Fact (you had to say that in a Dwight Schrute voice. I should have told you that first. Going forward, I’ll prompt you in advance. For now, you’ll just have to start over. So,) fact: we are are arranged on a school stage horseshoe style and there is no possible way a single member of the audience is here by choice. (Revert to your normal reading voice now.) They have the dazed look of prisoners at the driest of our Wednesday sit-and-gets, and we’re stuck here another two hours. I have swear words in my brain. I’m going to talk to you about swear words. And you guys, it’s so interesting!
So I came upon this review the other day of a study called (David Attenborough voice) Swearing: A Cross-Cultural Linguistic Study. Now I’ve been fascinated with cuss words ever since Billy Picher used to try to shock my elementary self with the Beastie Boys as we got off the big yellow bus. Holy illicit naughtiness factor. I had thus far been the kind of angelic child who thought prayers were written by plebeian heathens who didn’t even have the social consciousness to add a simple “please” and “thank you”, so I added them myself.
Seriously. I said (in earnest cheerleader voice) “holy Mary, mother of God, please pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen. THANKS! ”
So swearing became fascinating to me, but also the ideal form of rebellion in that
- I was terrified of drinking because Coach Vachon was frighteningly specific about how much basketball I wouldn’t be playing if I were caught,
- Snoop Dogg eventually came out with some incredibly satisfying inflections of (Snoop Dogg drawl) (insert disgusting but necessary bodily function here), and
- It doesn’t actually hurt anybody, like ever.
Well, I went through my rap phase (lie: I’m still in it) and eventually grew up-ish, and my adult nerd self was excited to read about the ethnolinguistics of the cross-cultural cuss. And guess what I learned? In the 25 languages studied, there were five themes (Alex Trebek reading the categories of Jeopardy voice): religious, scatological, sex organs, sexual activities, and “your mother”. This list is not in order of usage. Also I’m a fan of my mother so we will not be exploring that one further.
But as you may have noted and as I’m about to have quoted, “The first major theme is religion.”
And then it gets specific: “In Christian cultures, there is a distinction between celestial (my note: Jeeeeeeeesus!) and diabolic (my note: what the hell?) swearing, but among Muslims, diabolic themes apparently do not occur.”
Isn’t that interesting? I don’t want to make any assumptions because the only other culture in which I can swear is French-Canadian, and the funniest phrase there translates to “Christ in a Culvert”. Honestly I don’t know if a culvert is supposed to be celestial or hellish or where footprints in Quebecois sand are, but religion-specific cursing is a heck (ha!) of an interesting concept.
The whole thing got me thinking further about how language structures might subconsciously shape how we contextualize the world, and therefore shape societies as a whole. A few years ago, I saw this TEDx talk from a Vietnamese-Mainer who explained that in his native language, there was no subjunctive case, no “what if?”, no way to express the idea of an alternate present or imaginary future. Perhaps for this reason, people simply accepted situations as they existed and moved on. What does this mean for a society forced to quickly adapt to a shrinking world? One in which they weren’t just dealing with each others’ like-mindsets anymore?
Speaking of like-mindsets, the local staff dude in the second row is fully asleep. Fist bump, bro, I’m with you. No human should have to listen to anything for this many hours at a time and if I didn’t have a four-letter blog to write I’d be zzzz-ing it, too.
Anyway, precision of language is a really big deal if nations are to work together to solve social, moral, and (sure, economic) problems- which is one of the aims of this fellowship. Case in point, I also learned when studying for this that words in Arabic can be technically interpreted as having many different definitions, and meaning has to be determined by the context. For example, as author Reza Aslan notes in No god but God, the Arabic word adribuhunna can mean beat women, or turn away from them, or go along with them, or have consensual sex with them. So if you have some salty misogynist (insert curse for “sex organ”) interpreting, he can really mess with women… not to mention anyone who unquestioningly goes along with his translation. But if you have an educated historian who lives by the just and compassionate tenets of true Islam, however, you’ll get a very different and kinder lesson. But it’s really, really (swear word in the category of “sexual activity” coming up, maybe use your Eric Bettencourt voice if you know him) fucking easy to manipulate people’s knowledge and behaviors when they don’t have that important historical context. Education, yo.
But I think another aim of this fellowship is to try to put all that Humpty-Dumpty communication together again. And now that our speeches are finally, ironically over? I’ve gotta go get on that.