Why do we swear?

Why do we get upset about swear words?
The expression of profane language has been the main legal battleground of free speech for the last century. You can easily switch on your TV any night during the week and hear comedians impugning the competency of the political and religious leaders of the world without worrying about consequences they could face if they lived a few centuries before. This is a sign of great progress in the history of humanity and I must say we live, luckily, in the age of freedom of speech. Well, we do except when it comes to certain words. Why?!

Why do we want to swear?
This isn’t at all an easy question and to even approach answering it you must  know a few ways in which people tend to swear:
  • Abusive swearing – used specifically to humiliate and insult somebody. Those can mostly relate to excrement such as you piece of shit, you asshole, shove it up your ass or sexuality such as motherfucker (incest) and wanker (masturbation).
  • Dysphemistic swearing – an euphemism is a substitution for an expression that suggests something unpleasant to the listener whereas a dysphemism has the opposite logic and is used when the speaker wants you to think how hideous something is. Excrement is part of our lives and you like it or not, you can’t get through without having to mention it. Then again people don’t want to think of it and they make up synonyms to protect themselves. We have general terms like waste, medical like bowel movement, formal like excrement, terms we use with kids like poo and many more. What’s crucial is that you can’t use these terms interchangeably. This is why the doctor won’t say they need your poo samples and similarly you won’t ask your kids if they need to defecate.
  • Reaction swearing - This is when, during a romantic evening, the topic of conversation suddenly changes to dignifying sexual activities or religion after you just spilled red wine on your new trousers and you yell shit, fuck or Jesus or combinations of the three. If you’re Polish remember that even though you exclaim kurwa  when you stub your toe you wouldn’t shout whore in English after you injured yourself or you would sound really silly!
  • Habitual swearing – bizarre constructions such as what the fuck where swear words are used purely for their shock value rather than meaning, often overused by speakers.

What kind of concepts are sources of negative emotions?
Anyone who speaks a foreign language knows that the kind of things we swear about vary in different languages. If you risk translating swear words literally from language to language results can be often comical. Nevertheless, there are universal concepts – categories in which most of the world’s swear words fall into:
  • Excretions and associated organs (piss, shit, ass) Those are all strong words and the reason why is that epidemiologists consider many diseases to be spread through our bodily fluids. In old English language you could curse somebody by saying a pox on you and in Polish for instance you can swear by shouting cholera.
  • Sexuality and associated organs (fuck, dick, cunt) Why is it a source of negative thought if sex itself is pleasurable? It isn’t when you consider all negative aspects of sexuality such as prostitution, incest, child abuse and rape. Those are no small matter to humanity, are controversial and for that reason continue to be emotionally charged.
  • Religion based (Jesus, hell, damn). Those is nowadays moderately mild way of swearing unless in more religious societies, especially Catholic societies, like where I grew up, in Poland.
What happens in the brain when you hear or say a swear word?
The answer to that question is buried deep in the neurobiology. Swearing activates the areas of our brain associated with negative emotions concentrated in the right hemisphere. A very interesting feature of the neurobiology of swearing is that swearing is processed involuntary only which means you can’t chose to ignore a certain word in terms of the inevitable arousal that is associated with it. To prove that theory saying things are processed automatically in our brain there’s a simple test to use in sociology. My former teacher tried this on the group of students, including me, and the results were rather surprising. The task was to simply name the colour in which the word on the board is printed. ‘’Don’t read it’’ – he said – ‘’Ignore what it spells but just pay attention to the colour’’. Black, green, red, blue… Even though the task requires you to ignore what the word spells, try as you might, you can’t do it after a lifetime of literacy. Our brains process words automatically. It means that swearing forces the listener to think unpleasant thoughts.

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When the same is different

If the words are pronounced the same but have different spelling and meanings we refer to them as homonyms e.g. seas - sees.

Types of homonyms:
  • Homophones are words that have exactly the same pronunciations and same or different spelling and different meanings.
  • Heterophones are words that are spelt the same but have different pronunciations and meanings
Types of homophones:
  • Homographs- words that may sound alike and are spelt the same but have different meanings e.g. number – meaning more numb or numerical value and bear – the teddy or to carry (these are in fact also homonyms). Additionally, heteronyms are specific types of homographs with the same spelling but different pronunciations and meanings e.g. sewer (one who sews) and sewer (from sewage) or  record (noun) and record (verb).
  • Heterographs – words that sound alike while spelt differently and have different meanings e.g to (preposition) and two (number), hour and our.
Synonyms are different words with the same meanings e.g. maybe and perhaps whereas a polyseme is a word with multiple meanings e.g. to get.

Craziness and oddity of the English language

It just makes no sense!
Seriously, what’s wrong with people? Why are we so clumsy with expressing our thoughts and why do we speak in such odd ways about the physical world surrounding us? Think about it: you fill the form in by filling it out! If hairs is plural of hair then why a man with hair on his head has more than a man with hairs on his head? Why is it called after dark when it’s really after light? Things we claim are under water or under ground are in fact surrounded by water or ground rather than under it. A theory of physics must be imbedded somewhere deep in our language, some indistinct and very rough concept of space in prepositions and an awkward concept of matter in nouns. Understanding this theory helps us explain not only the oddities of our language but also the mental models that we use desperately in our struggle to make sense of our lives.

Space in language
Location in language is somewhat digitised. I sense it from the simple fact that we make binary distinctions like near - far, on - off, in - out, on – under while scale is relative – we can use the same special term across about a spider walking across a window sill and a boat travelling across Pacific even if in first case the scale is centimetres, the other it’s thousands of miles. For the same reasons the interpretation of the special term there may vary. Saying the book is there I could possibly mean the book is in another room or in another country.

3 D’s
When you think of it, shape is schematic. In reality all objects take up some three-dimensional arrangements of matter but language idealises them as essentially one-dimensional, two-dimensional or three-dimensional. For example we don’t think of a CD as short cylinder, three-dimensional object, even though that’s all it is in reality. We think and talk about it as it was only two-dimensional. Well, hold on, isn’t it that in other words we choose to ignore some of the dimensions that make it up in reality concentrating on the smaller number of dimensions that sum it up in our minds? Yes, sounds about right.  It goes into some general sense of shape – We make it so much easier for ourselves by thinking simply of what shapes are similar to other shapes on the basis of comparison.

Prepositions and nouns
What’s important is that this idealised schematic geometry rules the use of our prepositions e.g. we use the preposition along in connection with one-dimensional objects only – therefore along the line is correct but along the table isn’t because we perceive table as a surface and a two-dimensional object. We can, however, say along the edge of a table and here’s another quirk about language of shape. For some reason the boundaries of objects are treated as if they were objects themselves. Edge is the one-dimensional boundary of the two dimensional table (I hope you are still with me because I think I’m close to losing it myself). For similar reasons we say something is under water when in fact all we mean that it is surrounded by water. Water can be refer to as to two-dimensional surface of a body of water so objects can be, in fact, under that two-dimensional surface.

Split infinitives

The infinitive of a verb is purely its most basic form and the one that can be found in the dictionary with no subject indicated. In English it always follows the word to e.g. to do, to play, to sing etc. A split infinitive is an infinitive in which the word to is separated from its verb by other words e.g. instead of saying I decided never to work we say I decided to never work. Traditionally spilt infinitives have been fought by linguists for centuries and considered grammatically incorrect but today most of them have agreed split infinitives are allowed in both writing and speech. Hurray! No need to go through writing some oddly shaped sentences in order to avoid the split. There was no rational basis and no justification for anyone to forbid splitting infinitives since not only in spoken language but sometimes even in written English it is so much clearer and natural to do so. Bear in mind, however, split infinitives should be avoided in formal writing unless the alternative seems too awkward. Normally we move the offending word so that it comes either before or after the infinitive.

My mum told me to quickly open the window.

My mum told me to open the window quickly.

You used to secretly message me.

You used to message me secretly.

In some cases, it is extremely odd to avoid splitting the infinitive and it’s much better to stick to the version with the split. In fact there are a few writers who have stated that in certain cases avoiding the split infinitive is impossible and that some modifiers must separate the to from the verb e.g. That was the only way to more than double his salary. 

Lost for words?

The idea of a word has been always considered to be of a great importance and has troubled linguists since the beginnings of linguistic studies. There appears to be a problem with defining a word and each definition we may come up with will be likely different to other ones we come across. After decades of quarrels and blood spills linguists agreed on distinguishing four definitions of ‘word’ and those are the ones I will try and explain today. I will also look with you at some special cases and exceptions since nothing is ever easy when it comes to linguistics.

Orthographic word We will start with those since the definition is probably the most obvious to most of us. Orthographic word a unit in writing that has a space at each end and no break in the middle. It’s very easy to pick them out in texts and they don’t exist in speech. According to this definition item such as car park consists of two orthographic words. English spelling rules often dictate where white spaces go but sometimes individual preferences differ resulting in us encountering various spelling versions of the same items. We have for instance both ice cream (two orthographic words) and ice-cream (one orthographic word).

Phonological word Unlike an orthographic word, it’s a piece of speech rather than text and is a single unit of pronunciation. In English one phonological word must contain only one stress. Look at the following sentence to see what I mean: Work is getting lighter now which leaves time to work on updating and filing system. In total the sentence consists of 15 orthographical words. The items that aren’t stressed are: which, to, on, and so the remaining 11 are phonological words that contain a stress each and those have been underlined. To complicate things more, items we stress are called content words such as nouns, principal verbs, adjectives and adverbs whereas the ones we don’t stress we refer to as function words: determiners (the, a, some), auxiliary verbs (look at my previous post Modal Verbs), prepositions (before, under, in), conjunctions (but, and, as) and pronouns (I, she, we).

Lexemes A lexeme is a simple and abstract unit of the vocabulary of a given language and that can be found in a dictionary. A lexeme is represented in speech or writing by one of the possible forms that carries grammatical marking. It basically means that two forms such as house and houses are in fact the same word where the first form indicates singularity and the latter indicates plurality. In the same way a lexeme have can be represented by various forms such as has indicating 3rd person singular, having indicating progressive tense, had indicating past tense and so forth. No lexical item in English has more than five forms apart from the verb be with eight different forms but there are languages out there in which words can have even hundreds of forms.

Grammatical word-forms Quite straightforwardly they’re forms that are assumed by a lexeme for grammatical purposes – house (base form) and houses (inflected form) are grammatical word-forms of a lexeme house whereas have (base form), has, having and had (inflected forms) are grammatical word-forms of a lexeme have and sometimes lexemes simply won’t have numerous grammatical word-forms (e.g. health).

Style crimes

I am not a native English speaker; however, I like to think I speak English fluently. I live and work in an English speaking environment surrounded by British people and I cringe when someone tells me something and I have not the first idea what they’re talking about.

I seem to grow tired of anything that is repeated too often. Overusing phrases is certainly something the general public should notice. There was this British broadcaster, Vanessa Feltz, who tried and waged an unsuccessful hate campaign against at the end of the day in the meaning of ‘ultimately’. (There’s nothing wrong with the use of this phrase in its literal meaning). Please, take notice when I list the alternatives used to summarise and conclude presenting a point of view: ultimately, in the end, after all, when all is said and done, in the final analysis. Try using these more often to avoid sounding rather silly (check the video clip from popular British talk-show Jeremy Kyle Show and see exactly what I mean).

Among many other cliches there are some that especially make my blood boil when overused and are complete gibberish: I’m not being funny, basically, to be honest, can’t get my head round it (seriously, what a ridiculous thing to say anyway! How can you get your head round something?). Please notice that I am not having a go at people using the expressions but overusing them does seem to be a problem. It comes to the point where phrases lose their meaning appearing randomly in various parts of a sentence filling in the gaps which the speaker couldn’t have filled more efficiently due to their vocabulary limits. Language is alive and changes which I love about it and perhaps at the end of the day will eventually become an official idiom rather than an awkward cliché.

The abuses have driven John Humphrys to write a book about the growing misuse of the English language ’Lost for words’.  He describes tautology (expressing the same idea twice in different words) as the linguistic equivalent for having chips with rice. For instance, there’s no need to say general consensus since consensus is a general agreement therefore an adjective general should be, in this case, omitted. Similarly we have silly creations such as return again, future prospects, repeat again, safe asylum. Other usages to which I object are personally I feel and at this moment in time. Based on an appeal to logic, I feel makes it personal enough and there’s no need to add personally. It is proper though to use personally to mean ‘with the person being present’ as in I’ve spoken to him personally.You don’t need in time either because moments are obviously periods of time.

So yeah, you know, basically I'm finished like. At the end of the day, I'm not being funny, I personally feel I can't change how people speak...

Planet of the Apes

Learning more about the brain and linguistic theories have a big chance of becoming new aspects of my professional development. Sociology with evolution as its component is a field that complete explanation must incorporate. I’m rather omnivorous intellectually and as a teacher I used to ask myself a question raised from wondering about how the learning mechanisms work: where our learning abilities come from? The answer has to be in evolution. To really understand something you must know the mental software that implements it. You must know something about the brain and must know what gave it its structure. It is also natural to ask where that structure came from.

One of a kind
We don’t know how many species there are on Earth. Currently fewer than 2 million are classified but the total number is estimated to range from under 5 million to more than 50 million. And here we are, humans, who rule the world. What is so special about Homo sapiens? Why are we so unusual among all of the other species? How come that we exploited an opportunity for making a living – we outsmarted other plants and animals? All species naturally evolve defence against their predators. Animals desperately run away, develop spines and hard shells or poisons whereas plants can’t defend themselves in their behaviour. Surprisingly, a cauliflower and a tomato has no more desire to be eaten than you do – hence I never understood vegetarians’ ethical arguments. Most plants are naturally full of toxic and bitter-tasting substances that aren’t tolerable for us. We often seem to forget that those we get from the supermarket have been bred for thousands of years so that the bitter substances are bread out of them. Whenever we have a defence in evolution we then have a pressure for offence next. Animals develop bigger shells, their predators develop stronger jaws and teeth and we, humans, not only always win but we are far ahead of our competitors.

Planet of the Apes
 We stood up right before our brain started to grow in size so it can’t be that we suddenly decided to walk around on two legs. Evolutionary it’s the other way round and we don't know why the sequence went the way it did. We suspect that by freeing the hands for other uses than locomotion and supporting body weight, it allowed us a new skill i.e. the overhand throw, to carry things and make tools which set up a lifestyle with tools worth having (those aren’t very useful if you’re walking around on your hands all the time). Generally freeing our hands led us to the position of the most dangerous predators Earth has ever seen. This was the crucial step. It’s not a coincidence we developed from primates. Looking at apes and especially great apes, we can see they’re social and they eat meat. Everything that an organism eats is a body part of some other plant or animal. Meat is significant not just because it fuels a hungry brain (nutrition coming from meat) but also simply because hunting or savaging requires collective intelligence that just grazing doesn’t. In other words you don’t really have to be that smart to pull a clump of grass but catching animals that run away or fight you back requires intelligence and skill. If you take two closely related species, one carnivorous and one herbivorous, usually the carnivorous one has a bigger brain and is smarter if you give the animal the equivalent of IQ test.

Cognitive niche
We’re so unique that instead of waiting to evolve to outsmart other species, we do it in real time in our heads. We wonder about how the world works, we build up the models and tools of reasoning, inference and visualisation. This is how we could figure out that before we can enjoy plants or animals we need to first set a particular trap and ambush an animal or try various things on plants like soaking them and cooking them. We are able to do that because we have unfair advantage to do all this in our heads in a matter of seconds, minutes, hours, days whereas the animals and plants can only evolve over generations. A lot of the unusual features of homo-sapiens can be understood in terms of the cognitive niche that is the ability to prosper by outsmarting our food sources.

Language is not a primary factor in cognitive niche because if that was the only thing humans had we wouldn’t have a lot to talk about, however, it is very important and I like to think that language evolved as sort of a triad of adaptions, each of which support the other and makes the other two increasingly valuable. Language allows us to share our experience with other people so that we don’t have to discover everything by trial and error or sit there waiting for some stroke of genius but if someone else discovers something worth remembering their allies learn from it too. That gives us things to talk about, that is our knowledge that came from experience and various survival tricks being the second part of this triangle. And the third part is social relationships. We have to be on speaking terms with other people, we have to be willing to share our knowledge with them and we have to be part of groups that work towards common goal. All those three features are hyper-developed in Homo sapiens. We use far more tools and far more clever tools than any other species and we are the only species that really have the expression of grammatical language.

Humans or animals?
Humans do not like to think of themselves as animals. We are certainly different to all the other species thank to our collective cognition – putting our heads together in order to make life easier for ourselves. However, imagine a child born alone in separation from mankind and somehow kept alive. Once grown would possess basic skills for dealing with physical aspects of its life but would certainly not invent English, tools, letters and numbers on its own – would be no more than an animal. Of course humans are indeed animals simply appearing to be higher-order mammals with very unique features that helped them gain the top position in the animals’ classification.