Thursday, April 23, 2009

Thoughts of the Stuff of Thought 

Curse words have power to them. They are just words, but language has rules that everyone (or almost everyone) in a society agrees on. These agreed-on rules apply to basic things like grammar and word order (for example, in English adjectives come before the noun they modify, and the subject and verb of a sentence must agree in number, like he runs but they run). Meanings of words are also agreed upon by the group. Studies have shown that different cultures define colors differently. Mandarin Chinese, for instance, has a single word to describe both yellow and brown. There's an urban l;egend that Eskimos have 14 words for all the different kinds of snow. English is one of the few languages that differentiates between the perfect had pluperfect ("the phone was ringing" versus "the phone had been ringing").

Stephen Pinker talks about swear words and "taboo" words in his latest book, The Stuff of Thought. I don't have it in front of me now, so all of these next lines are based on my memory of the book. He sets up a hierarchy of taboo words, from shit to piss to snot to spit, with the former being more taboo than the latter. He observes that these words are roughly in the order of danger to other human beings, as vectors of disease, and in the order that other people tolerate them in public (i.e., people might be unhappy if you spit in public, but shitting in public is more frowned upon).

Language gives insight into human nature. The fact that "shit" is more taboo than "sweat" or "fart" is a reflection of how much more harmful feces can be, as a disease vector.

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