Iowa Alumni Magazine | April 2012 | In Class

Bad Words

By Shelbi Thomas
Anthropology students learn to watch their language.

Out of some 400,000 words in the English language, seven are so dastardly that they must never be uttered on broadcast television. In his controversial 1972 monologue, comedian George Carlin revealed these Seven Dirty Words that he warns "will infect your soul, curve your spine, and keep the country from winning the war."

Although it began as comedy, Carlin's shocking routine sparked a national debate about obscenity that eventually reached the Supreme Court. Carlin argued that bad words don't exist—only sinister thoughts and intentions.

If words don't hold any intrinsic moral value, then why did Carlin cause such a stir? UI students find out in an anthropology class called "Bad Language" that uses ethnographic and sociolinguistic situations from around the world to explore what words say about a culture. They learn how words become labeled "good" or "bad" based on society's values and people's perceptions. "Aside from a person's physical appearance," these undergrads read in an essay by linguistics expert Dennis Baron, "the first thing someone will be judged by is how he or she talks."

In addition to bad language in terms of obscenity and taboo, the class also looks at the social ramifications of speaking with certain dialects, grammatical mistakes, and sub-cultural jargon and slang. Says UI assistant anthropology professor Adi Hastings, who teaches the popular course, "The class title draws them in, but it also gets them to notice the use of language around them. We're all intimately familiar with language, yet many people have never really thought about it before."

Of course, any examination of dirty words runs the risk of offending. "It is my hope that we can discuss these materials with care," Hastings tells his class. "Words are never neutral vehicles of thought, but always completely loaded with meaning."

To study "bad language," students must first understand the standards against which it's measured. Every community has a norm devoid of strong accents, slang, and improper grammar. In the United States, the advent of radio led to the widespread use of the neutral-sounding Midwestern dialect. Standard American English is now the preferred speech of television and film, taught in schools and modeled by newscasters.

When it comes to standards, people fall in two different camps. Prescriptivists uphold the rules for how a language should be spoken and written, while descriptivists prefer simply to observe the myriad ways that ordinary people use language. Hastings says that from a descriptivist's point of view, "If language at its basic level is about communication between people [and the meaning comes across], then its purpose is accomplished."

A prescriptivist's concerns about slipping standards aren't necessarily about language; they may reflect fears about changes in society. Could violating the proper rules of grammar be the first sign of a larger societal shift, where unrefined and bawdy speech prevails and immoral behavior becomes acceptable? "We can't have a society where everything goes," says Hastings. "There have to be limits in place for language, behavior, and everything else."

Throughout history, people have used language to make distinctions among different classes and cultures. Mainstream speakers become associated with good virtue, while those who talk outside the norm may be stigmatized as uneducated or untrustworthy. In the musical My Fair Lady, phonetics professor Henry Higgins transforms a crude Cockney girl into an elegant and eloquent woman. In one of the musical's most popular songs, Higgins rants, "An Englishman's way of speaking absolutely classifies him/The moment he talks he makes some other Englishman despise him/One common language I'm afraid we'll never get."

As a melting pot for people of many different tongues, the U.S. periodically wrestles with the question of whether English should be the nation's official language. Supporters argue that a common language would bring more unity and assimilation, while opponents maintain that 97 percent of Americans already speak English well—the highest percentage of any nation of its size in history.

In 1996, a decision by the Oakland, Calif., school board to recognize African American Vernacular English—also known as Ebonics—as a legitimate language fueled a nationwide debate on how speech standards should be taught in such a diverse country.

Diatribes about the degeneration of language have existed long before the development of Twitter and text messaging. Essays by the 18th century writers Jonathan Swift and Samuel Johnson show that concerns about words often crop up in times of social or political reform. "Tongues, like governments, have a natural tendency to degeneration," wrote Johnson, who published one of the most influential dictionaries of the English language. "We have long preserved our constitution; let us make some struggles for our language."

While "verbal hygiene" may appear to be rapidly declining, Hastings argues that language has actually morphed less in the last 200 years, since literacy has become widespread. Dictionaries, mass media, and education have all created standards that stabilize the language and slow change. Certain words and expressions may fall out of favor, but today's students speak largely the same as their parents and grandparents. In fact, with a little guidance, this generation can still understand William Shakespeare, although works by the medieval poet Geoffrey Chaucer may present more of a challenge.

Verbal communication plays such a central role in a person's self-expression that attempts to restrict its use are often futile. Rappers, truckers, and people of other sub-cultures all use slang to identify themselves as members of a group. Prisoners evade censorship by speaking in "anti-languages," purposely designed to exclude outsiders.

In addition to showing belonging, words also have the power to reflect social change. "Retarded" used to be the appropriate term to refer to a person with a mental disability, but a recent Special Olympics national campaign raised awareness about the pain caused by the insensitive use of the "R-word." As a result, Iowa legislators voted to replace the words "retarded" and "retardation" with "intellectual disability" in state law.

Such efforts are well-meaning and admirable, but some critics say that America has become too sensitive. In 1999, David Howard, an aide to the mayor of Washington, DC, temporarily lost his job after using the word "niggardly" in a budget discussion. Although the word means "stingy" and doesn't share its origins with the racial slur "nigger," the words' homophonic similarity caused public outrage.

George Orwell and George Carlin offer spirited defenses of the need for clear and direct language instead of sanitized speech. In Orwell's 1984, a corrupt government uses doublespeak to manipulate the masses into blind obedience. "Political language...is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give the appearance of solidity to pure wind," Orwell wrote in an essay that upholds straight talk over "Newspeak."

Carlin also deplored political correctness as the "language that takes the life out of life." In one of his comic routines, he ridicules self-censorship driven by the fear of offending—a practice that changed toilet paper into "bathroom tissue," the poor into the "economically disadvantaged," and constipation into "occasional irregularity." "Americans have trouble dealing with reality, and in order to shield themselves from it, they use soft language," he says, adding that people have been fooled into believing that "if you change the name of the condition, somehow you will change the condition."

Returning to Carlin at the end of the semester, the UI students examine the history of the Seven Dirty Words and other obscenities. They discover that people have their reasons for cussing: to be funny, to fit in, to express their personality or emotions, to show closeness among friends, to hide fear, or to shock. Still, certain expletives can give negative impressions, come across as sexist or offensive, insinuate a limited vocabulary, or make others feel uncomfortable. Often, context determines appropriateness, which explains why profanity may be acceptable around friends but forbidden at work.

In the Middle Ages, swear words predominantly revolved around religious blasphemy; today, obscenities about race, gender, or sexual orientation frequently spew out of potty mouths. "The deepest, darkest, most uncomfortable things become taboo," says Hastings. "Sex and bodily fluids are nearly universal in obscene language and humor."

Social and cultural norms also help determine what qualifies as acceptable language. In the 1950s, the word "pregnant" couldn't be uttered on I Love Lucy. Today, most of Carlin's Seven Dirty Words regularly appear on cable television. Even occasional F-bombs explode on mainstream programming.

Times change; so do words and attitudes.