Profanity in American Sign Language

Sign languages are as expressive and systematic as spoken languages, and that includes taboo words. As Benjamin Bergen writes in What the F, ‘Signers use rules of grammar, some of them specific to profanity, just like speakers of spoken languages.’ There’s also great variation in how a given idea may be conveyed – not just between sign languages or their dialects but within them.

If Cory O’Brien’s terrific post on the middle finger in American Sign Language made you want to increase your rude repertoire in ASL, look no further. The video below features a host of signers demonstrating some favourite insults and profanities. It also shows how much fun swearing can be.

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The whimsical world of emoji swearing

This is a guest post by Dr Philip Seargeant, Senior Lecturer in Applied Linguistics at the Open University. Philip has published extensively on topics such as language and social media, English around the world, and language and creativity. With his colleagues he produced the acclaimed video series The History of English in Ten Minutes. He tweets at @philipseargeant.

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How do you say ‘cockwomble’ in emoji?

Is it possible to swear in emoji? According to BuzzFeed, the answer’s a definite yes. In what has all the elements of an archetypal BuzzFeed post, the site provides a handy run-down of twenty-one useful emoji expletives. This includes staples such as ‘bastard’ 👪🚫💍 and ‘wanker’ 👐⚓️. Then there are the slightly more esoteric terms like ‘cockwomble’ 🐓🐹, which led the vanguard in the Scottish anti-Trump protests last summer. And finally there are a few useful compounds such as ‘bollock-faced shit licker’ 🍒😃💩👅.

While emoji may have started life as a way of adding fairly straightforward emotion-related context to a message – a smiling face at the end of a sentence to indicate that you’re joking, etc. – as their popularity has grown, so has the range of functions for which they’re used. Nowadays they can be employed for everything from expressing political allegiances, to conveying threats and combating cyberbullying.

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The middle finger in American Sign Language

This is a guest post by Cory O’Brien (@bettermyths), who is currently studying American Sign Language (ASL) at Columbia College Chicago. Cory has published two swear-laden books, George Washington is Cash Money and Zeus Grants Stupid Wishes, and runs a Swear of the Month Club which you can subscribe to at: patreon.com/bettermyths.

The signers in the GIFs below are Ethan Cook and Peter Wujcik, Deaf ASL tutors at Columbia College Chicago.

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Whenever I tell someone that I’m studying American Sign Language, there is a nonzero chance that they’ll trot out the same tired joke: “Oh yeah? I know some sign language! [Flips me the bird.]” They laugh, and I laugh, and we promptly stop being friends. Really, though, these people have no idea just how right they are. It’s only that, when you’re talking about a language that has spent hundreds of years figuring out how to squeeze the absolute most meaning out of every part of a hand, merely throwing up a middle finger is the linguistic equivalent of showing up to a duel and then firing your pistol straight into the air.

In English, the middle finger is a gesture, as opposed to a word. A gesture is a physical (or verbal) action, like a nod or a head shake or a grunt, that you can’t use as a part of a longer sentence. You can’t say “[middle finger] you, Steve!” You can dress your middle finger up with all kinds of fancy pageantry – pretending to peel a banana, or scratch your eye, or crank a jack-in-the-box, for example – but the meaning is always more or less the same: Fuck you.

In ASL, the middle finger itself still isn’t a word, but it’s not exactly a gesture either. It’s a part of a word, a morpheme. Signs in ASL have five distinct elements that give them meaning: Location, Palm Orientation, Hand Shape, Movement, and Non-Manual Markers (essentially facial expressions). In ASL, the iconic meaning of the middle finger (an erect cock and balls) has been almost entirely eliminated, but the emotional connotations of the gesture have been retained. So, when incorporated into a sign, the middle finger provides the hand shape, but the meaning of that hand shape in context varies drastically depending on the other parameters used, allowing for an endless array of middle-finger-based swears and idioms. What follows is a mere sampling of that variety, and the techniques used to create it.

Directionality

Whereas in English we flip someone off with the back of our hand oriented towards the offending party, ASL has made the palm orientation a meaning component, adapting the gesture so that the middle finger points towards the object of the swear:

Peter Wujcik signs "Fuck me? Fuck you!" in ASL

This is part of a larger tendency in ASL to encode subject–object relationships with directional verbs. Another example is the idiom “Mutual Hatred”:

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Book review: ‘What the F’, by Benjamin K. Bergen

Swear words are powerful things. We use them in anger, in passion, in unguarded moments of strong emotion. But because they’re taboo, we often skate over them and pretend, maybe even to ourselves, that they occurred in a moment of weakness – that they’re not part of who we ‘really’ are. That this is precisely what they are underlies the great appeal of, and need for, the book reviewed here.

Profanity historically has been under-studied, disparaged or ignored by mainstream academia. But some research on it is highly revealing or suggestive, and it is expertly presented in Benjamin Bergen’s What the F: What Swearing Reveals about Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves (publisher Basic Books kindly sent us a copy for review). Bergen is a professor of cognitive science in San Diego, and he describes his book winningly, and accurately, as ‘a coming-out party for the cognitive science of swearing’.

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Book review: ‘In Praise of Profanity’ by Michael Adams

Swearing has long been disreputable and in many ways still is. But it has never gone away, and (at the risk of confirmation bias) it seems more visible than ever. We see and hear it not just among friends, family and neighbours but at work, on the news, and in cultural media from billboard ads to high literature – albeit often euphemised. Are we living in a capital-A, fuckin’-A Age of Profanity?

Michael Adams, in his new book In Praise of Profanity (OUP, 2016) makes a persuasive case that we are. Though not a book about the history or science of profanity, it draws on both in aiming more immediately to examine and celebrate the swearing performance itself – the feeling, the experience, the phenomenon of profanity.

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