August 05, 2004

Disgust and language: metaphor, reality, both?

In yesterday's post on disgust for voices and accents, I suggested tentatively that this topic had been missed both in the literature on disgust and the literature on sociolinguistics. I also wondered how to distinguish between "conventional expressions of prejudice" and "real emotions of disgust".

Paul Bloom picked up on both of these issues in email:

I saw your very interesting comment on disgust in "Language Log"; two quick thoughts:

1. I'm on the road right now, with no access to books, but I have a strong memory that William Ian Miller, in "The Anatomy of Disgust" includes a discussion of the disgust generated by speech, including by certain accents.

2. My sense, though -- and I've argued this in detail elsewhere -- is that we don't feel actual disgust in response to experiences such as, e.g., Boston accents or Southern accents. We call it "disgust", but this is a metaphoric usage, used to express a certain form of strong disapproval. With only a few exceptions, disgust only really occurs in response to the "core disgust" stimuli listed by Paul Rozin: feces, vomit, rotten meat, etc. Someone might describe a certain accent as disgusting, for instance, but they won't actually show any of the facial and bodily signs of being disgusted. That's the theory, anyway.

I obviously need to do some more reading.

Meanwhile, I'll express an amateur's opinion that Paul is (at least sometimes) wrong about the physiology of disgust for voices and accents. For some years, I've been playing samples of sometimes-stigmatized dialects to classes of undergraduates, and some audio clips definitely produce facial expressions of disgust for some student listeners. When I ask individual students about this in private, some of them confide that particular accents make them feel visceral flashes of negative emotion that they can't control, even though they think that these feelings are inappropriate -- or think that they should say that they think that these feelings are inappropriate.

I'm not sure that the negative emotions in question are always (or even ever) the same as the disgust we feel for feces, vomit etc. Other feelings such as resentment and annoyance are available, and I'm not sure how to distinguish these other than by verbal reports, which I admit are not reliable even when honest. But I think there's a reasonable prima facie case that some degree of real disgust is sometimes involved.

I should also say that it's quite common for feelings of shame to come into play. "I hate my accent" and similar phrases are commonly heard, and even more commonly felt, though usually in the context of complicated identity issues:

(link) i have lived here my whole life and i wanna move away. I hate my accent.. i will spend my entire life trying to rid myself of it. i never ever date southern guys.. my boyfriend now is from cleveland, ohio.
south carolina= rednecks/sluts/football crazed lunatics.
( link) I try not to listen to my voice. The accent makes me cringe.

But I'm out of my depth at this point, in several different disciplines at once.


Posted by Mark Liberman at August 5, 2004 11:40 AM