !

So that’s the flavor of what’s to follow. The chapters that follow represent deep dives into eleven different dimensions of the science of swearing. Profanity has a lot to teach us about language—not only how it’s realized in the brain and how it changes over time but what happens when children learn it, how it hooks into our emotions, and why it occasionally trips us up. But profanity is also fascinating in its own right. We’ll investigate where it gets its emotional and social impact, where our beliefs come from about what’s appropriate and what’s obscene, and how a society establishes and enforces norms for linguistic behavior.

This is an enterprise worth pursuing because despite how prevalent and how powerful profanity is, almost none of us know even the most basic facts about it. Why are the profane words in English profane? Is it something about how they’re spelled? How they sound? Where they come from? Are the same words profane across the English-speaking world? How representative is English of the world’s languages? What does swearing do to your brain? What does it do in aggregate to a culture with different religious, cultural, or ethnic groups?

Admittedly, we don’t have definitive answers to all of these questions. But a few researchers are working on them. These psychologists, linguists, and neuroscientists are not always particularly forthcoming, and with good reason—there are strong taboos at play. Even though many people use profanity, we also tend to think that profanity is not appropriate for certain contexts; indeed, that’s what makes it profanity. So if you’re a scientist doing research on swearwords or teaching a class on profanity at a public university, you may well experience some pushback—politicians, pundits, or even the public wondering out loud about the value of this particular use of tax money. And while universities are designed to be open forums for intellectual freedom and free speech, that won’t keep a professor from being fired for using words like fuck and pussy in the classroom, as happened to a tenured Louisiana State University professor in June 2015.1

So within research institutions, there has long existed an outsized requirement for researchers to justify studying profanity. In linguistics departments, the only day that profanity makes it onto the syllabus is usually when there’s no way to avoid it. That’s in presenting so-called infixes, such as the fucking in un-fucking-believable. Because only profane words (or near facsimiles) can be “infixed” into other words in English, linguists feel safe presenting profanity on that day of class. It’s the only way to convey the concept. For the most part, though, language researchers steer clear of studying profanity, even if it’s potentially fascinating, for fear of what will happen when their institutional review board evaluates their experimental materials or when a committee of their peers reads their publications during tenure deliberations.

Nevertheless, a small cabal of researchers has been toiling away on profanity. With several exceptions, most notably psychologists Timothy Jay2 and Steven Pinker,3 they’ve largely done their work without much public attention. At least until recently, they’ve been practitioners of a secret science of swearing.

But things have started to change, in large part because of changes in public language norms. The highly regulated public airwaves don’t carry the bulk of public communication as they once did. First cable television and then the Internet have created a Wild West for words, where the true will of the people has its way. And if social media are any indication, the people want to be able to swear. And to hear swearing. And to read swearing.

As the public has become more accustomed to profanity, taboo words have started to make their way more prominently into mainstream science. And that’s where we are now. And that’s why it’s time for this book. Profanity needs a little celebration. That’s what this book is. It’s a coming-out party for the cognitive science of swearing. This is a science that tracks words over centuries as they shift and change, that measures their impact on a child’s developing emotional health, and that uses them as a Rosetta stone to the atypical brains of people with Tourette’s syndrome or aphasia. At every turn, the dirty, uncomfortable, taboo side of language reveals things that you would never guess if you didn’t look. That’s what this book is about. It’s a guide to what you learn about language when you take a deep breath, hold your nose, and then open up the diaper and take a close look.