This I swear

After my last post, I remarked to Jason that I’ve long found linguistics fascinating and, if I’d ever pursued a career in academia, I think it’s one of the few fields I’d have considered studying. Language has a fascinating duality: it’s at the same time one of the most practical, basic processes in all of life and yet, at the same time, is capable of being used to create great beauty and art. I used the analogy of a woodworker poring over his tools at the end of that post, and I think that’s a metaphor that fits well. Woodworking is another example of something that can be both extremely practical in use as well as expressing art and beauty—often at the very same time.

That really just skims the surface of what there is to say about language, but without going into too much more depth, I wanted to offer up this link (also courtesy Daring Fireball) to a fantastic article in The New Republic by Steven Pinker on the subject of swearing: why we do it, where it comes from, and why it’s considered so objectionable (a piece that, as it turns out, Jason linked to almost a month ago. Curses!).

I personally didn’t start swearing until I was in high school, despite the fact that I was exposed to it much earlier by peers and likely by the media as well. That’s one of those things that has always totally perplexed me about the restrictions on language on television and in other media—always ostensibly “for the children.” As Pinker points out, “This claim is made despite the fact that everyone is familiar with the words, including most children, and that no one has ever spelled out how the mere hearing of a word could corrupt one’s morals.”

If anything, I’d argue that most kids have a more extensive and varied repertoire of curses than their parents. And it makes me wonder if those parents so concerned with the welfare of their offspring’s ears have forgotten what it was like to be a teenager—because if any were to claim that they’d never sworn at that age, my response would be an appropriately hearty “bullshit.” Perhaps the argument could be made that they want to give their children the benefit of a “better” upbringing than they themselves had, but I agree with Pinker’s sentiment that merely hearing—or, for that matter, even using—a word isn’t enough to “corrupt one’s morals.” That said, I wrote in my last post that language is undeniably a weapon, and it certainly can be wielded in a harmful fashion. But weapons are, by their very nature, amoral, relying instead on the intent and use of the wielder to take on any sort of moral meaning. Or, to sum it up in a pithy capsule that’ll fit in the compact space offered by a bumper sticker, “Guns don’t kill people, people do.”

Nowadays, it seems to me that the shock effect of most traditional swears has been largely diluted by their widespread use. Consider the fact that entire books have been written on the extensive and variegated uses of the word “fuck.” It’s now arguably used as a simple intensifier even more than as a swear (and, in fact, it’s grammatically useful in places that other intensifiers don’t quite scan: consider “that’s very awesome” vs. “that’s fucking awesome”—of course, we could debate the eloquence of that sentiment all day long, but that’s a different topic). The fact that our arguably most taboo of expressions has entered popular parlance in such fashion has in turn necessitated the creation of new, more “shocking” swear words in a kind of obscenity one-upmanship. Not that this is anything new: you probably won’t find too many people who would look askance were you to loudly exclaim “God’s wounds!” (other than those who just think you’re a nut job). This, despite the fact that in Elizabethan England, it was a swear considered offensive enough that it had to be “minced” into a new “sanitized” expression. Just like socks, swears wear out and lose their effectiveness over time.

And so I wonder if in fifty years times the debate over televised/published obscenity will still be raging as fiercely as it is today (worth pointing out, the Times Q&A I pointed to in my last post has an interesting section on the decision of printing obscenity). When people talk about the process of legislating violence in video games, it’s often pointed out that in fifty years, the people making the laws will have grown up playing those video games, as opposed to most legislators today who can barely tell Grand Theft Auto from Wii Sports. That may or may not be the case, but I feel like swearing is much more acceptable in today’s culture than it was fifty years ago; I know many parents who swear around their children, and even children who swear around their parents. While that wouldn’t necessarily be the way that I’d choose to go with my own (still hypothetical) children, I don’t think I’d try and hide from them that swearing and obscenity exist, especially since my own childhood experience points to that being a losing battle—as with sex, they’ll just learn about somewhere else, so why not educate them about it?

And besides: swearing, as Pinker points out, is useful and, heck, sometimes downright fun.

[…] post Dan put up about swearing has been on my mind for several months now. I was recently reminded of it when the topic of […]