"I have a theory about what it means!!"

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Conversations among linguists may sometimes be interesting to non-linguists for reasons that are not entirely the same as those that appeal to insiders. As an example, I present without further comment a recent back-and-forth on Facebook between Linguist X and Linguist Y, slightly redacted to preserve anonymity.

X (Posts George Carlin's 2010 comments on Lance Armstrong.)

Y: A jerk Lance Armstrong surely is, but he provided the ABC news with a reason to produce a naturalistic example of a construction I wrote about in ____: "self-confessed arrogant prick with a win at all cost attitude" where self-confessed is an 'inner' intentional adjective taking scope out of two 'outer' extensional ones (syntactically ambiguous in the case of the with-PP, but the context forces into scope under self-confessed, I think).

X: This fits an analysis I proposed (not the scope but how to handle the adjective) a few years ago.

X: Your scope prediction sounds a lot more interesting.

Y: Adjectives are a garden of weird stuff. And as far as I can make out, GB/MP principles aren't really very helpful in dealing with them, in spite of their prevalence in the literature; the key insights I believe were attained by Terry Parsons and Hans Kamp extending Montague, and have been steadily cultivated by the formal semanticsts ever since. The first example in Pesetsky's plenary talk, for example, is a pretty natural consequence of the Parson-Kamp idea, and to present it he had to ignore antisymmetry and its consequence of 'rollup movement', which people in that framework seem to spend a lot of time struggling with.

Y: My main current project is a rewrite of some the analysis in my 1999 book with ___, using glue and some other tricks to eliminate the need for the 'spreading projections', which don't appear to have been very popular; there will be some adjective stuff in that.

Z: Only you guys can take the word fuck and make it complicated.

Y: Don't get me started on that one – I have a theory about what it means!!

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25 Comments »

  1. Neal Goldfarb said,

    January 19, 2013 @ 12:17 pm

    "people in that framework", "you guys"…File this under "Sociology of Linguistics".

  2. Henning Makholm said,

    January 19, 2013 @ 12:43 pm

    Don't we get to hear Y's theory? And does it explain how some languages and/or cultures seem to have a much larger tendency to attach taboo to swear words themselves than others?

    It's possible to be quite rude and offensive in Danish, but that doesn't mean that the rude utterance cannot be quoted in polite society and/or in print for the purpose to speak about it. On the other hand, the English taboo against "fuck" doesn't seem to respect any kind of use-mention distinction.

    (It appears to be a widespread (or at least officially sanctioned) idea in America that children can be harmed by hearing certain words spoken, with or without quotes. My best guess is that the idea is that if we manage to keep it secret from a child that rude words exist at all, they will grow up incapable of being impolite or disrespectful ever — which sounds like impossibly wishful thinking, but I'm an outsider and am probably missing some crucial connection here).

    [(myl) Y's subsequent explanation:

    The core component, according to me, is "I feel something very bad now. I didn't feel like this a very short time before. I am saying this because I want you to feel like this too". The essential difference from 'shit!' is that in the s-bomb, 'know' appears in place of 'feel (like)'.

    ]

  3. Jayarava said,

    January 19, 2013 @ 12:58 pm

    In a sense children can be harmed by picking up the word fuck without fully understanding the context. They might use it at an inappropriate time for example and be punished. I've been socially punished ( by exclusion) for casually using the word.

    Words clearly do have the power to affect emotional changes in the recipient. Though it's usually how we say something than what we say. Casually using words which cause unwanted emotional reactions is a common problem for us. Even if we don't share word taboos, we still have to communicate with people who have them. Breaking other people's taboos isn't always helpful, because right or wrong they react to our breaking their taboo.

    Personally I like to apply Margo Magnus's analysis of phonosemantics to why fuck is a power word; though it's also taboo for other reasons of course. Magnus's ideas help to explain why words with similar sounds (frack, feck, frag etc) can still produce something like the same emotional impact though without the frisson of simultaneously breaking the taboo.

  4. Keith M Ellis said,

    January 19, 2013 @ 4:05 pm

    Posts George Carlin's 2010 comments on Lance Armstrong.

    I don't know when that clip was taped, but it wasn't in 2010. Carlin died in 2008.

  5. Keith M Ellis said,

    January 19, 2013 @ 4:43 pm

    On the other hand, the English taboo against "fuck" doesn't seem to respect any kind of use-mention distinction.

    Setting aside your claim that Danish has no similar taboo words (not because I believe that all languages must necessarily have some; but that long experience here and elsewhere leads me to receive all such attested linguistic claims with skepticism), the phenomenon of word aversion may have some relevance. That is to say, word aversion demonstrates that, for some, a word can provoke an emotional response in itself, not necessarily for what it signifies.

    There's debate about how much this is true with regard to specific word aversions for specific speakers, with lots of speculation about associations — but, nevertheless, at the very least the association is deeply subconscious and unwitting for some speakers and we oughtn't dismiss claims outright that for some there's no associations involved at all. The point is that we can safely say that with regard to the aversion, the use/mention distinction is quite obscured for some speakers.

    This seems to me to be, arguably, qualitatively similar to the taboo response to fuck. The use/mention distinction that you find puzzling doesn't seem to exist, or doesn't exist, because the mention of the word is its use — as an obscenity in itself, its mere utterance taboo, its meaning is that it's a word that oughtn't be spoken.

  6. Jeff Carney said,

    January 19, 2013 @ 7:48 pm

    @Keith M Ellis

    Which partly explains, I suppose, why few people are reluctant to refer to "the f-bomb" or "the f-word" with reference to someone else's utterance, yet in the same context would feel uncomfortable about "quoting" the word itself. I live in a very religious community and notice this distinction quite frequently.

  7. M.N. said,

    January 19, 2013 @ 9:01 pm

    "Setting aside your claim that Danish has no similar taboo words (not because I believe that all languages must necessarily have some; but that long experience here and elsewhere leads me to receive all such attested linguistic claims with skepticism)"

    Wait, did he claim that? I understood the post to mean that you can say the Danish equivalent of something like "John called Bill a fucking shithead", and thereby convey that John violated a profanity taboo, without violating it yourself; while in English (or maybe just in the US?), reporting the use of profanity by quoting it would still be rude. (Wasn't there an LL post, in fact, about a newspaper reporting on someone using some swear word, but refusing to quote the person directly because of the swear word?)

    But I agree with the skeptical sentiment: there's a rumour floating around in various places on the Internet that Finnish supposedly has no swear words, which just isn't true.

  8. Carl said,

    January 19, 2013 @ 11:05 pm

    The clip is the opening to Carlin's 2008 special "It's Bad for Ya”—the last he recorded before his death.

  9. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 20, 2013 @ 12:32 am

    @Henning Makholm:

    (It appears to be a widespread (or at least officially sanctioned) idea in America that children can be harmed by hearing certain words spoken, with or without quotes. My best guess is that the idea is that if we manage to keep it secret from a child that rude words exist at all, they will grow up incapable of being impolite or disrespectful ever — which sounds like impossibly wishful thinking, but I'm an outsider and am probably missing some crucial connection here).

    Surely everyone in America knows that children are familiar with the common swear words by the time they're done with first grade. If there's anything beyond unexamined tradition behind the taboo on using such words in children's books and TV programs, it might be to reinforce the idea that such words are inappropriate in some circumstances, as Jayarava said—or to show children that it's possible to talk without swearing, something they may not have learned from their parents or peers.

  10. Steve said,

    January 20, 2013 @ 12:53 am

    The word fuck is complicated! I bought that dictionary "The F Word" back when the second edition came out and it did a through job of convincing me that the word is indeed very complicated.

    I loved that it Waldenbooks and Barns & Noble shelved it in the humor section. There was actual scholarship in that book, but I suspect it's target audience was more likely to see it in the humor section. (At least, that portion of the target audience that doesn't seek out dictionaries.)

  11. Jussi Piitulainen said,

    January 20, 2013 @ 4:53 am

    M.N., amusing. I've heard a different rumour that Swedish-speaking Finns swear in Finnish when they feel the need because Swedish has no really rude swear words. Also not true. They just don't teach us the bad words when they teach us languages in school.

    From personal experience, I think Finns avoid the mention of these words in the contexts where they avoid their use.

  12. David Morris said,

    January 20, 2013 @ 6:22 am

    Funky! Freaky! To be frank, there are other words with f and k sounds which don't 'produce something like the same emotional impact'.

  13. Keith M Ellis said,

    January 20, 2013 @ 9:10 am

    @M.N., yeah, I didn't express myself very well. I'm skeptical about that particular claim (that the use/mention distinction universally allows mention of taboo words in Danish).

    As touched upon by others regarding fuck in particular, taboo words are very complicated — but it seems very unlikely to me that insofar as a word is culturally taboo as a word it wouldn't likewise accrue some taboo even as a mention of itself.

    That seems like a tautological assertion, but what I'm partly trying to get at is that some words are taboo only in certain contexts, but are perfectly normal, common words outside those contexts. (Would this be the case with quebecois sacres?) Other words are used almost entirely, or entirely, as taboo words. So if all (or almost all) uses of a word are in the taboo context, then I'm speculating that correspondingly the word itself will accrue some taboo.

  14. Randy Hudson said,

    January 20, 2013 @ 12:08 pm

    (Wasn't there an LL post, in fact, about a newspaper reporting on someone using some swear word, but refusing to quote the person directly because of the swear word?)

    The most notorious case is "a barnyard epithet" for "bullshit" in the NY Times during the Chicago 7 trial.

    Reminds me of the Woody Allen line: "I told him to go forth and multiply, but not in those words."

  15. Paul said,

    January 20, 2013 @ 12:46 pm

    "Self-confessed" is fucking redundant.

  16. Ken Brown said,

    January 20, 2013 @ 2:38 pm

    Not sure about the redundancy. To me, "A is a self-confessed B" has different connotations from a "confessed B".

  17. scav said,

    January 20, 2013 @ 3:18 pm

    @Ken, @Paul "self-confessed arrogant prick", if true, allows you to omit two words.

    If they *have* previously confessed it you can probably just call them an arrogant prick and be safe from libel action (except maybe in England).

  18. Mark said,

    January 20, 2013 @ 9:25 pm

    As a general note on "bad words" and the emotional response they cause, I'd like to (probably mis-) quote a friend of mine:

    "If you know a kid was smacked every time they said a word and pointed at and threatened every time they overheard that word you really can't be surprised when they flinch every time you utter it."

    Given the mechanism by which they societal-level aversion to some words comes about, I have no doubt there are "more relaxed" cultures whose language features few if any taboo words. And yet I still bet they have a word or phrase for "taboo". ;-)

  19. djbcjk said,

    January 21, 2013 @ 4:45 am

    The Sydney Morning Herald this morning referring to Lance Armstrong as an "invertebrate liar."

  20. Andrew F said,

    January 21, 2013 @ 8:23 am

    @djbcjk: Was it intended to be a pun?

    @M.N. I thought there would be more discussion of the John Terry case, but could only find this post from before the trial. Newspapers later struggled to print his defence, which I think was that he was repeating something he was accused of saying and trying to make the use-mention distinction. That is, he claimed he hadn't said, "F***ing black c**t! Fuck off!" but rather, "'F***ing black c**t'? Fuck off!"

  21. maidhc said,

    January 22, 2013 @ 4:29 am

    I would think that English didn't have any swear words back in the days of Chaucer, considering that most of the words we think of as swear words now were considered to be okay to put in an epic poem by a high-class poet.

    Irish speakers frequently use English swear words because Irish doesn't really have swear words. Not that it doesn't have those words but they don't have quite the same frisson. I read a review in a quite respectable Irish-language newspaper where a film was described as "a big pile of shit" and I don't think it raised any eyebrows.

    I don't see any necessity for languages to have taboo words. It's kind of a luxury for Anglophones to have 100 different words for shit when we could easily get by with just one.

  22. Eclecticos said,

    January 22, 2013 @ 8:26 am

    @maidhc: "a luxury for Anglophones to have 100 different words for shit when we could easily get by with just one" — But there are all those different textures, same as for snow.

  23. Mike Fahie said,

    January 22, 2013 @ 11:27 am

    Steven Pinker writes and speaks a great deal about the history, use, and impact of profanity. He uses English examples but he attempts to draw some universal conclusions from them. Perhaps this is old hat to this audience but I find it quite interesting.

    This is part 1/2 of "Steven Pinker – the Language of Swearing"
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1BcdY_wSklo

  24. Keith M Ellis said,

    January 22, 2013 @ 7:03 pm

    @maidhc, your entire comment reads like satire to me. I want to believe that it is, but I doubt.

    In any case, I suggest the possibility that the taboo words in Chaucer's culture were far more likely to be blasphemous than sexual or excretory.

    And that taboo words are likely to exist in a) every culture that has taboos, and b) where the various emotion-related functions provided by taboo words (as, for example, those described by Pinker in Mike Fahie's linked videos) are useful. Which is to say all cultures, everywhere, because (a) all cultures have taboos and (b) these functions are useful for humans.

  25. Ray Dillinger said,

    January 25, 2013 @ 12:25 pm

    I seem to recall some quite ancient English swear words, though I think most of them postdate Chaucer (for that matter doesn't most of English?).

    One I particularly like is "Slubberdegullion," (occasionally spelled "Slabberdegullion", etc) which my spell checker thinks is a typo but which rolls trippingly off the tongue. I don't recall any examples of it in Chaucer, but it was evidently well-established as profanity by the time of Shakespeare.

    Its literal meaning is recorded as, "… a sycophant who performs oral sex in an attempt to curry favor, but whose performance causes disgust instead because he is very bad at it." — an insult so specific that I can't imagine there were very many people who were in fact examples of its literal meaning, and so shameful that far fewer would have been known to be.

    Nevertheless, somehow the word got coined, and in all the 15th to 18th century instances I can find, was never used in any sense except for profanity. Indeed, its supposed literal meaning is marked as unattested (which makes me wonder how someone discovered it and whether it's just speculation).

    Ray

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