Swearing: a curse or a blessing?
Have you ever thought why a tiny chain of sounds such as “ba***rd” can trigger a whole chain of events, which can even end to the hospital or to a police station? Today I will tackle a “taboo topic”, namely taboo words or swearwords and the paradox they entail. This paradox is linked to the fact that swearing is a linguistic function, but at the same time differs in significant ways from the rest of our linguistic faculty. Like all other words, swearwords are conventional, that is their meaning results from a tacit agreement between members of the same lexical community. Yet, swearwords constitute a very specific word category and it is exactly this that in my view generates the paradox. Why although linguistic communication is generally thought to be highly cooperative (Grice, 1975), the swearwords largely irritate and offend people. The paradox, thus, consists in that we seem to have signed some sort of “social contract” dictating that instructing someone to get engaged in sexual intercourse (paraphrased in a two-word expression consisting of the f-word followed by the second person personal pronoun “you”) is something very negative and highly offensive. But isn’t it strange that people have agreed upon which words are to be used as shocking and offensive? Why don’t we rather agree to not use these words at all? I think that part of the answer lies in the fact that these words are connected to a primitive aspect of humanity: swearing seems to constitute a more primitive function than our more civilized capacity to engage in normal decent conversations.
If you think about it, swearwords are merely a combination of specific sounds
–which when combined to form other words are totally innocent– and yet they are so powerful. They can end relationships of people that till the “fatal” moment of utterance have been very close to each other. Or they can strangely bound strangers by having them share the same bench in a police station. They can even provoke a whole public discussion if uttered by the mouth of a public figure, as was the case when Greece’s Prime Minister proclaimed himself “malaka” (i.e. “j**k) thinking being “off the record”, while all the country’s media were broadcasting a long awaited official statement concerning the country’s economical situation. But what is it that makes these words so powerful?
Although we cannot go back to the first swearword on earth to see how and why it emerged, we can tell from our everyday experience that swearwords are very strongly connected to emotion. The prototypical situation where a swearword will be used is one where the speaker undergoes a strong emotional experience. Traditionally, swearwords are uttered when the speaker is angry with another person (or in the case of the Greek prime minster with oneself), a situation or even an object. How many times haven’t you sworn –even if only mentally– your own destiny while an unexpected traffic jam makes you run late for a very important meeting; or an innocent hammer because you accidentally hit your finger with it instead of the nail? On the opposite side of the communicative channel, one can be really offended and, as noted above proceed to extreme reactions, if he or any of his beloved ones is the recipient of the characterization “as**ole”. It seems, thus, that what makes swearwords so powerful compared to the rest of our vocabulary is the fact that they are intrinsically arousing and linked to an extreme negative valence.
As a matter of fact, along with this theoretical observation, evidence from how our brain processes swearwords consents to their “high emotionality”. First of all, contrary to our general linguistic faculty and our mental lexicon that is mainly controlled by our left hemisphere, it seems to be the right hemisphere that is mostly responsible for the processing of swearwords. Although we should be really careful when we make claims of brain lateralization (i.e. claims that the right or the left hemisphere of our brain is exclusively responsible for different cognitive functions), there is a general consensus that the right hemisphere is somewhat more implicated in emotional reactions. With this in mind, it is worth noting that aphasic patients, people who after an accident or stroke have lesions on their left hemisphere and have, thus, lost their capacity to speak, still preserve their ability to swear (Landis, 2006; Pinker, 2008; Van Lancker & Cummings, 1999). This fact highly suggests that it is the right hemisphere to control our capacity to swear, and, thus partly provides evidence for their emotional nature.
Another line of research also reflects the high emotionality of swearwords as compared to other word categories. A study by Bowers & Pleydell-Pearce (2011) showed that our body itself reacts differently to swearwords as compared to other word categories. These researchers measured people’s electrodermal activity, that is the electrical conductance of their skin, while they were reading aloud swearwords (e.g. “f**k”), euphemisms of swearwords (e.g. “f-word”) neutral words (e.g. “glue”) and euphemisms of the neutral words (e.g. “g-word”). What they found is that people’s skin conductance was higher when they uttered the swearwords as compared to all three other word categories. Previous research has shown that electrodermal activity increases with activation of the amygdala, a part of the brain shown to be particularly implicated in emotional reactions. This finding is, thus, interesting for two reasons: on the one hand it corroborates the view that swearwords are especially emotional; on the other hand, it suggests that it’s not the concept denoted by swearwords that is responsible for their special affective value. The researchers rather suggest that our affective reactions linked to swearwords result from a process of verbal conditioning. In their view, our reaction to swearwords is developed in an analogous way that salivation of Pavlov’s dogs increased upon hearing of a specific sound, because the dogs had previously associated this sound with eating (as Pavlov had made sure that they had had many previous experiences where food was presented together with this specific sound). Similarly, we have learned to automatically react emotionally to the hearing of swearwords, merely due to their sound, and without really thinking of the concept their acoustic form redirects us to. But if in the case of Pavlov’s dogs it was Pavlov himself who was responsible for the association the dogs had made between the sound and the food, in our case how are the associations between swearwords and specific emotional reactions made? In other words, how come these words are set apart from the rest of our vocabulary and stored and processed alone in our right hemisphere?
Evolution and societal factors seem to interact once more in an interesting way. Generally, there seems to be a cross-linguistic compatibility as to the semantic categories from which languages take their “dirty” vocabulary. Researchers working on swearwords agree that there are roughly five conceptual categories swearwords refer to: bodily effluvia, sexuality, disease, religion, and disfavored social groups (Pinker, 2008; Jay, 2009). The universality of the first two categories can be easily explained in evolutionary terms, as the unease such topics can provoke can be seen as evolutionarily adaptive. People from every country, religion or social group are quite likely to feel disgusted when obliged to listen to a word referring to excrements. According to Pinker (2008) this linguistic disgust might originate from an instinctual attitude towards things that might jeopardize our health. Again, swearwords referring to disease (not so common in English but common in other languages, e.g. Dutch) are also easy to analyze as even in western societies so advanced in terms of life expectancy, citizens are still faced with the ultimate disaster expecting every human being: death. Finally, the unease related to sex seems to be partially connected to biology, partially determined by social factors. Roughly speaking we can say that sex implicates high medical stakes along with socially undesired results, ranging from sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancies, to unpredicted reactions on behalf of cheated partners, puritan relatives etc. (Pinker, 2008). But the strongly affective character of those swearwords referring to religion or social classes seem to be socially determined rather than in terms of evolution. For example, cursing a divine entity might be perceived as more or less offensive, and thus trigger a higher or lower affective reaction, according to how religious or irreverent someone is. The same goes for swearwords drawing their power merely by denoting someone as part of a specific social or racial category: it is clearly historical and social factors that will determine whether it is offensive or not to refer to someone as part of a specific social group, factors lost somewhere in historical anecdotes. So some swearwords seem to accomplish their role for evolutionary reasons while others due to social factors.
But coming back to our initial question, namely why we agree upon which words should be highly taboo, instead of agreeing to eliminate such words from our vocabulary altogether, we can say that it’s partly because swearwords seem to be somewhat useful both from an individual and from a societal perspective. Departing from the observation that people swear when they feel pain, Stephens, Atkins, and Kingston (2009) conducted an experiment in order to study tolerance to pain as a function of swearing. Two groups of participants recited a word, while immersing their hands in cold water. In the first group the word was a swearword, while in the second a neutral word. The researchers compared participants’ pain resistance, heart rate and pain perception and they found that “swearing participants” withstood pain significantly longer than participants of the control group, while they perceived pain to a lesser degree. But apart from the fact that swearing seems to produce a hypoalgesic effect, thus being somehow useful at the individual level, one could even think that, despite its aggressive nature, it is useful for society as well. If we take Damasio’s (2009) observation that although incapable of controlling emotions themselves, people are still able to control their emotional reactions, it could be hypothesized that, in the course of evolution, the physically aggressive behavior which in primates appears as a result of a painful stimulus, in humans it has been transformed into linguistically aggressive behavior, for preserving the social order. Long story short, better swear than hit…
Bowers, J. & Pleydell-Pearce, C. (2011). Swearing, Euphemisms, and Linguistic Relativity. PLOS ONE, 6 (7). doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0022341
Damasio, A. (2009). This Time With Feeling. Talk at the Aspen Ideas Festival, Aspen Institute, 07/04/2009. http://fora.tv/2009/07/04/Antonio_Damasio_This_Time_With_Feeling
Grice, H. P. (1975). Logic and conversation. In P. Cole & J. L. Morgan (Eds.), Syntax and semantics, Vol. 3: Speech acts (pp. 41–58). New York, NY: Academic Press.
Jay, T. (2009). The Utility and Ubiquity of Taboo Words. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 4 (2), 153-161.
Landis, T. (2006). Emotional Words: What’s So Different From Just Words? Cortex, 42 (6), 823-830.
Pinker, S. (2008). The stuff of thought. London: Penguin Books.
Stephens, R., Atkins, J. & Kingston, A. (2009). Swearing as a Response to Pain. Neuroreport, 20 (12), 1056-1060. doi:10.1097/WNR.0b013e32832e64b1
Van Lancker, D. & Cummings, J.L. (1999). Expletives: neurolinguistic and neurobehavioral perspectives on swearing. Brain Research Reviews, 31, 83-104.