An examination of the sub rosa language that sets us all atwitter—and athwart.
What is it about the F-word, the N-word, and the C-word (supply your own, as long as it’s got four letters) that provokes rage, disgust, and embarrassed laughter? Bergen (Director, Language and Cognition Laboratory/Univ. of California, San Diego) observes that they fire up parts of the brain that other words don’t excite in quite the same way; profanity, he writes, “gets encoded differently in the brain.” That makes the study of vulgar language a topic of special interest for neuroscientists, who can connect those bad words to responses along the neural pathway. A word is sounded, Bergen schematizes, and then converted into electrical signals, whereupon “different parts of the temporal lobe then extract information about the speech sounds that make up the word and then send modified signals to a region called Wernicke’s area, which is believed to associate the sequence of sounds that you’ve heard with their meaning,” and so forth. Something unusual happens in that area when bad language is heard. Bergen doesn’t sort out nature and nurture quite neatly enough: it’s sometimes less that children have potty mouths, he writes, than that adults have “potty ears.” A little more reference to the anthropological literature might have helped, but all the same, it’s clear that elements of both are involved in parsing how to interpret “give a fuck,” to say nothing of the more fiery, more dangerous iterations of terms surrounding race, incest, and other taboo or sensitive areas. What is certain, as the author notes, is that such words are indeed capable of harm, and, therefore, we as social and legal beings have some interest in regulating them. Using them, he observes memorably, “is the linguistic analog of closing your eyes and swinging in full knowledge that there’s a nose within arm’s reach.”
It’s no match for Jesse Sheidlower’s fluent, fun The F Word (1995), but Bergen’s study is still a winner for the psycholinguistics nerd in the house.