David Shariatmadari on the Science of Swearing

Posted on 19th August 2019 by Mark Skinner

In Don't Believe a Word, the author and linguist David Shariatmadari provides an eye-opening explanation as to why we don't know nearly as much about language as we think we do. Probing the science of the discipline, he unearths some truly astonishing facts about the principles of language and how they shift and adapt over time.

In this exclusive essay Shariatmadari examines swearing, what linguistic rules it follows and how it is regulated (or not) by our brain.   

Please note that the following essay includes language that some people may find offensive.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” may be literally true, but swearing packs a unique emotional punch. Swear at the wrong time and in the wrong place and you can get into big trouble. You might even make front page news: ‘The Filth and the Fury’ was the Daily Mirror’s headline the day after the Sex Pistols’ famously expletive-laden TV appearance in 1976. A few choice words from Johnny Rotten and Steve Jones sparked a nationwide moral panic (as well as earning them lots of new fans).  

The fact is that swear words aren’t like other pieces of vocabulary. The first clues are grammatical: these are words that break all the rules. ‘Fuck’, for example, can be used literally, as a verb. But when it’s used in a typically sweary way, it behaves differently. For example, it’s possible to modify a verb like ‘tell’ using adverbs, time phrases and so on. So I can say ‘Tell me’, but also ‘Tell me precisely’ or ‘Tell me by midday’. The expression ‘Fuck me!’ is different: I can’t say ‘Fuck me precisely’ or ‘Fuck me by midday’ without reverting to a literal meaning (and sounding very strange indeed). That’s because it’s an emotional exclamation rather than an example of normal speech.

As I explain in Don’t Believe A Word, some researchers believe that swearing has more in common with the cries of animals than with ordinary language. It forms a link back to the howls and screeches of primates, vocalisations that show others that the speaker (or howler) is angry, or perceives danger. From an evolutionary perspective, that’s obviously useful, particularly to social animals, in terms of spreading the message that something is amiss. Hence it can be hard to suppress swearing when something bad happens, or you’re hurt - the swear word bubbles up and you can help blurting it out.

This is pretty different to ordinary conversation, where you tend to think what you’re going to say, and then put it into words. You make conscious choices, and control what comes out of your mouth. So it’s not a surprise to learn that there’s strong evidence swearing is generated by a different part of the brain entirely.

For a long time, scientists have known that everyday speech is largely controlled by two key areas which sit, for most people, on the left-hand side of the outermost part of the brain, the cortex. They know this because when those areas are damaged in people who have strokes, they can lose the ability to speak. What’s really interesting is that these same people often retain the ability to swear. Records of what these stroke patients say can be pretty repetitive: they consist of automatic phrases, islands of speech that have been preserved when the rest of language is lost, and they’re often sweary: ‘bloody hell’, ‘bloody hell bugger’, ‘fuck fuck fuck’, ‘fuck off’, ‘cor blimey’ and ‘oh you bugger’ are some of the examples collected by observers.

To understand why this might be, let’s go back to those howls and screeches. They arise in moments of anger and fear. The brain regions that control such emotions don’t sit on the left side of cortex, but deep in the limbic system, a more primitive, central part of the brain that evolved before the cortex. There is evidence that swearing involves an interaction between the limbic system, nearby structures known as the basal ganglia, and the right side of the cortex. That’s why if you have a stroke on the left side of your cortex, you have a lot of difficulty speaking, but you can still swear.

These areas are not immune from strokes, however. One seventy-five-year-old patient who suffered damage to his basal ganglia showed an interesting pattern of language disruption: in general he could speak normally, but was no longer able to utter many automatic, learned-by-rote phrases, and startlingly, he no longer swore. In fact, he couldn’t say in what kind of situations different swear words might be used, and, according to the researchers who studied him, ‘couldn’t complete a curse’.

That means he wouldn’t have been able to benefit from one of the upsides of swearing: the fact that it can act as a painkiller. In one experiment, subjects were asked for “five words you might use after hitting yourself on the thumb with a hammer” and “five words to describe a table”. Afterwards, they were assigned the first word from either of these lists, and told to say it repeatedly while their hand was immersed in ice-cold water. The ones who were given the swear word to say lasted longer before they had to pull their hand out (a good measure of pain relief). Their heart rates also went up, which led the researchers to conclude that the swearing gave rise to a fight-or-flight response – a surge of adrenaline. We know that the fight-or-fight response reduces pain, from stories of soldiers able to carry on fighting even though they’ve been badly injured. And that, in a small way, could be what’s going on during swearing.

In any case, the next time you find yourself unable to stop yourself uttering a curse, you now have a good excuse: it’s the ancient part of your brain taking over. And even if it gets you into trouble, at least it’ll make you feel a little bit more comfortable. 


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