What The Heck Ya Gonna Do?

I’ll cop to it – I’m a sucker for language geekery.  I focused a lot on Linguistics in college, and still enjoy the subject, even though I don’t actually do it for  any kind of a living.

Daniel Foster in NRO reviews two new books on the subject – with some fascinating insights tucked in.

While I urge fellow language geeks to read the whole thing, I liked this bit in particular:

Bergen’s treatment of slurs is slight and tentative compared with his coverage of other subject areas, but he’s Kanye West compared with Adams. Consider that Bergen’s first chapter is titled “Holy, F*cking, Sh*t, N*gg*r” sans asterisks. It hits like a freight train, producing first an uncontrollable guffaw and then a pupil-dilating scandal. But the formulation is actually much more innocent, a shorthand for the ingenious theory that all languages are sortable into four categories according to whether their most taboo words are blasphemous, copulative, scatological, or bigoted. Spanish, for instance, is a sex language, while the French, for all their fallenness, consider sacrilegious speech most offensive. German, infamously, is a language obsessed with “scheisse.” And English, Bergen argues, is among the relatively few languages where the biggest taboos are slurs.

It’s interesting, reading “Beowulf” and seeing how very comfortable English speakers in that era were with scatological talk, but how very carefully they avoided blasphemy.  Given we’re a nation of immigrant’s, it’d seem we are little hinky about pretty much all cursing, one way or the other.

6 thoughts on “What The Heck Ya Gonna Do?

  1. Good, insightful article by Foster, but he misses at least one important thing about the place of curse words/slurs/blasphemy in language: you could live out your three score and ten quite ordinarily without ever uttering a single profanity. People probably wouldn’t even notice that you never used profanity. Profanity is always optional.

  2. Is it possible to create a language such that every grammatically correct sentence maps to a true feature of the universe?
    Modernism depends on answering this question “yes.”
    The early Wittgenstein thought that the answer was “yes.” The later Wittgenstein did not. The later Wittgenstein believed that the most important parts of the human experience of the universe lay beyond language. Words may describe, perfectly, the arrangement of electrons around an atomic nucleus, but can describe only imperfectly (for example), “love” and “hatred.”

  3. Pingback: In The Mailbox: 01.05.17 : The Other McCain

  4. “French, for all their fallenness, consider sacrilegious speech most offensive.”

    I just read that at one time in France “sacre bleu” is considered offensive because it is obvious it means “sacre dieu”. Kind an American saying darn instead of damn.

  5. People probably wouldn’t even notice if you didn’t use profanity.

    I was about to disagree, as I’ve had several times in my life that people have noticed that I don’t swear and have consequently apologized to me when they use it.

    On the other hand, the younger the people I hang out with, the less this happens. I’m not sure if it’s a matter of them not noticing the language I don’t use, a matter of them not noticing the language they use, or a matter of them not caring whether their language might be inappropriate to the company/offensive to one who does not use similar language.

  6. I enjoyed the article, but I don’t know if I’d enjoy the books mentioned. Anyone read them and have a recommendation?

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