Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Swearing (New elements added!)

I got thinking about swearing after seeing this great article online from Scientific American (which you can check out too): Why the #$%! Do We Swear? For Pain Relief

So you can have an idea what it says without having to read the whole thing, here's a quote:

"The study, published today in the journal NeuroReport, measured how long college students could keep their hands immersed in cold water. During the chilly exercise, they could repeat an expletive of their choice or chant a neutral word. When swearing, the 67 student volunteers reported less pain and on average endured about 40 seconds longer."

When I stopped laughing, I decided that was pretty fascinating. I mean, swearing obviously taps into something inside our brains that's pretty fundamental. Humans have been doing it for hundreds, probably thousands of years, and I even have a textbook (a rather dry one, unfortunately) about its history.

I would personally observe that you have to learn how to swear. I didn't really learn to do it myself until high school, when it became useful to know how from the point of view of general social acceptance. And the way you do it can vary, as can the types of words you use - words related to religion, to scatology, or to intimacy are common examples.

One is generally discouraged from swearing around children. This was easy for me, as I wasn't a big swearer in the first place - more difficult, however, for my husband. Children, as they learn language, will repeat the words they hear that they can at least partially understand, to test them out. When they hear swear words, the results can be surprising.

I've known plenty of parents to get very upset hearing swear words, but I think my anthropology and linguistics encourages me to take the long view and to say to my kids, "well, before you use that word again, you have to know about how it makes people feel, and why adults tend to use it." When I explain that some people can become very angry at the mere sound of certain words, my kids are very impressed - and to their credit, I've never heard them use the words a second time. I get told off by them for using the word "stupid" for things, because my kids know the intent behind its use is derogatory. I think they understand what lies behind the words better than some adults.

The meanings of swear words are almost beside the point. I used to giggle my head off in high school, thinking about the literal interpretations of some of the streams of expletives I heard. It's their evocation of a passionate, often aggressive or violent emotional state that does the trick in many cases. Or in the case of pain relief, maybe it's just a kind of catharsis. It makes me wonder if there's any relation between the pain relief/catharsis aspect of swearing, and the tendency of people with certain kinds of brain disorders to swear (I think immediately of Tourette's syndrome, but I'm sure there are more).

I've been asked on forums several times to help with the creation of sets of convincing expletives for fantasy and science fiction contexts. There are a couple of parameters that are valuable to consider: content, and realization (which I'll discuss below).

My commenter Byron Bailey was kind enough to research this topic independently and come up with a great list of content types for profanity, from linguist Steven Pinker:

1. The supernatural: fear and awe.
2. Body effluvia and organs: disgust.
3. Disease, death, and infirmity: dread.
4. Sexuality: revulsion at depravity.
5. Disfavored peoples and groups: hatred, contempt.

Okay, so now what is realization? Realization is what form the swearing takes, in terms of its sound and recognizability by English speakers - and in my experience, this is often what trips people up. There are three directions you can go:

1. create words that have no English meaning, but are linguistically suited to the language of the social group you're featuring (example "rispot!")
2. alter English or use an existing world language, creating variations on existing swear words, using swear words that don't mean anything to English speakers, or creating swear versions of words that don't currently have expletive connotations (example "frak", or the Chinese expletives in Firefly/Serenity)
3. use English or alien words that are related to the content type you've chosen, and which are appropriate to your world (example "by the Consortium!" etc.)

You can even mix 1 with 3, or 2 with 3, in different contexts. I don't encourage mixing 1 with 2, though, because mixing language sounds will make the words sound inconsistent.

Now get out there and have fun with this - and maybe alleviate some pain while you're at it.