October 29, 2007
Not one, but two serious looks at the role of profanity were published lately.
First, eminent linguist Stephen Pinker wrote What the F***?, a lengthy examination of profanity in the New Republic.
I found fascinating the neurological explanation for the involuntary power and emotional nature of cursing, especially the demonstration of how hard it is to say the color of each word when a series of expletives is written in different colors.
My only quibble was when he supported Geoffrey Nunberg’s assertion that
“while you can imagine the dialogue How brilliant was it? Very, you would never hear the dialogue How brilliant was it? Fucking.”
While I haven’t said that myself, I know for sure that I’ve heard it.
A second study in the Leadership and Organizational Development Journal concluded
“Regular swearing at work can help boost team spirit among staff, allowing them to express better their feelings as well as develop social relationships.”
As a manager I am very careful, but I have definitely observed that phenomenon in the workplace. And it make sense. Your willingness to be yourself around others and break a taboo signals your closeness to them and that you trust them.
October 11, 2007
There were two interesting papers published in the scientific journal Nature yesterday. They both looked at different aspects of how words change over time.
The first examined the evolution 200 basic words across different Indo-European languages. The conclusion: the more common, frequently used words evolved at a slower rate than lesser-used words. So you were more likely to see similar-sounding common words in different languages. Evidently use frequency explains 50% of the variability from language to language.
The second study intrigued me more. Probably because it dealt with irregular verbs (which I’ve been trying to explain to my daughter) and there’s a nifty equation thrown in (which makes it sound like the real deal).
The past tense for 97% of all verbs in English is formed by adding –ed to the present tense. But the 10 most common verbs (and helpers) all have irregular past tenses that don’t follow the –ed rule.
Be, have, do, go, say, can, will, see, take, and get do NOT become beed, haved, doed, goed, sayed, caned, willed, seed, taked, and getted no matter how many children protest to this irregularity.
The theory is that because these verbs are so frequently used, the irregularity is easy to remember and therefore they are more resistant to evolving into conformity with the established rule.
The most common verb to change from an irregular past tense is help: its past tense used to be holp but is now the regularly formed helped.
Here’s the fun part: the equation.
“The half-life of irregular verbs is proportional to the square root of their frequency.”
So, if one irregular verb is used 100x less frequently, it will evolve to become regularized 10x faster.
And my daughter’s just going to have to get over it and learn to say went instead of goed. Because we’re likely stuck with that one for a very long time.