Thursday 9 March 2017

I swear, to tell the truth. Don't we all?

Trigger alert: swear words present (and correct)

Swearing. Cursing. Foul language. Language of the gutter. Locker room talk. There must be very little in the history of language that has caused as much disagreement and controversy as the use of language labelled undesirable, uncouth, foul, obscene, profane, taboo, or any other word or phrase that you want to apply to it. Its prohibition has been inculcated into generations of youthful minds. Countless mouths have been washed out with soap because of it. Millions of lines starting “I must not swear in class...” have been written after school on its account. Incalculable embarrassment and calumny have been incurred through its use. Polite company is largely defined by its total absence. How many times have we studiously, even obsessively, had to watch our p's and q's to avoid causing offence to family, friends, acquaintances and strangers alike?

And yet, and yet, swearing is probably the most natural, normal and psychologically healthy things that we can do with our language. I would go as far as to say we need to swear to express our feelings about someone or something. We gain a release. We show exactly what we think and feel. We identify ourselves with others through it. It becomes a badge of honour. We learn when its use is acceptable and when it isn't. We effectively become proficient users of swearing, because it's an integral part of our language and our linguistic repertoire. I would even venture to say that without swearing, we are not fully fledged users of our language. This is not just my opinion; swearing is actually part of the structure of our language.

First, let me explain why swearing is the topic of this blog post. Recently, the local council in the English town of Rochdale, near Manchester, decided to ban swearing by using a “public spaces protection order” to warn, or even fine to the tune of £100, anyone using “foul and abusive language”. You can read the report here. While I understand that consistently using foul and abusive language to the extent that people in the vicinity feel threatened and intimidated is undesirable, there doesn't seem to be any concise definition of what constitutes foul and abusive language and to what extent it needs to be used to require sanction. However, the aspect of this matter which intrigues me is the idea that an integral part of our language can and should be banned.

Swearing, far from being an undesirable and iniquitous use of language, is actually an aspect of our grammar. If you want to ban swearing, you might as well campaign to ban the use of object pronouns, modal verbs, superlatives, or even the past perfect continuous. If you open up a grammar book, you will see examples and explanations of the grammar that we use on a daily basis, the grammar which makes our language the English language. Now, you might think that postulating swearing as a grammatical category of the language on the same level as, say, phrasal verbs is going more than slightly beyond the pale. However, there is ample evidence for this, which I present here.

We have adjectives, adverbs and nouns, which we can use in increasingly lengthy strings to give more detailed descriptions, as in these examples:

a book; a good book; a really good book

a house; a large house; a large, wooden house; a beautiful, large, wooden house; an amazingly beautiful, large, wooden house.

We use adverbs to modify our impression of something, to add positive or negative feelings or attitudes to expressions, or to enhance certain aspects of the thing, person or idea that we are describing. And we use swear words in a similar way. However, what makes swear words a separate category from all other modifiers in the English language is how we use them to modify. In short, swear words are the only words in our language that can grammatically split other words. Here are some examples:

abso-bloody-lutely; un-fucking-believable; fan-bleeding-tastic; the under-poxy-ground

We usually use these words to emphasise something, stress disapproval and express annoyance. Their use adds emotion to what we're saying in such a way that other words can't. We can also use swear words in other ways without splitting words. The significant thing is that other words which are not normally regarded as taboo, cannot perform the same function. Have a look at these:

no fucking way; I don't bloody believe it; a piss-poor game; I should sodding-well think so.

There are many more examples if you care to look for them, or even think of them (if you aren't afraid of sullying your mind). Of course, you can go through your life without using swear words, just as you can go through your life without ever using the passive, or relative clauses. It would be quite difficult to avoid doing so, though. The point that I'm making is that swear words form a grammatical category in our language, and attempting to ban their use in natural language expression is both unjustifiable and futile. Certainly, we as speakers should be able to judge when to use them and we shouldn't be sanctioned for the odd use of a choice word. I think that if local authorities want to regulate the behaviour of certain people in public, they would do better to focus on what they do, rather than try to deny them the right to use the full range of language that we have at our disposal.

If you would like to read a more comprehensive description of taboo words, read the taboo section in Michael Swan's Practical English Usage, a must for anyone keen to know how the English language really works.