Michigan, 1999. A 25 year old engineer took his canoe out on rifle river along with friends. Not long after embarking, the small boat capsized and the young man found himself in the river. Obviously frustrated, he lets out a stream of profanities while pulling himself back into the safety of the boat. His forray into frigid waters was to the least of his worries that day. Within earshot of his tirade was a family with small children, along with a police officer armed with an antiquated and long forgotten law which prohibits the use of obscenities toward women and children. The young man, TImothy J. Boomer was given a citation for “Indecent language”. The case of the ‘cussing canoeist’ would go on the make national news as Mr. Boomer fought to have it overturned.
Mr. Boomer believed his freedoms had been infringed upon. And so did many others who supported him. What do you think? Is profanity really that bad?
Origins of human speech
Many Scientist have differing theories on how language evolved over the ages. And because Im no Scientist, or linguist, or educated much at all; I’ll try to stay away from any theories that can’t be proven, or alternative facts. The thing is, the very origin of mankind is a highly controversial issue in itself. So, no matter what I say here, someone will disagree.
Formerly, we had to rely heavily on the theories of anthropologists, psychologists, and philosophers. But now, with advances in neuroscience, there is much more empirical Data to help us reach our conclusion on language and its origins.
One fact many scientists agree on is: Language is processed in the of the visual center of the brain. And it’s concluded that Language is processed through ‘symbolic representation’. Which means that language is symbolic in nature; the brain sees a picture for every word it understands. So, for instance, if I say the word ‘cat’, then, your brain see a picture of a cat and not just the letters C-A-T. (if at all) However, This is a recent development and is still challenged. Actually the word cat in ancient egypt is “Mau”. Pronounced like the sound the cat makes. That’s a onomotapoeia; a word that corresponds to the sound it makes.( e.g. boom, sizzle, crack)
Some have suggested this as the likely way Adam at Genesis 2:19 named the animals. While the there is evidence that Hebrew was the langauge of Adam,we dont know for sure what dielect he spoke in, due to what happens in chapter 11 (the tower of Babel)
19th century writer Max Muller called critically named this the “bow-wow theory”. He strongly disagreed with Charles Darwins theory that human language evolved from the grunts and groans of animals. Here too, many scientist agree that Darwin was wrong about language. Many books have been written on all the different theories of language origins and I think im already deep enough down this rabbit hole. Regardless of your beliefs on its origins, language as we understand it today is a powerful tool that can be used to understand the world in which we live.
I agree with the symbolic representation theory. We have some kind of visualized reference for every word or idea we hear. This includes language that is considered profane. You may have noticed that profanity has permeated everyday speech to the point that its common for even children to use these words everyday. If you grew up in a religious household, you too were probably strictly forbidden to use profanity. In fact, the etymology of the word Profane is related to religion. In latin, profanum means outside the temple, or unholy.
The modern argument is that profanity is used for catharsis (purging strong emotions). And, the occasional curse word is effective in communicating strong emotions. It’s implied that the words themselves are harmless. I intend to unpack the theories and present the truth.
I remember when I first learned about the symbolic representation theory, I immediately shared it with my friends,
“if I say…purple elephant, your brain sees the image, not the words” I said.
But more than one of them said “no, actually I see the words”
There is an explanation for this. There are differing mind types , and studies have shown that many people percieve mental images on a sub-conscience level. That would explain why some disagree with my point. I wont go too deeply into that. (check out the work of philosopher Jesse Prinz here). Actually, most 20th century thinkers would agree with my friends on this. The ‘Lingua Mentis’ theory of language was widely accepted until neuroscience proved otherwise.
Now, thinking of all the curse words you know…what images do you associate with those words. Among the most common include images of normal human life. And I dont argue that these things are intrinsically profane. The harm lies in the way they are used.
You may have come across a person who curses way too much. Part of the reason you may be off-put by that person is because they seem to insert profanity in places where even the most profane person would not. This is quintessential to the proliferation of cursing; introducing harmful elements to otherwise benign circumstances. For example you may have heard this one:
“Dont ____ where you eat.” what word did your mind put in the blank? usually an expletive is put here. Figuratively,this a warning not spoil relationships that you would otherwise benefit from materially. Literally, its and admonition not to defecate in the same area where food is consumed. Good advice. By separating these basic human functions, we keep ourself from disease and even untimely death. because consuming human waste can literally kill a person.
I dont intend to address every curse word I know. But, I was pretty surprised when I researched the etymology of the ‘F’ word. That word has been a curse for so long that no one actually know for sure its true origin. Although its may not have not always been a bad word; Its still considered one the bad ones. In latin it meant to strike or penetrate (as in stabbing). In english it refers to the act of coitus and other forms of intercourse. Each time a person says or hears this word, the image associated in the brain is either sexually explicit or violent in nature. With overexposure, I think its fair to say that a person natural aversion to these images tend to diminish over time.
I remember the first time I saw a graphic murder in a movie. It was the scene in Good-fellas when Samuel L. Jackson was shot in head by Joe Pesci. I cant get the image out of my head to this day. Of Course I’ve seen plenty of murder on tv since; and to be honest, it doesnt bother me as much as it did when I was a kid.
In psychology, the term Desensitization is used to describe what happens when a person is repeatedly exposed to an aversive or negative stimulus. The person gets a diminished emotional response. Making the person much less responsive to the harmful stimulus. Its possible to become so desensitized, that a person doesn’t even recognize when they use profanity. oops.
Racial Slurs too, serve as a powerful weapon of violence. Its easy to do harm to an individual when you think of them as less than human. Its very common for soldiers in war to invent derogatory terms for the enemy to dehumanize. But, that’s for another post.
Women have been subjected to similar derogatory, dehumanizing and hateful language; keeping them in a second-class status in many modern cultures. This too is for another blog post.
please…excuse my french…
Researchers have found that people who speak different languages have brains that are wired differently. This is especially true for multi-lingual people. There is plenty of evidence in the way some languages are structured. Im thinking of Nepali, Hindi, and many other asian languages. consider the sentence structure.
in English we say ‘Im meeting some friends at the mall later’
In Nepali you would say ‘later, at the mall, with some friends, I meet.’
It shows a slightly different thought pattern. And dont think for a second that a persons thoughts have no bearing on the way they act. I invite debate on this so if you disagree, please leave a comment. Before I go, I leave you with this thought.
What effects would you say the repeated exposure to profanity has on the brain of developing children? Well, look around and see whats happening the world around you. I believe thoughts become words, words become actions.
“It is not what comes into the mouth defiles the man, it is just what goes out of the mouth that defiles the man” – Matthew 1:11