In your latest book, The Stuff of Thought, you discuss cursing and note that, in America, “the seven words you can’t say on television” have to do with sex and excretion. In other parts of the world, other types of words are more powerful, such as ones drawn from religion.
Yes, it’s particularly noticeable to someone like me who comes from Quebec, where the worst thing that you can say to someone is “Goddamn chalice.” That really brings it home for me. We do have a trace of that in swear words like “hell” and “damn” and “Goddamn,” but they’ve really lost their sting, and it has to be related to the fact that religion has lost its power over many people.
I think the reason that swearing is both so offensive and so attractive is that it is a way to push people’s emotional buttons, and especially their negative emotional buttons. Because words soak up emotional connotations and are processed involuntarily by the listener, you can’t will yourself not to treat the word in terms of what it means. You can’t hear a word and just hear it as raw sound; it always evokes an associated meaning and emotion in the brain. So I think that words give us a little probe into other people’s brains. We can press someone’s emotional buttons anytime we want.
And there’s an additional layer, which would account for the fact that the content of swearing varies across history and from culture to culture. The common denominator is some kind of negative emotion, but the culture and time will determine which negative emotion is commonly provoked, whether it’s disgust at bodily secretions, or dread of deities, or repugnance at sexual perversions. The second, additional layer is that you recognize that the other person is evoking—and is intentionally evoking—that negative emotion, and you know that he knows that you know that he is trying to evoke it. That’s part of why it offends you. And that’s why the choice of word matters, as well as what the word refers to—why “the F word” is obscene, but “copulate” is not, even though they refer to the same thing. But you know when someone uses “copulate,” they’re referring to copulation, whereas when they use the F word, they are trying to get a rise out of you. So there again you get to the pragmatics as well as the semantics.
You say that in studying certain aspects of how children acquire language—specifically, how they learn to use verbs—you fell, like Alice, down a rabbit hole into a hidden world where you viewed the deeper structures of cognition. What did you see in that wonderland beneath the surface of our language?
One very crucial rabbit hole involved figuring out how children learn to use simple verbs for putting things in places, verbs like fill, pour, load, or splash—verbs involving movement of something to somewhere. The problem was, how do you account for how a little kid, who has no prior knowledge of how a particular language works and who isn’t going to get explicit lessons about how to use which words in which circumstances, figures out what words mean and what sentences they can be used in? We adults, for example, will say “Fill the glass with water” but not “Fill water into the glass,” even though it’s perfectly clear what that means. We will say “Pour water into the glass” but not “Pour the glass with water.” And you know, “Pour the glass with water” is perfectly sensible, but it just doesn’t sound quite right. But with a verb like load, we can say either “Load hay into the wagon” or “Load the wagon with hay.” So you’ve got one verb that takes the container as the object, one that takes the stuff as the object, and the third that can go both ways. How do kids figure that out? Do they get it right to start with? The answer is no, not a hundred percent of the time. They do make some errors; they very occasionally say “Can I fill some salt into the shaker?” or “Stop pouring me with water.” But the errors are fairly rare, and most of the time they use them correctly, and they grow up to be us, who use them correctly. What are they latching onto?
It turns out that they’re latching onto different ways of framing the same situation. So if I go over to the sink and the faucet and the glass ends up full, I can think of that one activity either as doing something to the water (namely, causing it to go into the glass) or doing something to the glass (namely, causing it to change state from empty to full). That was the key insight to figure out why “fill” and “pour” behave differently.
If the simplest action, like putting some water into a glass, can be mentally framed in these two ways, with different consequences in terms of how we use words, that suggests that one of the key talents of the mind is framing a given situation in multiple ways and that a lot of insight into human thought, debate, disagreement, can come from thinking about the ways in which two different people—or one person at different times—can frame the same event. “Pouring water” versus “filling a glass” is a pretty mundane difference, but to speak of “invading Iraq” versus “liberating Iraq” or “confiscating earnings” versus “redistributing assets” would be more consequential. I think it illuminates the same aspect of our minds. This is a pervasive power of the mind; it’s seen in battles over perspective on all kinds of issues. It makes us capable of flip-flopping on a course of action, depending on how the action is described. It suggests limitations on our rationality—that we might, for example, be vulnerable to fallacies in reasoning or to corruption in our institutions.