The New Republic has an article by Steven Pinker that investigates the psychology, neuroscience and cultural significance of swearing.
Swearing isn’t just of interest to cognitive scientists for its day-to-day uses. We’ve known for many years that swearing holds a special place in the brain because of how neurological damage affects language abilities.
For most people, language is heavily reliant on the left hemisphere of the brain and extensive damage to this area can so severely impair speech that both expressing and understanding language becomes near impossible (a condition known as ‘global aphasia‘).
However, patients with this sort of profound language impairment can often still swear like troopers.
Swearing seems to be much more associated with the right hemisphere, probably as the words are much more heavily emotional and so rely more on the various emotion networks in this side of the brain.
Pinker, of course, has a wide-ranging interest in language and discusses not only the neural basis for swearing, but the bizarre place it holds in our culture, as well as what it reveals about the structure of language itself.
When used judiciously, swearing can be hilarious, poignant, and uncannily descriptive. More than any other form of language, it recruits our expressive faculties to the fullest: the combinatorial power of syntax; the evocativeness of metaphor; the pleasure of alliteration, meter, and rhyme; and the emotional charge of our attitudes, both thinkable and unthinkable. It engages the full expanse of the brain: left and right, high and low, ancient and modern. Shakespeare, no stranger to earthy language himself, had Caliban speak for the entire human race when he said, “You taught me language, and my profit on’t is, I know how to curse.”
As an aside, once, whilst drinking with a psycholinguist (say that after a few pints) I was taught a useful way of quickly working out the stressed syllable in any English word – something which is apparently called the ‘fuck test’.
Simply insert the word ‘fucking’ into the word, as if you were using the swear word for emphasis, and the syllable that follows the ‘fucking’ is the stressed syllable.
For example, absolutely -> abso-fucking-lutely. The stressed syllable is the third: i.e. absolutely. It works for every multi-syllable word I’ve found so far.
Which just goes to show that psycholinguists are some of the coolest melonfarmers in the whole of cognitive science.
Link to New Republic article ‘What the F***?’.