Let’s talk swearing

We detect an odd theme in some news offerings this morning: Cursing and the science surrounding it.

First, MoneyWatch at CBS News contends that cursing can get you ahead at work, providing an interview with Benjamin K. Bergen, professor of cognitive science at University of California San Diego and the author of “What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves.”

He reveals that a changing demographic is also changing what constitutes an obscenity.

People who are middle age or older generally find slurs to be offensive but not to the same degree. The strongest “f” word, according to millennials, is not a four-letter one, which actually is the 10th worst one according to them, but a three-letter one, a slur for homosexual people.

Another example is the word “retard.” Nowadays it’s in the top-10 list of most offensive for millennials. They don’t want to hear it and find it completely inappropriate.

Bergen claims you can get ahead in the workplace with a little casual obscenity.

That depends on the circumstance. Usually it takes a lot of energy to be super-creative with profanity. Unless I’m trying to impress someone, I usually don’t focus on that. In the workplace, “s***” I find a really useful word. If you ask millennials, it’s like the 50th-worst word in the language. It’s not offensive at all.

That I find is a good entry point. It’s a good first salvo — “Hey, how do you feel about us talking casually.” It gives the feeling of rolling up your sleeves. In the workplace, like most relationships, you’re in this dance trying to figure out what each of you is comfortable with.

In its essay on the subject today, The Guardian considers whether those who speak a second language are less emotional about obscenities.

It’s a research project of Wilhelmiina Toivo at the University of Glasgow, who is measuring the challenges of speaking a second language, even fluently. “While your language skills can be more than adequate, not being able to fully structure your surroundings through language might leave you feeling alienated; not a part of the society you live in. Or perhaps you are perceived as rude or socially awkward for using the wrong words in the wrong emotional context,” Toivo writes.

Toivo theorizes that it’s much easier to swear in a second language.

Many bilinguals report “feeling less” in their second language; it does not bear the same emotional weight as your native language. Feeling less emotionally connected to your second language might make it easier to use highly emotional vocabulary, which is precisely what I was experiencing with my ease of swearing and talking about sensitive topics in English. The scientific term for this is reduced emotional resonance of language. It is a fairly well-established phenomenon, but many specific questions still remain unanswered. For example, what exactly makes one’s second language less emotional? How does this affect different immigrant communities? My research project aims to address these questions by looking into the reasons and implications of reduced emotional resonance in bilinguals’ second language.

It is still unclear what exactly shapes emotional resonance of a language and in what way – results thus far have been inconclusive. In the first part of my project, we are exploring which factors in a person’s language background contribute to reduced emotional resonance. For example, is it influenced by the age at which you have learnt your second language? Does it matter how frequently and in which context you use the language? Or is your emotional experience of a language predictable from whether you dream or can do maths in it?

Toivo says she found swearing very uncomfortable when growing up, but when she moved to Scotland, she found it much easier to swear using English.

From this sort of research, we can learn more about the power of language “Language is so much more than just a communication device; it is a way to understand the world around us, defining our reality and what it actually means to be human,” Toivo says.

For her essay, Toivo was awarded the top prize in the writing competition for social research, sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council last week.

Related: Three bloody good reasons to embrace swearing (ABC Online)

This Is Why People Keep Adding “Please Do Not Swear” To Their Facebook Profiles (BuzzFeed)