January 25, 2004

The FCC and the S word

Bill Poser suggests that that the FCC's renewed interest in rules about indecent words is "stupid."

This reminds me of a conversation among three 4-year-olds in the back of a car that I overheard a few years ago. To protect the innocent, I'll call the speakers A, B and C. Their exchange went something like this:

A: Do you know the bad words?
B: Yes. My mom says them all the time.
C: Mine too.
A: I know the S word.
C: [covering her ears] Don't say it! Don't say it!
B: [trying to put his hands over A's mouth] That's the worst one! Don't say it, we'll get in trouble!
A: I'm going to say it! "STUPID." There, I said it.
C: No! No! You can't say that! Don't say it again!

Their (admirably kind and caring) preschool had a strict rule against calling people names, and stupid was high on the list of proscribed insults. The kids had assimilated this prohibition into the natural class of lexical taboos.

In this context, I need to come to the defense of the FCC. It's common and natural for cultures to impose strongly-felt restrictions on who can be heard by whom to use which words when. The standard extreme example is the "mother-in-law languages" of the Australian language family Djirbal:

All dialects of Dyirbal had two separate languages, everyday language and "mother-in-law language" which was used in the presence of certain 'taboo' relatives. While these languages shared phonology and grammar, they had entirely different vocabularies.

Though harder on learners (especially second language learners), this is more systematic and perhaps more logical than the FCC's regulations.The distinction represented by feces vs. shit is extended to split the entire lexicon, and rather than distinguishing between broadcast and cable, prime time and late night, and so on, the distinction is simply based on kinship relations. Still, I feel that a decent respect to the cultural norms of indigenous populations requires that we should avoid using the S-word in discussing such taboos, whether among the Ngadjonji of north east Queensland, or the Parents Television Council of south California.

I'd also like to point out that there are some contexts in which certain vocabulary may be required rather than forbidden, though anthropologists have not studied such cases as extensively. As an example, I can cite a joke that was current when I was in the U.S. Army a few decades ago. It involves a conversation between two mechanics in the motor pool, A and B:

A: Hey, could you pass me the pliers?
B: Say what?
A: Please pass me the pliers.
B: Pass you what?
A: The pliers.
B: What did you say?
A: Pass me the fucking pliers!
B: Oh, why didn't you say so in the first place?

The exchange is pretty realistic. At least, I can certainly imagine that if one of my friends in those days had asked me to "please pass the pliers", in just those words, I would have responded by asking him what the fuck I'd done to piss him off.

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 25, 2004 10:42 PM