Reinhold “Rey” Aman, the expert on offensive language, died on March 2 at the age of 82. Aman is best known as the editor and publisher of the journal Maledicta (“The International Journal of Verbal Aggression”).
Popular lore says there are profound differences between how women and men behave. It also implies these differences are axiomatic, hard-wired, and more significant than the variation within each group. One such myth says women are intrinsically more polite, deferential, and indirect than men. So here’s a sweary counterexample.
Don Kulick’s 1993 paper ‘Speaking as a woman: structure and gender in domestic arguments in a New Guinea village’ (PDF)* is about a special speech genre used to address (if not resolve) social tension and conflict. The phenomenon, known as a kros, is a loud, obscene, highly public, near-daily, and stereotypically female display of anger – usually involving a woman criticising her partner, children, relatives, or fellow villagers.
Kros means ‘angry’, as in cross. It begins suddenly: a woman will ‘raise her voice sharply and perhaps shout an obscenity’, writes Kulick. Villagers stop and listen, and if the kros intensifies they will move closer to its source. The kroser usually stays in her home, and the object of her anger is normally away somewhere – if they end up face to face mid-kros, violence can ensue which may embroil much of the village. Kulick continues:
Kroses are heavily characterized by obscenity, sarcasm, threats, and insults, all of which are conveyed in shrill screams across the village. They are extremely abusive, and perhaps for this reason they are structured by precise conventions.
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’.
In my mid-teens I spent a few summer weeks in beautiful Brittany on a school exchange. With our French peers my classmates and I eagerly exchanged more than just grammar lessons, swearwords being among the most popular items of cross-cultural education. I tried out all the new swears I learned (and did the same when I learned German), but my awareness of their social nuances remained crude. The internet hadn’t happened yet.
As the years passed and my fluency in these languages declined with disuse, I seldom resorted to their swears – the emotional gratification was limited, and I didn’t feel authentic enough. I had im-fucking-postor syndrome. But I never forgot the feeling of swearing in a foreign tongue, the impish appeal of going native with these exotic and tantalising taboos. The phenomenon is especially interesting because swearing, linguistically speaking, is neurologically unusual.
Which brings us to multilingualism.