‘BAD’ LANGUAGE RE-REVISITED

In the last post we looked at ways in which women use, and are judged for using, so called ‘bad language’ while earlier posts addressed the n-word and the b-word. Swearing, perennially a contentious topic, has been trending on social media, in the press and, to an extent, has featured in academic discussion, in the UK at least, since the beginning of this year. The ESL teachers’ periodical The EL Gazette asked me for a short opinion piece on whether and how the subject could be approached in the classroom.

Here is a very slightly longer version of the article they printed…

DON’T LET YOUR STUDENTS DOWN – TEACH THEM SWEAR-WORDS!?@#$~!?

We have to hope that, although as a nation we are famous for ‘effing and blinding’, ‘bad language’ is not the first kind of language our visiting students encounter. Sooner or later, though, many teachers will decide it’s time to broach the topic, or else their students will demand that they do.

For learners trying to grapple with TV and movie dialogue, song lyrics or real-life or electronic conversations we can begin by helping them decode what used to be called the ‘four-letter words’, the ‘f-word’, the ‘sh-word’, the ‘c-word’. Judging by the language trending on social media and in the UK press we may need to add the ‘tw-word’ too. Nowadays, as surveys have shown, in British English ethnic or gendered slurs – the ‘n-word’, the ‘b-word’ in particular – are just as shocking if not more so, especially for a younger generation much less bothered by old-fashioned sexual or religious oaths.

Teachers will need to negotiate cultural sensitivities very carefully while they explain these terms (and students may lack the surrounding language required to make sense of them; the medical terms for parts of the body or sexual activities for example), then perhaps learners can identify equivalents in their own languages and consider the moral or social assumptions that come with them.

But beware: teaching taboo language at anything but the most basic level demands a lot of teachers. They must understand the linguist’s concept of ‘appropriacy’, the fact that the force of a swearword varies according to who uses it and in what circumstances. Expletives may be used in the heat of the moment to express pain or anger, casually to reinforce friendship or shared interests as well as deliberately to insult and provoke. Teaching them presupposes too an awareness of nuances of meaning – the terms don’t mean exactly the same thing for all ages, genders or nationalities. Finally, you must remind your students that while it’s a good idea to understand swearing it’s almost impossible to swear convincingly in a foreign language, and trying to do that is likely to provoke at best mockery, at worst instant physical retaliation.

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I hope to follow this, no more really than a squib, with a more detailed consideration of how this tricky subject can be taught – with strategies, examples and ideas for exploitation – and to consider, too, whether what has been called the ‘aesthetic of expletive avoidance’ – deliberately not using rude words – or finding wittier alternatives to those brutal monosyllables may not in fact be more creative, more fulfilling and more productive for students and instructors.

In the meantime, here are links to some relevant recent articles with a bearing on the subject…

https://www.wired.com/story/the-science-of-why-swearing-physically-reduces-pain/

 

https://debuk.wordpress.com/2018/01/27/call-the-fishwife-thoughts-on-sex-class-and-swearing/

 

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1469029216301352

 

https://www.economist.com/news/books-and-arts/21735577-new-book-explores-subtle-and-strategic-art-swearing-power-profane-language

 

…the very latest, from April 2018…

Mind your tongue: teen swearers perceived as less trustworthy and less intelligent

 

Image result for swearing emoji

Linguist Stan Carey has written on ‘expletive avoidance’ as a literary device and also on how alternatives to expletives may be deployed in popular culture. He has kindly shared those insights, which are reproduced here…

https://stancarey.wordpress.com/2015/01/23/literary-expletive-avoidance/

https://stronglang.wordpress.com/2015/10/04/freak-those-monkey-fightin-melon-farmers/

 

BADMOUTHING LADIES?!

Cognitive scientist puts profanity in its place | Science News
I talked last week to London journalist Faima Bakar about the varying reactions to ‘bad language’ as manifested by men and women. In her investigations she is still finding that many males routinely chastise females, telling them that swearing is unattractive and inappropriate.

Both genderfluidity and the questioning of gender norms have fundamentally changed perceptions of feminine behaviour and of masculine responses too. At the same time the effects of social media in empowering women and giving them an equal voice have been transformative. But we can see from the messages exchanged on social media that many men have not evolved, cling to macho attitudes whereby  – probably because they feel embattled and insecure – they choose to, or pretend to believe in such dated concepts as ‘ladylike women don’t use bad language.’

Swearing as a male trait is definitely embedded in 20th – century and to some extent 21st -century attitudes and assumptions: According to Jay (2000), individuals having high scores on the trait of masculinity will also swear most frequently, and:

https://books.google.si/books?id=00EsBwAAQBAJ&pg=PA140&lpg=PA140&dq=swearing+masculine+trait&source=bl&ots=PfQoPlse0w&sig=_FVQD7VghjJfaC-IiamKKym6HPg&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjmuv3NidjYAhVHIewKHTpyAgMQ6AEILTAB#v=onepage&q=swearing%20masculine%20trait&f=false

Studies have shown that more honest and more intelligent people swear more – which may be a justification, if one is needed, for women’s effing and blinding in the 21st century!

http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/swear-wearing-honesty-lie-more-honest-facebook-psychology-cambride-university-maastricht-hong-kong-a7512601.html

Despite this evidence, perceptions of those who swear call in question the notions of honesty and sincerity – and intelligence.

Mind your tongue: teen swearers perceived as less trustworthy and less intelligent

Swearing is the language of power and indulging in it is part of the public or private exercising, or performing of power and of the celebration of it. Women’s language, as formerly perceived, was the language of powerlessness or reticence:

https://www.academia.edu/2962962/Profanity_and_Gender_a_diachronic_analysis_of_mens_and_womens_use_and_perception_of_swear_words?auto=download

In a patriarchal society men impose taboos, then men claim the power to break those taboos – such as by using profane or offensive language. It’s very interesting to me not just that women are now reclaiming power in society and are swearing but that they are consciously using swearing as a statement of that power. This is evidenced, for example, on Twitter where there are many feisty (I’m aware that the word can be male code for ‘uppity’), witty, outspoken women who boast in their profiles or in their tweets that they are ‘sweary’. These tweeters, who include comedians, actors and writers as well as numerous unknown impresarios of obloquy, tease, mock and criticise offensive or unreconstructed males and use very rude words in doing so.

Here’s Faima’s article, with her own original insights and conclusions, in today’s Metro newspaper:

Do men find women who swear unattractive?

Faima has written on the same subject before, with some contributions by me too. Here is a link to that article, with some additional observations:

https://tonythornesite.wordpress.com/2016/12/13/not-girls-talk/

On a personal note, although I’m a linguist and obliged to treat ‘taboo’ language with absolute objectivity, and although I challenge the right of others to invoke moral or social disapproval, I still, hypocritically perhaps, criticise my own partner (who is not a native speaker of English) and my teenage son for being pottymouths, pointing out that delighting indiscriminately in expletives (which they both do) nearly always implies a lack of respect for hearers. Linguists assert that language can’t be viewed in isolation, but depends always on context, on the speaker or writer’s intent and on audience. Judgements can be made but based on what they call ‘appropriacy’ – the suitability of an utterance to its time, place and to those on the receiving end. If foul language is used, it should be indulged in only in the right setting – between friends who willingly join in, as part of a private conversation, a performance, even a Twitter tirade.

An update: ten days after Faima’s article was published Debbie Cameron responded on her blog:

https://debuk.wordpress.com/2018/01/27/call-the-fishwife-thoughts-on-sex-class-and-swearing/

And in March Emma Byrne treated the same subject in Elle magazine:

https://www.elle.com/life-love/a19431418/swearing-double-standard/

 

Building the Perfect Profanity | Discover Magazine

 

Most recently, Deborah Cameron revisited and updated the subject in a very informative  post:

https://debuk.wordpress.com/2020/04/03/slanging-match/