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Austin Cline

Language, Swearing, Aggression in the Brain (Book Notes: Blue Streak)

By May 9, 2006

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Swearing is a sort of language which many people object to. But is it "language," really? At first it certainly seems to be - it uses words and grammar, after all, so how could it be anything else? The source of swearing is, however, not the language area of the brain.

In Blue Streak: Swearing, Free Speech and Sexual Harassment, Richard Dooling writes: Blue Streak: Swearing, Free Speech and Sexual Harassment

As Steven Pinker noted recently in “The Language Instinct,” language production takes place in the so-called higher structures of the human brain, the cerebral cortex, primarily the left perisylvian region. Swearing, by contrast, is controlled not in the cerebral cortex, but by the so-called lower, subcortical structures in the brain stem and limbic system, structures “older” in evolutionary time and more primitive, associated with aggression and emotions — the same neural structures that control the vocal calls of primates.

Swearing is a different kind of language, controlled by a different part of the brain. Lesions in “higher” speech centers of the cerebral cortex often cause aphasia (loss or impairment of the ability to use words as symbols), but as Pinker notes, “many aphasics are superb at swearing.”

If swearing is not language as we know it, then what is it? It must certainly qualify as a form of communication, even as the hoots and calls of primates are forms of communication. They aren’t, however, symbolic communication in the same way that the word “cat” is a symbol for a particular type of animal. What does it communicate, though? Emotions? Ideas? Just pure aggression?

If swearing isn’t language as we typically understand it or mean by the concept, does this suggest that it should be classified differently under the law? Should it be regulated like other types of aggression, or should it be treated like regular language based upon its similarities?


Read More Book Notes from the Book Reviews on this site.

May 17, 2006 at 12:50 pm
(1) Green-Eyed Lilo says:

I think Anna Sewell said it perfectly, in Black Beauty.

Ginger the horse informed the other horses that “bad words are for bad things.” Sounds simple, but I think people so often forget that. If there weren’t bad things that people get angry about, and bad people, and bad relationships between normally good people, would we need “bad” words? Of course not!

We need to work on those roots, not so much the language.

I need to read this book!

May 18, 2006 at 8:48 am
(2) moontime says:

Swear words are just syllables you’ve been programmed to be offended by. By continuing to be offended by certain words because you are “supposed” to be, you are just giving these words more power. I find the whole concept of “profanity” ridiculous and I can’t believe there are actually laws about it.

August 11, 2008 at 4:11 am
(3) TiM says:

Totally agree that we as a society should not be offended by words that we as a society have created. The words that represent actions, to be offended by these words only reflect the problems and pre-programmed issues we hav been raised to understand as the truth, which is the truth of the generations before us, which isn’t the truth but their truth.

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