July 20, 2005


Mark Liberman stubs his toe and considers abusive language, asking some questions:

I'm sure that people in every culture insult one another. But is there a counterpart in every culture to "abusive language"? Is the "abusive language" of insults always analogous to (and sharing expressions with) the "curse words" that express pain or frustration? What about ways to indicate emphasis?

and providing some bibliography on swearing.  I don't have the answers, but I have a few observations and more bibliography, including a recent book that takes linguists to task (unfairly, I claim) for having largely disregarded the taboo vocabulary of English.

The recent book:

Wajnryb, Ruth.  2005.  Expletive deleted: A good look at bad language.  NY: Free Press.

This is meant for a general audience and relies heavily on a few earlier publications: Hughes's Swearing and Jay's Cursing in America, which Mark cites, plus:

Allan, Keith & Kate Burridge.  1991.  Euphemism and dysphemism: Language used as shield and weapon.  NY: Oxford University Press.

Andersson, Lars-Gunnar & Peter Trudgill.  1990.  Bad language.  London: Penguin.

Dooling, Richard.  1996.  Blue streak: Swearing, free speech and sexual harassment.  NY: Random House.

Jay, Timothy.  1992.  Why we curse: A neuro-psycho-social theory of speech.  Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Kidman, Angus.  1993.  How to do things with four letter words: A study of the semantics of swearing in Australia.  BA Honours thesis, Linguistics, Univ. of New England, Armidale NSW.  Available online.

Montagu, Ashley.  2001.  The anatomy of swearing.  Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press.

For the record, I note that Allan, Andersson, Burridge, and Trudgill certainly count as linguists; in fact, Wajnryb labels Allan and Burridge as "linguists" or "academic linguists" when she mentions them.  Among the other linguists she cites are David Crystal and Connie Eble; meanwhile, Erving Goffman, Steve Pinker, and Jesse Sheidlower surely have at least fellow-traveler status.  There are, however, a fair number of "academic linguists" she doesn't mention, but should have.  I'll get to that in a second.

The case against the scholars begins on page 5, where Wajnryb notes the reluctance of (some) lexicographers to treat "bad language".  On page 6 she floats an explanation:

The fact that serious word people have been so hesitant to take the plunge [and discuss taboo vocabulary] perhaps carries a message for the would-be researcher.  Part of the problem is that it's hard to write about SHIT, FUCK, CUNT, and their fellows without using the words themselves.  Although it has been done.  In 1948 one Burges Johnson succeeded in writing a book about swearing, rather romantically titled The Lost Art of Profanity, without once mentioning any of the naughty words.  And Jesse Sheidlower wrote a famous book called The F-Word, but such an endeavor can't have been easy.

Now, either this is incredibly sloppy writing, or else Wajnryb has never actually looked at The F-Word, in either of its editions.  The title avoids the word FUCK, for obvious reasons, but the book itself shrinks from nothing.  Wajnryb should check it out.  (She might also want to look at the work of Allan Walker Read, which goes back more than seventy years.  And the journal Maledicta, now up to volume 14.)

The indictment extends to linguists in general on page 7:

... I find it strange that linguists have allowed themselves to be affected by the taboo to the point that its exploration has been underresearched...  Of course, in referring to the lack of interest in my topic, I mean the absence of academic investigative interest.

What the fuck am I, chopped liver?  Studies Out in Left Field (edited by Zwicky et al., originally published in 1971 and reprinted by Benjamins in 1992) contains a number of papers by "academic linguists" (most notably, Jim McCawley) which are light-hearted in tone but entirely serious as pieces of linguistic analysis.  Wajnryb mentions neither SOLF nor McCawley (Kidman mentions both, though McCawley is cited under his pseudonyms).  On pp. 162-3 she notes that there are interesting facts for linguists to look at:

Swearing is culturally and linguistically shaped in other ways.  For example, it has its own grammar, dependent on the language in which the swearing takes place.  Take, for instance, the English sentence "Who the hell has been here?," which is probably derived [historically? synchronically?] from "Who in the hell has been here?." just as "What the fuck are you doing?" may be derived from "What in the fuck are you doing?"  Here the ordinary rules of English grammar combine with swearing-specific grammatical constraints, such as the use of "the" before "hell" and before FUCK, to give us a grammatically well-formed utterance.

Annoyingly, Wajnryb has chosen to illustrate the grammar of swearing with a construction -- postmodifying on earth, in the world, in (the) hell, the shit, the fuck, etc. -- that has received the attention of English syntacticians for over thirty years, but without alluding to this literature and without mentioning what most of us think are its most interesting features: that this postmodification is possible only with WH expressions, in fact only with interrogative (not relative) WH expressions; that these postmodifiers are strictly ordered with respect to postmodifying else; and that the postmodification is possible only for single-word WH phrases.  Someone with time on their hands could easily spend a good bit of it putting together a bibliography of places where this construction has been mentioned by syntacticians.

Jumping ahead to more recent literature, there's the analysis of NPs like (doodly) squat, (jack)shit, and fuck(-all) in sentences like You (don't) know jackshit about linguistics -- by, among others, Larry Horn ("Flaubert triggers, squatitive negation, and other quirks of grammar", in the 2001 volume Perspectives on Negation and Polarity Items, edited by Hoeksema et al.) and Paul Postal ("The structure of one type of American English vulgar minimizer", chapter 5 in his 2004 collection Skeptical Linguistic Essays).

That's a tiny taste of syntax.  In the world of phonology, Wajnryb mentions in passing (on p. 35) the insertion of expletives in emphatic forms like infuckingcredible, which she labels "the integrated adjective", following Geoffrey Hughes.  She seems not to know that there are hundreds of mentions of this phenomenon in the technical literature on phonology, the central work being John McCarthy's 1982 Language paper, "Prosodic structure and expletive infixation".  (The phenomenon is also known in the linguistics literature as expletive insertion, fuckin' insertion, and probably other things as well.)  Again, there's a job here for an earnest bibliographer -- and McCawley would once again be in the bibliography.

Sociolinguists haven't neglected taboo vocabulary, either, but maybe it's time to wrap up this topic and move to another.  To summarize so far:  It's very very far from being the case that "academic linguists" have ignored the taboo vocabulary of English.  We can fairly be said to have reveled in it, in fact.  (Linguists tend to be playful people.)  Wajnryb wasn't aware of this, probably because her own interests are in the psychological and social aspects of swearing, and this is where the interests of her readers undoubtedly lie as well, so she's tended to depend on people like Jay (a psychologist) and Hughes (a historian of the English language), dipping into linguistics mostly in easily accessible works intended for a general audience.  But this means she has no right to get all pissy about "academic linguists".

On to matters where linguists might not have a whole lot to offer, like the psychological and social functions of swearing.   Wajnryb distinguishes three kinds of swearing: cathartic swearing (called "annoyance swearing" by Burridge and Montagu), abusive swearing (insulting), and social swearing (what I think of as "social glue", marking solidarity).  Respectively: "Oh fuck, my computer just crashed" and "Fuck you, asshole!" and "How the fuck are ya doin', you old bastard?"  To which we might add Mark Liberman's emphatic swearing, as in "This posting is fuckin' brilliant!".  I'm not sure where this leaves more-or-less literal uses of taboo vocabulary, as in "I want you to fuck me, hard, and then suck my cock"; given an occasion where I actually want to communicate these desires to someone, perhaps urgently, it's hard to imagine doing so without dipping into the taboo vocabulary (or sounding ridiculous).  Sometimes these are just the right words for the job.

Wajnryb tends to view cathartic swearing in terms of the hydraulic metaphor: pressure builds up, and swearing relieves the pressure.  And she tends to view abusive swearing as displaced aggression: instead of hitting someone, you swear at them.  I have problems with both of these (extremely popular) ideas.

My objection to the hydraulic metaphor is, in fact, that it's extremely popular: it's just a bit of folk psychology, a cultural schema, retailed as an explanatory account of behavior.  No doubt a lot of people experience cathartic language as the blowing off of steam, but that's surely because that's the way we've learned to configure the experience.  There are, after all, plenty of cultures where people interpret bad events as the result of witchcraft -- because they learned that there are witches and learned what witches do.  From within the culture, such experiences and understandings are real enough, but they aren't scientific explanations.  (Note that cathartic language covers a lot more than cathartic swearing.  Ow and ouch are cathartic, but not swear words.)

My objection to the displaced aggression idea is that it covers so little of the territory of abusive language.  Some abusive language expresses retributive or pre-emptive aggression, I'm sure, but there are plenty of other motives: contempt, disgust, dissociation from The Other, assertion of superiority, at least.  (Note that abusive language covers a lot more than abusive swearing.  Idiot and moron are abusive, but not swear words.  Compare them with cocksucker and dickhead.)

The question of universality is vexed.  Literal swearing is usually said to depend on the taboos of particular cultures, and there's clearly a connection, but it's also clear that the connection isn't very tight.  Everybody knows that plenty of words in taboo areas aren't swear words, and it's also possible for some taboo areas to have little or no taboo vocabulary associated with them: money, in particular income, is a very sensitive area in American culture, but there are no clear financial swear words in English.  So literal swearing is significantly conventionalized, dependent not only on cultural taboos but also on conventional restrictions on how certain lexical items are to be used.  The question is then whether all languages have vocabulary that is conventionalized in this way.  But what counts as "in this way"?  Where's the line, if any, between swearing and merely abusive language?  Are retard and dago swear words in English?  You begin to worry that the metalanguage we're using just isn't up to the job, and to think that maybe it's time to call in the philosophers, as Mark Liberman suggests.

Wajnryb doesn't answer these questions, though in chapter 12 ("Cross-culturally foul") -- where she maintains that the Japanese insult one another by using the system of politeness and respect marking creatively -- she suggests that abusive language might be universal.  But abusive swearing?  Literal swearing?  Cathartic vocalizations that are conventionalized?  Cathartic vocabulary?  Cathartic swearing?

Wajnryb does observe that the same taboo vocabulary tends to be re-used for many different functions (as in my examples with fuck in them, above), an effect she attributes to there being such a "small reservoir of swear words" (p. 25) for so many functions.  In the case of social swearing and emphatic swearing, such re-use is essentially guaranteed.  Social swearing involves the use of literal, cathartic, or abusive swearing to demonstrate closeness and trust: we're such asshole buddies that I can use this language with you.  And emphatic swearing is just literal, cathartic, or abusive swearing bleached of its denotative content, leaving only the connotation of "strength".

Dammit!  This posting is way the fuck too long.  (And what's going on with way the fuck?)

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at July 20, 2005 08:48 PM