Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Power of Bad Language



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.


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30 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  3. In this so called land of rich culture and heritage, abuse and ridiculing is considered as oratory and sign of strong leadership
    - Balu

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    1. Yes, Balu, we see too many leaders today who misuse words and refuse to rise from the level of being savages. After all, quite many of them are people facing criminal charges; so what should we expect?

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  4. I think the attraction to bad language is more than the good ones even in the children for reasons obvious. They easily pick these up from environment including homes....

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    1. Yeah, evil is more attractive than goodness.

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  5. You are very right, Sir.
    I was shocked to find li'l kids of my kid's class using such words. I hate those 4-letter words that are so much a part of everyone's vocabulary these days.
    But, then, kids pick them up parents, Ayahs, Drivers etc without knowing the meaning & soon it becomes habit...

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    1. Yes, Anita, Such language is gaining popularity these days. One of the reasons is what I have analysed here: power. There are other reasons, I guess. Rebellion, for example. Fad, may be another reason.

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  6. But sometimes using bad words specially when you are very annoyed at someone or at a situation feels liberating and helps to release your feelings. Its a non-violent way of expressing your anger.

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    1. As an exclamation or interjection, yes, swearwords do play a useful role sometimes. Innocuous, sometimes. But on the whole I think they are quite offputting.

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  7. I am not in favour of using such language. I cringe when I hear them spoken. And sometimes my blood too boil. :)

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    1. I too feel bad when I hear them, Preethi. It's terrible when my students use the word "Shit!" for anything they find amusing or awkward or annoying or just anything!

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  8. I have learned some bad words my kids picked from school. Sheesh!
    It is more a psychological issue I think, only psychologists can throw some light on this.

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    1. Yes, Indrani, the issue is certainly not as simple as I have made it out to be. I was looking at it from just one angle.

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  9. Funny part is when people try to learn a language apart from greetings they make sure to learn the bad words.. it intrigues them... have often seen my juniors and students doing it... sad...

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    1. Maybe, people just want to know when others are abusing them :)

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  10. I also think kids find it "cool" to use these words... like a kid with maximum number of bad words vocabulary is looked upon and admired and defined as awesome or modern or popular... this mind set has to change first in my opinion...

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    1. Could that be another version of peer pressure - foul language being "cool"?

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  11. There a quite a few words which have now become part of our lingo! and I wonder what the next gen kids must be learning out of it...

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    1. As they grow, their lingo is likely to change. But adults are not free of this habit. Our lingo reflects our personality. So...

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  12. True. Learning starts at home. We as adults are less concerned about our characters and how we behave in front of our kids. Even we don't care or use bad words at a roadside shop, our kids easily capture these and they might also behave similarly towards that store wala. We hardly follow principles at our home and we curse our teachers for this!

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    1. Blaming the others is a normal human strategy... All basic learning takes place at home for children. But the school makes its own contribution too, no doubt, especially where language is concerned. The issue I was trying to look at was: why?

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  13. Is it also not considered as smart and fashionable these days..?

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    1. Yes, Amit. I mentioned it in a comment above. Slang is style! Abusing is even more stylish!

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  14. I agree that children learn lot of bad words at home. this is also true that they pick up bad words from what they hear outside home, but I feel it is the responsibility of all the parents to spend sufficient time with their children so that they can notice the new additions in their child's vocabulary. if such words uttered by them go unnoticed, they may soon become habit for the children.

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    1. Unfortunately, Ratna, today neither parents nor teachers have the time for such things as checking the lingo of the students. Everyone is too busy...

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  15. Can we better call it the lingo of powerless people?

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    1. In a way, yes, that's what it may be. But not an acceptable way, I guess.

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  16. I agree but they are really handy when you badly need to vent out your frustration :) Lot better when you go to some isolated place and swear loudly :) Keeping anger bottled up is really bad for your health and I'm not in favor of that. But that doesn't mean that you verbally abuse anyone. :)

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