Dynamist Blog

Language and Human Nature

The new issue of Discover features an interesting interview with Steven Pinker about his new book, The Stuff of Thought, and what you can learn about human nature by studying things like how little kids learn verbs. Here's an excerpt:

In your latest book, The Stuff of Thought, you discuss cursing and note that, in America, "the seven words you can't say on television" have to do with sex and excretion. In other parts of the world, other types of words are more powerful, such as ones drawn from religion.

Yes, it's particularly noticeable to someone like me who comes from Quebec, where the worst thing that you can say to someone is "Goddamn chalice." That really brings it home for me. We do have a trace of that in swear words like "hell" and "damn" and "Goddamn," but they've really lost their sting, and it has to be related to the fact that religion has lost its power over many people.

I think the reason that swearing is both so offensive and so attractive is that it is a way to push people's emotional buttons, and especially their negative emotional buttons. Because words soak up emotional connotations and are processed involuntarily by the listener, you can't will yourself not to treat the word in terms of what it means. You can't hear a word and just hear it as raw sound; it always evokes an associated meaning and emotion in the brain. So I think that words give us a little probe into other people's brains. We can press someone's emotional buttons anytime we want.

And there's an additional layer, which would account for the fact that the content of swearing varies across history and from culture to culture. The common denominator is some kind of negative emotion, but the culture and time will determine which negative emotion is commonly provoked, whether it's disgust at bodily secretions, or dread of deities, or repugnance at sexual perversions. The second, additional layer is that you recognize that the other person is evoking — and is intentionally evoking — that negative emotion, and you know that he knows that you know that he is trying to evoke it. That's part of why it offends you. And that's why the choice of word matters, as well as what the word refers to — why "the F word" is obscene, but "copulate" is not, even though they refer to the same thing. But you know when someone uses "copulate," they're referring to copulation, whereas when they use the F word, they are trying to get a rise out of you. So there again you get to the pragmatics as well as the semantics.

Pinker will be speaking at my local Borders, on Westwood Blvd., on October 1 at 7 p.m. A full list of book tour engagements is on his website here.

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