Conversational volume
Posted by aogWednesday, 03 August 2005 at 14:58 TrackBack Ping URL

Dean Esmay is following the “what is wrong with profanity” thread and comes out in favor of “nothing wrong”. because it’s all about social class posturing. While that may be true to some extent, I think there are more fundamental points that lead to the use of profanity being a class marker.

One standard charge against profanity is that it marks the user as inarticulate. I think that’s a mistake, as the counter argument is to point to people who use profanity and are articulate. The more correct formulation is that their speech is inarticulate. With particular regard to Esmay’s praise of the flexibility of one bit of profanity, if a word can mean anything it means nothing and isn’t meaning nothing the very definition of inarticulate?

But I think the primary object to profanity is more asthetic than that. To me it’s primarily a matter of conversational volume. One frequently sees objections to people who type ALL IN CAPS or use bold all the time or repeat endlessly certain stock phrases. Profanity is effectively all of these things rolled in to one. Profanity is a very psychologically loud conversational spice, which can be useful if used appropriately and sparingly. But if used frequently, it’s the same as running at volume 10 all the time. Who finds it pleasant to be on the receiving end of that? I think it’s also indicative of laziness and ill-consideration for others in the conversation, like throwing more hot sauce on a dish instead of preparing it properly, which is what is interpreted as inarticulateness.

One of Esmay’s commentors points out that most profanity is based on basic, everyday activities. That is, of course, completely irrelevant. All language is pure convention and by convention those particular words are psychologically loud. If the set of words were different or had no relation to normal human activities, we’d still be arguing about them. Unless one is making the argument that there should be no such loud words at all, which seems to me to be rather dull. One can see something of this by considering where does someone who uses profanity heavily go to express true outrage or anger? They’re already at volume 10 so they need to turn it up to 11. Since that’s not possible the result is a reptiive stream of profanity where word count substitutes for good word choice (which contributes to the perception of inarticulateness). Deracinating profanity would be the same as requiring all music to be played at the same moderate volume. Frequently use of profanity does just that, except that then everything is at the maximum volume all the time. In either case something important is lost.

In contrast, what is lost by using profanity rarely? If your only thoughts are ones that require maximum volume to express then I’d rather not listen to you. Like poetry, linguistic constraints don’t restrict creativity, they enhance it and highlight it. I have no more respect for people who use profanity instead of a good turn of phrase than I do for people who slap words on a page and call it a poem. “What do I need structure for?”, they say. Well, you don’t but your audience might appreciate it. If you don’t care what your audience thinks than I don’t care to be your audience.

Comments — Formatting by Textile
Eric R. Ashley Wednesday, 03 August 2005 at 12:58

I think your point about perception of inarticulateness is good. Although, continued use of a behavior does tend to weaken other behaviours.

Perhaps a better question is whether Professor Swears-a-lot would be more or less articulate after starting a program of five years of nearly constant swearing.

Your other point about conversational volume is well-taken. I think I was in its vicinity when I talk about inherently boring people using vulgarity to try to make their conversations more interesting.

Dean Esmay Thursday, 04 August 2005 at 02:30

Regarding the notion that flexibility in usage means imprecision in meaning: balderdash. I can give you ten sentences using the work “f*ck” in completely different ways, and anyone between the age of 10 and 100 could tell you immediately what precisely was meant by the usage. Flexible does not mean imprecise, it means flexible. The two are not incompatible in the least.

Regarding civility, I can be utterly uncivil without once uttering a harmless four-letter word. Indeed, I can be quite nasty without such words, and quite fun-loving with them. Thus this claim falls away as irrational.

Regarding how other perceive you: you seem to ignore the notion that when you judge others, they judge you. My judgement of most people who condemn harmless so-called “foul” language is that they are uptight, stick-up-the-butt, self-important snobs and not people I am much interested in either having business relationships with nor friendships. I tolerate their presence but I certainly don’t enjoy it much: people who are so self-important that they expect me to avoid perfectly harmless behavior just to please them makes them difficult to be around.

In short, I find them boorish. Not to mention boring.

So, who’s right? I couldn’t possibly say. I merely note again that most of the objections seem to come down to making judgement of others’ character based on utterly harmless traits. This again simply points to classicism: the assumption that people who use salty language are somehow less intelligent, less erudite, less learned, less eloquent, etc. Which all ultimately comes down to class. Not class as in “classy,” but class as in “this group is inferior to my group.”

dl Thursday, 04 August 2005 at 05:36

I’m doubt if I’m adding very much to your volume analogy, but the way I think about it is that most people’s use of obscenity falls into a general category of weak language usage: using information-free intensfiers instead of being precise about the strengths, weaknesses, or emotions they’re trying to put across. If I say that a painting is “f…in’ cool” I’m not saying very much about what exactly is good about it or why exactly I’m affected by it. This issue isn’t specific to obscenity: if I said that the painting was “exquisite” I’d be saying just as little. Using obscenity can feel quite dramatic and emotional, but if you make a habit of it you can end up deadening your sensibility and becoming less genuine and less in touch with your emotions. In some contexts, especially in business, it can also be an abusive assertion of power: it puts across the message that I don’t have to justify my descisions, because my visceral reaction trumps your reasoning.

Annoying Old Guy Thursday, 04 August 2005 at 09:43

Mr. Esmay;

Try this: use the word “shizzle” instead of “f*ck” in those sentences and see if they are still understandable. That should demonstrate how much semantic content the word is adding. The difference will be the intensity, which is my point.

I’m not sure why you bring up civility, since I made no mention of it.

you seem to ignore the notion that when you judge others, they judge you

And I shouldn’t ignore it because …? From reading your weblog, I was under the impression that you disdained the moral relativistic “nobody can judge” viewpoint, but apparently I was mistaken. It also seems a bit irrelevant because, as you note yourself, I was talking of perception which is not identical to judgement. I also don’t see where I condemn use of profanity. Neither do I see where I expect you (or anyone else) to do anything. Are you sure your reply was intended for this post?

I could contest your view that profanity is “harmless” but I think it’s better to point out that, for instance, ALL CAPS and lots of bold and lots!!! of exclamation! points!!!!! are also harmless. Yet I don’t observe any reticence in the blogosphere to condemning those linguistic styles. Can you say honestly that your opinion of a commentor isn’t affected if he exhibits any of those styles? Is objecting to such styles also “uptight” and “self-important” and “boring”?

My argument here is an asthetic , not moral, argument and one you don’t seem to have addressed.

Annoying Old Guy Thursday, 04 August 2005 at 09:57


Yes, there are of course other words that serve the same kind of filler role. Profanity is a bit different though because of the “volume” issue. Replacing all of the “f*ck” with “like” in a sentence certainly changes the percieved vehemence of the sentence.

Contra Esmay’s view, I don’t view such semantics-free intensifiers as useless, since emontional information is still information. It’s far more about noise which is what you get when you overuse.

End of Discussion