I swear (Most emphatically) I never swear. I detest the habit. What the devil do you mean?
Prof. Higgins in Shaw's Pygmalion
And he that curseth his father, or his mother, shall surely be put to death.
The Bible: Exodus
Why We Curse: A Neuro-Psycho-Social Theory of Speech By Timothy Jay
John Benjamins Publishing Company, Amsterdam/Philadelphia 2000
ISBN 90 272 2186 3
Perhaps it is not too far-fetched a statement to say that most of us like to think of ourselves as (more or less) rational, articulate and disciplined human beings. Having postulated this, I would add in haste that we are not always quite as rational, articulate and disciplined as we might wish to be since we are, like it or not, also emotional, sexual and aggressive animals. Since both speech and emotions are universal features of the animal species called humans across space and time, so is swearing.
Now, you may wish to claim that you are so verbally hygienic and taboo-conscious that you never-ever swear, not even in the relative privacy of your own ego, super ego and id. Well... if this is the case, you can start polishing your halo as of today, and might as well stop reading right here and now.
However, most of us humans are just that, humans—we have not quite sublimated our life into sainthood. Consequently, although we may wish to keep our language, along with our body, soul and teeth, fresh and fussily flossed, the language we use often circumvents our socially conditioned sanitising impetus. But when and why do we disregard taboos and expectations—why do we swear? For example, why is merde, shit, szar, kusobaba a not-altogether-uncommon word in French, Hungarian, English, and Japanese respectively?
This is a simple question about a deceptively simple fact of life. Yet there is no readily available, coherent theory of cursing to explain this verbal behaviour which is well-documented from times immemorial. Timothy Jay, psychology professor at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, and author of several psycholinguistic studies on dirty talking, takes us on an exciting and comprehensive tour of profane language. But one of the reasons why his book is so engaging is because through the study of cursing as language it is first and foremost about human behaviour and thinking.
Jay starts his book by defining cursing as emotionally powerful, offensive words as fuck or emotionally harmful expression such as up yours. His category of cursing is a broad church (no blasphemy intended). Apart from swearing proper, it subsumes subcategories as scatology, slang, ethnic-racial slurs, vulgarity, taboo speech, verbal aggression, insulting, name calling profanity, blasphemy and obscenity. The Neuro-Psycho-Social Theory (NPS) advanced in the book aims at "restoring emotion to language and dismantle emotionless (curse-less) language theories that have been promulgated for over a century" (p11).
The NPS Theory of cursing embraces three important aspects of our behaviour. Namely, that we normally operate under three interlocking systems: neurological control, psychological restrains and socio-cultural restrictions.
At the neurological level, cursing can be non-propositional or propositional. The former is an automatic response to pain, surprise, happiness, frustration or some other emotion, coming from the right hemisphere of the brain. The latter is, however, done creatively and often for highly strategic purposes such as dirty joke telling or steamy pillow-talk. Jay argues this is because the neurological control, our brain, functions as two interlocking neural systems of control processes: the cerebral cortex regulates both speech production and comprehension, whereas the subcortical system is responsible for the control of emotional reactions.
This is confirmed by the fact that people suffering from neurological disorders, such as the Tourette Syndrome or aphasia, cannot speak but can swear articulately and will do so to express emotions. So although brain-damaged people may lose their ability to construct creative, syntactically governed propositional statements such as swearing in the witness box, they can swear profusely nonetheless when driven by a strong emotion.
This phenomenon is due to the lateralization of the brain, i.e. to the division of labour between the left and right cerebral hemisphere. As we know, verbal reasoning—along with calculation and analytical thinking—reside in the left, while spatial reasoning, musical abilities and visualization in the right hemisphere. Consequently, syntactic and semantic functions, including swearing as in giving oath in the witness box, are rooted in the left, but emotional language, including automatic cursing (e.g. when hitting your head) from the right hemisphere. Hence in case of left-hemisphere brain damage, speakers can swear but only automatically as an emotional reaction coming from the right hemisphere—but they would not be able to repeat the very same swearing if required.
Similarly, if you hear somebody say something like Thank god, I'm an atheist it does not mean to say that the speaker has gone off their rockers. The statement is not a nonsensical paradox, because Thank god is only an automatic swear interjection which adds emotional connotative meaning to the propositional statement that follows i.e. I'm an atheist. God is not meant in the original referential sense but in the emotive connotative sense.
After the neurological factors, such as emotional speech, verbal aggression etc, part three of the book details the psychological aspects of cursing, dealing with personality, religiosity, sexual anxiety, the sexual lexicon and so on. Part four tackles the social and cultural factors, including speaker power, gender identity, joke telling, verbal duelling, slang, magic, etiquette and law.
Of course, cursing is not necessarily abusive or aggressive. It can be humourous, playful, and creative. And there is also what Lars Anderson and Peter Trudgill call auxiliary or 'lazy' cursing which is not directed against anything or anybody in particular, and is often not even emphatic as in bloody this, fucking that etc. (Bad Language, Blackwell:Oxford 1990: p61.) Jay's NPS theory of cursing accounts for contextually relevant, emotional and therefore informative uses of profane language. But how about swearing which has no such functions? How does swearing behaviour rooted in sheer habit and laziness fit into the theory, you may wonder.
Well, one of the best reads in the book is about the Ten Myths about Cursing and this is where the question of lazy swearing is tackled: it is supposedly the 10th Myth about cursing. Jay argues that 'laziness' is not the reason ever for swearing, and dismisses the idea of auxiliary cursing as linguistic snobbery. People do not use curse words because their mental lexicon is impoverished, he argues, but because "neurological, psychological and socio-cultural forces compel them to curse" (p259). If no hesitation or pause signals that the speaker is searching for the right word, the curse word is not a poor substitute for the 'real' expression from the mental lexicon. Sometimes this may be so, but it seems to me that this particular argument in the otherwise superbly written book remains an assertion, unsupported by research.
Why We Swear closes with the beginning: to stimulate new research, Jay offers an impressively extensive and systematically organised table of literature on cursing, grouped under subject headings, with brief comments on content. The fact that the longest list of research literature is under the heading of Human Sexuality and Gender Issues speaks for itself and re-enforces the thesis of the book: cursing is a fundamental and universal feature of human communication that challenges primary taboos such as sex.
This has implications for all professionals involved in language and communication issues—including language teachers, interpreters and translators -- linguists in general. Most of us would agree that emotions are vital part of most communication processes. Those of us who translate films are acutely aware of the significance of swearing in films, and how to deal with it creatively.
By Zsuzsanna Ardó
A writer/broadcaster and translator/interpreter