THE ANTIQUITY OF CURSING.

A long article by Natalie Angier in the science section of the NY Times discusses the ubiquity and primordial nature of cussing; apparently even chimps do it:

Indeed, chimpanzees engage in what appears to be a kind of cursing match as a means of venting aggression and avoiding a potentially dangerous physical clash.
Frans de Waal, a professor of primate behavior at Emory University in Atlanta, said that when chimpanzees were angry “they will grunt or spit or make an abrupt, upsweeping gesture that, if a human were to do it, you’d recognize it as aggressive.”

Guy Deutscher is quoted to the effect that “the earliest writings, which date from 5,000 years ago, include their share of off-color descriptions of the human form and its ever-colorful functions,” reminding me that it’s high time I reported on his book. And it absolutely fascinated me that after describing the physiological arousal produced by exposure to cursing (“Their skin conductance patterns spike, the hairs on their arms rise, their pulse quickens, and their breathing becomes shallow”), the article continues:

Interestingly, said Kate Burridge, a professor of linguistics at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, a similar reaction occurs among university students and others who pride themselves on being educated when they listen to bad grammar or slang expressions that they regard as irritating, illiterate or déclassé.

I wish I understood that overreaction, which is one of the main windmills at which I tilt.


(Thanks for the link, Bonnie!)

Comments

  1. Are linguistic taboos, whether cursing or bad grammar, really all that different from other taboos? Is there not a similar physiological reaction when those same damn kids put their feet up on the furniture? Or when someone wears white after Labor Day? Or when Japanese people slurp their noodles or when non-Japanese people stick their chopsticks straight up into their rice?

  2. Maybe not. But I find it hard to wrap my mind around the idea that a sentence ending with a preposition, or a “mispronunciation” of nuclear, can arouse that sort of taboo reaction, just like curse words or taking the name of the Lord in vain (in appropriate cultural/religious circumstances). How can people get that worked up about grammar?

  3. Kathleen Burt says:

    Obviously you didn’t learn grammar back when it was the be-all and end-all of civilized education (prior to oh, let’s see, about 1945)

  4. Living in a Russian speaking world at the moment, I wonder if any studies have been done in societies that have something like ‘mat’ which is really unspeakably bad cursing–does an American react similarly to hearing ‘d*mn’ or ‘f*ck’ and a Russian speaker to hearing ‘mat’?

  5. I’ll be interested to hear what you think of Deutscher’s book — I wasn’t too impressed with what I saw of (what was presented as) his reasoning in that article; I sniped at it a bit here yesterday. But as we all know, that could have been the result of reportage, not Deutscher himself… :) hh

  6. I know that the cringe I get from bad grammar or — since I’m British — pronunciation is on a vesceral level a feeling of betrayal. the perso who does this has just revealed themselves as other, and potentially dangerous.
    This is why a person who consistently peaks the wrong dialect is comic — that’s all right, they’re not passing themselves off as one of us — whereas the person who commits the occasional solecism is like a spy who lets his mask slip.

  7. I know that the cringe I get from bad grammar or — since I’m British — pronunciation is on a vesceral level a feeling of betrayal. the perso who does this has just revealed themselves as other, and potentially dangerous.
    This is why a person who consistently peaks the wrong dialect is comic — that’s all right, they’re not passing themselves off as one of us — whereas the person who commits the occasional solecism is like a spy who lets his mask slip.

  8. WLB> I would be interested in that as well. My Russian friends consider mat as a language for non-educated people, or as a non-literary language, whereas here in Holland it’s common to hear curses from people with any education or to see them in books. Is the mat really intrinsically stronger than cursing in any other language? Or is the strong reaction a result of censorship during soviet times?

  9. I wouldn’t say it has anything to do with censorship. And I wouldn’t say it is somehow stronger than cursing in other languages. Comparing with Hebrew, for example, there are also things that are never said in a ‘cultivated’ society or on the TV screen (except some shows that make a point of saying such things). Interestingly enough, there are curses in modern Hebrew, that made their way from Russian. They are as hardcore ‘mat’ as it gets in Russian, but are considered rather mild in Hebrew – such as the ‘kibinimat’, meaning in Hebrew ‘a remote place to be used as destination for annoying people’ (and many people are not even aware of the origins of these curses – they think it’s arabic).
    One difference I can think of is the shear amount of profanities used in Russian by some (actually, many) people. As they say, they don’t curse with ‘mat’, they speak it. They literally use as many curse words in a sentence as not. I would daresay it is some sort of grammaticalization of the curse words. As one spy school student wondered, “where do I place the indefinite article ‘blya’ in the ‘muzhiki, kto poslednij za pivom?’”.

  10. OK, dimrub, that really made me laugh. And I knew a guy in NYC (who I think is now in China, though he wanted to go back to Germany and study philosophy) who ended virtually every sentence with blya; it’s certainly not just the uneducated who use mat. I don’t think it’s inherently stronger than English swearing, it just hasn’t become as acceptable in ordinary conversation.
    Heidi: Never judge linguists by how they’re quoted in newspaper articles! Deutscher’s book is actually pretty good, though it’s really two books in one; I’ll try to post a review this weekend.

  11. Dima, you’ve made my day.

  12. cussing; apparently even chimps do it
    So apes really do go ape shit.

  13. Does this imply that Tourette’s syndrome may be more of an endorphin rush than we suspected?

  14. I had a very nice roommate once, always very polite and softspoken, who once went apeshit over a letter to Ann Landers about a wife bemoaning her bad-grammar using husband. My roommate would have dumped the illspoken bastard. I was shocked, having been trained to be a proper descriptivist linguist. (Someday I’ll tell you about the time I first heard someone use the “positive anymore” outside of the classroom – that was a day to remember, and I still do.)
    The other thing this thread made me think of is how forms of African American slang speech is used to denote hipness. Oprah, Tyra Banks, and others will speak most of the time in a form of standard English, the kind you’d hear at any university, but at certain times, for emphasis or the expression of a kind of judgement, they will switch to the “speech a da hood”. This seems the opposite of the person going apeshit over bad grammar.

  15. Oh, Yvonne, you reminded me where I recently encountered “apeshit”: here.
    Also, from the same always delightful place comes it’s amusing counterpart “spreadshit”

  16. I think the case might be overstated though–surely you don’t get the same arousal response in someone who casually tosses the f-bomb (probably the key is both attitude and frequency not just frequency, in order to weed out the heavily type A sorts).

  17. I wish I understood that overreaction, which is one of the main windmills at which I tilt.
    Well, aren’t you being prescriptive about prescriptivism? In the previous entry you say:
    Geoff Pullum at Language Log has a properly outraged response to the discovery that the New Yorker’s search engine, when baffled, says: “I’m sorry I couldn’t find that for which you were looking.”
    Outraged? And then you say that rule has “poisoned” “English writing in general and the New Yorker in particular.” Poisoned?
    Unless you’re joking, I think you’re going a little OTT, tho I agree with you that following the rule is often ridiculous.

  18. Well, I have been known to go over the top. It makes for better writing than boring judiciousness. But there’s a big difference between being outraged (even if a bit hyperbolically) at idiotic attempts to avoid “mistakes” and being outraged at the “mistakes” themselves; the former is a democratic impulse, the latter an elitist one.

  19. But there’s a big difference between being outraged (even if a bit hyperbolically) at idiotic attempts to avoid “mistakes” and being outraged at the “mistakes” themselves; the former is a democratic impulse, the latter an elitist one.
    Yes, but the big similarity is that both sides are being emotional about something that matters a lot to them but not to all of their allies, namely, language. So when you say this:
    I wish I understood that overreaction…
    In fact, you do understand it, because you experience it yourself. I don’t know about democracy and elitism, tho: it’s because democracy has had its way in the English-speaking world that we’re so bad at foreign languages. I’m sure that’s less true of the New Yorker and its readers.
    And my nomination for a much worse linguistic poison than “Don’t sentences with a preposition end” is elegant variation (“Don’t use the same word twice”).

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