Sunday, February 03, 2013

How We Talk to Each Other

Every once in a while (as you know if you've been with me for very long) I get an almost uncontrollable urge to capitalize on my parents' investment in my degree in Linguistics (which horrified my father, who had visions of a scientist or engineer in the family). I find language to be a fascinating topic, both as a vehicle for communication and as an indication of cultural development.

I thought about the latter aspect of language yesterday, when I read Angel's post titled "As American As ...", in which she riffed on some of the things we as Americans (sorry about that, Overseas Readers) have in common, as opposed to the many things which today divide us. One of the things she mentioned was that we are very good at profanity, which reminded me of this NPR story from earlier in the week: Dear Lawyers: Order In The &*%# Court!

You might think that lawyers, to whom precise use of language is critically important, and who often argue cases of great weight that may affect the lives of many people, would be judicious in their choice of words. But nowadays this is evidently not so, according to the NPR story which, in turn, cited a Wall Street Journal article about lawyers behaving like ill-mannered louts. From the WSJ article:

"From courtroom yelling matches to insulting letters and depositions that turn into fistfights, some lawyers and judges worry that the adversarial system of justice has gotten a little too adversarial ...
The well-mannered caution that lawyers who shout, lie and shoot off vulgar emails don't merely alienate judges and juries. They also slow the wheels of justice and cost clients money."

Ah, yes! If you can't get people to be civil any other way, appeal to economics.

It's not just lawyers, of course. As Angel points out in her post, "George Carlin's 'seven words you can't say on television'* is almost quaint."

I also found an interesting new expression this week on WordSpy: social swearing. The term is defined as "Casual swearing that helps to define and bind a social group." Yes, Dear Readers, we now have a term for the fact that we now routinely use - as a way of "bonding" - language my mother would have washed my mouth out with soap for using ... and that was before my father would have knocked me into the next zip code.

The indiscriminate use of foul language has grown tremendously since I was young. It's not unusual to hear grade-school children now using gutter language once associated with drunken sailors, longshoremen, rap "musicians," and uneducated ass clowns who don't know any better. It's all a part of the continuing coarsening of our society, in which The Golden Rule has changed from

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.


Screw 'em.

We live in a time when many people who should know better have adopted the philosophy of the Robert E. Heinlein story Beyond This Horizon that 

An armed society is a polite society.

After all, why bother being polite and using calm and respectful langage when you can just pack heat to enforce granting of the respect you demand, but are unwilling to give in return?

I am, of course, not totally innocent of the use of less-than-scholarly language. I can turn the air blue with the best of them (in three languages!) when suitably provoked. But I try not to use profanity as a matter of routine, particularly not in front of small children or in a mixed company of strangers. I like to think of the use of profanity in the terms of a comment I heard and wrote down years ago. Sadly, I've lost the exact quote, but it goes something like this: 

"The English language has so few good cuss words that they should be kept stored away, protected and preserved against the time when no other word will do, at which time they should be unfurled and proudly waved like a flag of defiance in the face of an enemy who can understand no words more civil."

Take a few minutes to think about what you say and how you say it, particularly in front of children.

Perhaps you don't care whether you sound like an uneducated baboon, but I'd rather my grandchildren learn from a better example.

Have a good day. And have it politely. You may find you like it.


* Don't follow this link when small children are present near the computer, or if you are easily offended.


Duckbutt said...

A very on-target post, Bilbo! I'll try to abate my language in everyday discourse so that it is classroom-acceptable.

eViL pOp TaRt said...

A fine essay and a good reminder of the importance of non-profane speech.

....I'm sorry, retrospectively, about the cartoon in the linked article.

John Hill said...

Just yesterday, Chris and I were talking about the foul language in the workplace.

I guess people don't know that it makes them appear to be of low character...or they just don't care.

The Mistress of the Dark said...

my best friend's daughter swears like a trooper..and she's only 11. Its sad.

Mike said...

'my father would have knocked me into the next zip code'

Did Zip Codes exist way back then? ... HEY! Watch your language.