Swearing is cool. It’s just like that. Ask someone.
In his new book What the F: what swearing reveals about our language, our brains and ourselves (UK) Benjamin Bergen – a linguist in the Cognitive Science Department at UC San Diego – tries to explain exactly why name calling is so great. His self-described “love letter to profanity in a book” defines what a swear word is and why it feels so great to use one. although What the f has its share of silliness, it’s full of cute tidbits to drop at cocktail parties, like how all Samoan babies’ first words are “eat s#!t” and how Japanese has no swear words. Japanese people with Tourette’s syndrome blurt out insults and childish words for genitals that are generally considered rude and inappropriate, but not blasphemous.
In unrelated languages—Bergen lists Cantonese, Russian, Finnish, American and British sign languages, Hebrew, Arabic, Italian, German, and Quebecois French in addition to English—swearing largely falls into four categories. There are words related to prayer, the divine, and the supernatural (after all, the word “unholy” is the counterpoint to the word “sacred”). There are also words related to sex, different sexual acts, the people who perform them and the body parts involved. Other words refer to the excretion, as well as the excretions themselves.
Finally, there are insults, the only sores that have been shown to cause harm to those who use and hear them. Of the others, despite protests from the FCC and generations of conservative parents, none have been shown to be adversely affected.
Swear words differ from the rest of the language, as evidenced by the way they seem to be exempt from the regular rules of grammar and can spawn their own rules instead. But the most interesting aspect of their distinction is that they are processed differently in the brain than ordinary speech.
What we learn from brain damage
Many brain regions are found to be responsible for certain functions when they are damaged and their functions are compromised – Phineas Gage’s accidental frontal lobotomy revealed that his severed frontal lobes regulated impulse control and social behavior. Bergen’s favorite model patient suffered from aphasia, or language impairment due to brain damage. This patient was a priest who had a stroke in 1843, after which he could no longer speak. But oh boy, could he curse.
Studies of people with different types of aphasia have delineated different brain regions that regulate different aspects of communication. Wernicke’s area is like a dictionary: it helps us understand the meaning of the words we hear and choose the words we want to use in a given context. People with damage to this area cannot understand the language, but they can pronounce words and put together sentences – only the sentences they make up don’t make any sense. Broca’s area is responsible for producing sounds; people with damage to this area have difficulty articulating words and sentences.
But both Wernicke’s aphasia and Broca’s aphasia, and even global aphasia, can curse. These swear words come from somewhere else in the brain, not the parts known to be responsible for generating the rest of the language.
These foul-mouthed phases can only produce their curses in a reflexive, spontaneous manner, not intentionally. This is like automatic speech – think about what comes out of your mouth when you stub your toe or forget that your Pyrex pan just came out of the oven, so you pick it up with both hands. Automatic speech appears to originate in structures in the right hemisphere, while Wernicke’s and Broca’s areas are on the left.
This information came from another patient with aphasia, the counterpart of the swearing priest, who could no longer swear. He suffered damage to his basal ganglia, which is involved in motor control and emotional responses – it’s also damaged in people with Tourette’s. Bergen thus suggests that profanity, which we know expresses strong and often fleeting raw emotional states, originates not from the parts of our brains that regulate rational speech, but from the older neural pathways that regulate impulse and emotion.
While that may seem like a substantial piece of information, this pop neuroscience takes up the whole chapter. The rest of What the f is about how bad words came to be and how they affect individuals and society. It’s a quick read, not a detailed, academic parse. But don’t confuse lightheartedness with triviality: swearing plays a central role in our lives.
Because insults are swear words, they can come out without thinking, in a moment of primal, unfiltered emotion – as a coach or athlete may experience when they feel an umpire has made a blatantly wrong call. Despite this lack of thought, insults can hurt. People are more likely to discriminate against a group of people if they learn that that group is being maligned, and members of the maligned group may also be adversely affected.
Still, Bergen doesn’t think it’s wise to penalize people for using defamation, as the NBA and NFL have done, or to ban or at least moderate its use, as the FCC is trying to do. On the contrary, he advises that people who are tempted to use slander be kinder and more respectful; conversely, those who hear them should relax and not always get so worked up. Legislation hasn’t really worked to dampen any kind of hate speech, so it’s nice – though it may seem naive – to think that Bergen’s common sense approach might work. Given that Bergen works on a college campus, he might use this strategy to try and create a “safe space” for everyone, regardless of their vocabulary.