Introduction: Language and Society
In our everyday lives, we engage in spontaneous social acts that are interconnected with the activities of those around us without taking notice. These well-established practices are considered aspects of the social norm derived from the culture in which one habituates. The subtleness and intricacy of these spontaneous joint activities is strongly reflected not only in our social acts but also in the way language is used within social groups. Compared to cognitive research, which largely sees language as an individual process, and to social science research, which sees language as a social process, it has been argued that language use embodies both individual and social processes (Clark, 1996, p. 1). When considering what people are talking about in a conversation and what they are tying to achieve by conversing, language can be seen as being used as a form of joint action (Clark, 1996, p.1). Language is more than the sum of the speaker and the listener, but the joint action that emerges when they perform their individual actions in coordination (Clark, 1996, p. 1). It can be said that everything we do and say as humans is rooted in the information we have about our perceptions, emotions, interests, activities, and surroundings (Clark, 1996, p. 92). In a given culture or subgroup, common ground, such as mutual knowledge, mutual beliefs, and mutual expectations, shift to accommodate the circumstances and the parties with whom we are conversing. Language comes to exist in conversational layers that can shift and enable the establishment of new common grounds (Clark, 1996, p. 92). In this chapter, the ways in which language functions within society is going to be thoroughly examined. This chapter will highlight the relationships between that way different subgroups think and how this determines the words used in their languages. In examining language and thought in a social context, we will consider how psychological processes, social processes, and affective meaning are related to one’s cultural lexicon. To further understand how speech shifts as a function of one’s social situation, this chapter will look at the use of slang, sexual talk, and taboo words in different contexts.
What is Slang?
Slang is an informal set of words and phrases that are used to reinforce or establish one’s identity within a social group or with a trend in society (Eble, 1996, p. 11). Slang is an important aspect of language to touch on in this chapter because it is vocabulary that embodies the social functions of language. Slang seems to be as old as language itself given that it is part of ordinary interactions in all languages in which communities are large and diverse enough to have identifiable subgroups (Eble, 1996, p.11). Because of slang’s social and psychologically complex vocabulary, four identifying criteria have been proposed (Eble, 1996, p. 11):
- The presence of slang will, at least momentarily, lower the formality of serious speech.
- The use of slang implies the user’s special familiarity with a class of people who also have special familiarity and use the term.
- The slang term is a taboo term in discourse with people of higher social status or greater responsibility.
- Slang is used as a replacement for a well-known conventional synonym to either protect the user from the discomfort caused by the conventional term or to protect the used from the bother of elaboration.
According to authors Bethany Dumas and Jonathan Lighter, when at least two of these defining criteria are met, a linguistically sensitive audience will react to the word or phrase in some way (Eble, 1996, p.12). This immeasurable reaction is the fundamental identifying characteristic of slang (Eble, 1996, p.12). For instance, take the phrase, “that guy was a jerk for cutting me off before the intersection!” According to the criteria, jerk would qualify as slang because it satisfies criteria 1, 2, and 4.
Why Do People Use Slang?
The existence of certain slang words and phrases may in fact seem to be part of a short-lived pattern of overused terms being reinvented with new meanings when mainstream culture deems appropriate. The vocabulary of particular subgroups such as, college students, can actually illustrate this innovative characteristic of slang. For example, Dead Soldier, a military slang term that has been around since the eighteenth century when it meant ‘empty bottle’, re-emerged in 1987 at University of North Carolina with a more modern definition of ‘empty beer can’ (Eble, 1996, p. 15).
Another important identifying characteristic of slang is its group-identifying function. Slang is often used when the user wants to be accepted by a select social group (Eble, 1996, p. 119). A strong sense of belonging can stem from the sharing and maintaining of an ever-changing vocabulary that undoubtedly serves to include and exclude members from social groups (Eble, 1996, p. 119). Like keeping up with fashion trends, slang must be new and appealing, and must be effective enough to gain group acceptance (Eble, 1996, p. 120). Slang’s function within subgroups is to enhance the feeling of internal solidarity and the shared vocabulary helps specific groups such as sports teams to work together in a stressful environment (Eble, 1996, p. 123). In the fall of 1990, members of the cross-country track team at UNC were using terms like rigging, which stood for the tightening of muscles at the end of a tough race, and doing carbo-loading, which stood for drinking beer after a race (Eble, 1996, p. 122).
Sexual terminology is learned at a young age through interactions with our peers (Jay, 2000, p. 85). Parental inhibition and punishment of the use of sexual references teaches children that sexual words are powerful (Jay, 2000, p. 85). In a study done on the topic of how children learn to talk about sex, parents discussed their difficulties and solutions with their children’s use of sexual slang (Jay, 2000, p. 124). The findings of this study revealed that learning about sexual terminology is a process of socialization (Jay, 2000, p. 125). From this study, we learn that a double standard in sex talk is obvious; parents will speak to their friends differently than to their children and fathers will speak differently with female friends than male friends (Jay, 2000, p. 125). Due to differences in socialization, daughters and sons of the same household will even acquire different sexual vocabularies (Jay, 2000, p.125).
As we develop linguistically and sexually, sex talk becomes more dependent on who is listening rather than the fear of parental negation and omission that comes with sex talk (Jay, 2000, p. 86). Sexual talk is an interesting topic because it is one that holds strong personal relevance yet maintains a socially unaccepted stigma in formal contexts. The following research on sexual talk will illustrate the differences in the use of sexual language in interpersonal and social contexts.
The Four Systems of Sexual Language
As we develop psychologically and as our social contexts shift, the sexual lexicon modifies accordingly (Jay, 2000, p.127). There are four different systems for sexual talk:
- child language – taught to children by parents, allowing them to describe body parts and functions without using slang or medical terms (e.g., wienie, tushy, poo-poo, bum)
- street language – used by peers, to indicate in-group identification and often to impress other (e.g., screw, make out)
- euphemisms – used to avoid using explicit terms for sex in any conversation by adults (e.g. making love, sleeping together)
- medical-scientific language – a technical and concrete language of sexual terms learned in school and from books (e.g., penis, vagina, defecate, coitus) (Jay, 2000, p. 127)
According to this set of systems, childhood terms eventually evolve into more offensive terms or euphemisms. The medical-scientific language system is used in more formal exchanges and settings.
Sexual Talk in Different Interpersonal Contexts
Given that sexual talk is highly dependent on one’s surroundings, it is not surprising that other factors play a role on how one uses sexual lexicon. Many studies have been done that look at the relationship between context and sexual terms, which highlight how the overt expression of sexual identity highly depends on social contexts. Much research has focused on the different use of sexual vocabulary amongst genders, showing that males make greater use of sexual slang than females (Wells, 1989). Given the fact that different cultures and sub-groups tend to maintain their own in-group slang, it is appropriate to consider the impact of sexual orientation on the use of sexual vocabulary. In a study s investigating the use of sexual language amongst genders in different interpersonal contexts based on sexual orientation, results indicated that differences in sexual vocabulary are significant (Wells, 1989). This study used a sample of 440 heterosexual and homosexual undergraduate male and female students from the University of Northern Iowa with a mean age of 22 (Wells, 1989). A questionnaire was given to the participants asking them to write the word or phrase they would use for male genitalia, female genitalia, and sexual intercourse when with a spouse or lover, mixed-company, in a same-sex conversation, and a conversation with parents (Wells, 1989). The results shown in the following table demonstrate that lesbians used more female-oriented terms for male genitalia, love making, and oral sexual contact than did heterosexual males, homosexual males, or heterosexual females (Wells, 1989). Homosexual males used slang more often with a spouse or lover than any other group of participants (Wells, 1989). Further, heterosexual males made the largest change in language use when shifting from the primary use of slang in a same-sex context to more formal terms or euphemisms when with a spouse or lover in all sexual concepts (Wells, 1989). This study demonstrates that sexual orientation is yet another dimension that affects the use of sexual language.
Total Language Use for Sexual and Social Context by Gender and Sexual Orientation in Percentages (Wells, 1989).
A Relevant Aspect of Language
It is important to note that when scholars disregard swearing as an irrelevant aspect of language, we are left with a false understanding of verbal communication (Jay, 2009). In the past, psycholinguists strongly held Noam Chompsky’s structuralist theory of language, which did not touch on the idea of emotional language at all (Jay, 2009). For a more complete understanding of language, conventional interpretations of language must expand to include the communication of emotional information, which is spoken and understood through word choice, emphasis, and speech volume (Jay, 2009). It has been argued that the emotional aspects of words are stored in the brain along with the word’s semantic and syntactic properties (Jay, 2009). Once a semantic network with lexical emotional information develops, emotion can be used as a basis for lexical access when swearing (Jay, 2009). This means that once emotional words are processed with information regarding their level of arousal, offensiveness, and appropriateness, the use can choose to use an offensive or inoffensive word (Jay, 2009). Given some background information on how taboo words are processed and expelled, the next section will discuss the origin of taboo words, why they exit, and what motivates people to use them.
What Are Taboo Words and Why Do They Exist?
According to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, a taboo is a “ban or inhibition resulting from social custom or aversion” (Jay, 2009). Taboo words, or swear words, are deemed offensive at an institutional and social level (Jay, 2009). Taboo words acquire this offensive status and arousing effects by aversive classical conditioning (Jay, 2009). As children, we are taught that swear words are bad and when they are used, punishment is often the result. Hence, swear words are learned through the socialization of speech.
History of Taboo Words
The use of taboo words in language goes back to ancient history. Religious authorities have prohibited profanity and blasphemy since biblical times (Jay, 2009). More recently, in 1966, ethnic slurs such as Redskin were being used; a term coined by the first British settlers to describe the Native American Indians (Allen, 1990, p. 3). As other ethnic groups arrived and the country became more diverse, the name-calling increased exponentially (Allen, 1990, p.3). Many taboo terms originated from great events in American history such as waves of immigration, urbanization, wars, and depressions (Allen, 1990, p.4). Today, taboos in English tend to be primarily based on sexual, profane, and blasphemous references and new terms are constantly emerging, especially in slang (Jay, 2009).
Taboo Words and Social Context
As with the use of slang and sexual talk, the use and interpretation of taboo words depends on contextual variables. For instance, in the previously discussed college study where students were asked to list which sexual terms they would use in different contexts (i.e. with a partner, lover, parent, or mixed company), technical terms were said to be more likely used with mixed crowd and with parents whereas sexual obscenities were used with same-sex crowds and with a partner or lover (Wells, 1989). Ultimately, the offensiveness and appropriateness of swear words are determined by the relationship between those conversing as well as the social setting (Jay, 2009). This sense of offensiveness is also determined by age and level of maturity (Jay, 2009). For instance, a young boy would find terms such as baby and wimp to be more offensive than adults (Jay, 2009). The task at hand for the social speaker is to determine what words are appropriate in a given social setting.
- Eble, C. (1996). College Slang: in-group language among college students. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press
- Jay, T. B. (2000). Why we curse: the neuro-psycho-social model of speech. Philadelphia: Benjamins
- Wells, J. W. (1989). Sexual language use in interpersonal contexts: A comparison of gender and sexual orientation. Archives of sexual behaviour, 18, 127-143
- Jay, T. (2009). The utility and ubiquity of taboo words. Perspectives on psychological science. 4(2), 153-161
- Allan, I. L. (1990). Unkind words: Ethnic labeling from Redskin to WASP. New York: Bergin & Garvey