|Caliban and Prospero|
“You taught me language; and my profit on't / Is, I know how to curse,” says Shakespeare’s Caliban to Prospero, the man who taught him the gentleman’s language. Caliban was no gentleman, however. He was an evil spirit whom Prospero tried to civilise. After all, civilising the savage is the white man’s god-given burden.
Caliban cursed Prospero because that was his way of asserting his power. He had been enslaved by Prospero, and words are the only source of power left when one is enslaved. Words are powerful. They can make or break people.
A recent study by psychologist Timothy Jay shows that children learn a lot of “bad” words even before they begin schooling. They pick it up from their parents and other adults at home or around.
As a teacher in a residential school, I have observed how children pick up foul language much more quickly than the more desirable alternative. The “bad” words carry a certain power, as far as children are concerned. When they use them, the children are asserting their power much like what Caliban did with Prospero.
Yesterday’s Hindu reproduced a Guardian article in which the author argues that “bad” words belong to the savage part of our brain. Even those people who lose their linguistic faculties because of brain damage tend to retain the capacity to curse or to use swearwords. “While parts of the highly evolved cortex may have been destroyed,” says the author, “areas that developed earlier in our history — the limbic system and basal ganglia, which mediate emotion and habitual movements — remain intact. This is where swearwords seem to live, in the animal part of the brain that once gave rise to howls of pain and grunts of frustration and pleasure.”
In other words, when we curse and abuse we are becoming animal-like. We are degrading ourselves. There is power in such degradation, no doubt: the power of verbal muscles.