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  • Ž .Brain Research Reviews 31 1999 83–104 www.elsevier.comrlocaterbres

    Full-length review

    Expletives: neurolinguistic and neurobehavioral perspectives on swearing

    D. Van Lancker a,b,), J.L. Cummings c a Department of Neurology, UniÕersity of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA, USA

    b Department of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology, New York UniÕersity, School of Education, 719 Broadway, Suite 200, New York, NY, 10003, USA

    c Departments of Neurology and Psychiatry and BiobehaÕioral Sciences, UniÕersity of California at Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA, USA

    Accepted 5 October 1999

    Abstract

    Ž .Severe aphasia, adult left hemispherectomy, Gilles de la Tourette syndrome GTS , and other neurological disorders have in common an increased use of swearwords. There are shared linguistic features in common across these language behaviors, as well as important differences. We explore the nature of swearing in normal human communication, and then compare the clinical presentations of selectively preserved, impaired and augmented swearing. These neurolinguistic observations, considered along with related neuroanatomi- cal and neurochemical information, provide the basis for considering the neurobiological foundation of various types of swearing behaviors. q 1999 Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved.

    Keywords: Neural basis of behavior cursing; Aphasia; Gilles de la Tourette’s syndrome; Coprolalia; Basal ganglia; Limbic system

    Contents

    1. Background. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 83 2. Swearing in normal individuals . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 84 3. Swearing in aphasia following stroke and left hemispherectomy . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 86

    Ž .4. Gilles de la Tourette syndrome GTS . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 88 5. Exploring coprolalia in GTS: does the Markov model work?. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 91 6. Comparison of swearing in aphasia and GTS . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 93 7. Emotional and prosodic processing . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 95 8. Cerebral laterality . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 96 9. Pathological basis to GTS: a basal-ganglia disorder. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 96 10. Limbic system-basal ganglia hypothesis. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 97 11. Conclusion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 98 Acknowledgements. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 99

    References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 99

    1. Background

    Swearing, the use of deistic, visceral and other taboo words and phrases, has long held a unique and colorful

    ) Corresponding author. Department of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology, New York University, School of Education, 719 Broad- way, Suite 200, New York, NY, 10003, USA. Fax: q1-212-995-4356; e-mail: [email protected]

    status in language behavior. Public awareness of swearing is far keener than, say, interest in relative clauses or the semantic features of nouns, yet the topic is much less studied. Swearing and related verbal usage has ubiquitous social, legal and political implications, which have touched each and every person at some time or other. Laws against swearing in public still exist in some states and, infor-

    w xmally, fines may be incurred in social settings 126 . Knowledge of swearwords takes hold early in child lan-

    0165-0173r99r$ - see front matter q 1999 Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved. Ž .PII: S0165-0173 99 00060-0

  • ( )D. Van Lancker, J.L. CummingsrBrain Research ReÕiews 31 1999 83–10484

    w xguage development 117 and often quickly achieves a w xsolid status in the second language learner 181 . Shortly

    after the Norman Conquest of England, King William of Orange was said to use his native language, French, except

    w xfor swearing, which he did in English 65 . Even more dramatically, swearing takes a prominent

    role in various neuropathologies of language. For example, swearing is frequently one of a small set of speech func- tions — ‘‘automatic speech’’ — selectively preserved in the severely aphasic patient. Swearwords and phrases are produced with normal articulation and prosody, in stark contrast to the remaining speech and language disability. Some manifestations of swearing behaviors in clinical settings may be reactive to the disease condition. Exces-

    w xsive swearing occurs in traumatic brain injury 267 and in w xparaplegic, spinal cord patients 149 . It occurs in the

    w xelderly in association with depression 43,226 , encephali- w x w x w xtis 118 , dementia 239 and klazomania 16 . Post-ictal

    w xswearing has been reported in epilepsy 50,221 . Tardive Tourettism, sometimes with coprolalia, has been reported

    w xfollowing use of neuroleptics 15,73 including in a w xJapanese patient 141 . Pathological use of expletives and

    taboo words and phrases is a key feature of Gilles de la Ž . w xTourette syndrome GTS 222 and certain other move-

    ment disorders, especially Sydenham’s chorea, which has w xclinical similarities to GTS 144,264 .

    Despite its obvious role in normal and impaired com- munication, serious study of the neurology of swearing behavior is lacking. Neurological treatments of emotional behaviors discuss related phenomena, such as pathological

    Ž w x.laughing and crying, but not swearing e.g., Ref. 20 . This neglect is due possibly in part to a universal negative response to use of swearwords, and in part to a belief that swearing is peripheral to more interesting aspects of com- municative behaviors. Given the range and variety of observations, the topic appears to be linguistically and neurologically complex. Whatever the reasons for a tradi- tional lack of explanatory commentary on swearing, ad- dressing this question is warranted to advance understand- ing of the neurobiology of communicative behavior. De-

    w xscriptive work on historical 123,181 and contemporary w x80,101,124,130–132,139,210 normal swearing patterns has appeared, and sufficient observations from neurologi- cal patients have accumulated to merit an overview and exploration of the neurology of swearing.

    2. Swearing in normal individuals

    The definition, characterization and classification of swearwords is itself daunting. A useful division breaks the types of words used into the categories of ‘‘deistic’’ Ž . Ž .religion-related and ‘‘visceral’’ body functions-related , but the actual array of expletives extends into many se-

    w xmantic domains. Data reviewed by Flynn 92 suggest that sex-related insults are a cultural universal. Particular atten-

    tion is commonly paid to the genitals and related regions w xin insult behavior. Hughes 123 observes that ‘‘Swearing

    draws upon such powerful and incongruous resonators as religion, sex, madness, excretion and nationality, encom-

    Ž .passing an extraordinary variety of attitudes’’ p. 3 . Galla- w xhorn 101 divides his data on normal swearing into three

    categories: ‘‘curse words,’’ ‘‘anal-erythral terms’’ and ‘‘genital words’’. It is the use more than the item itself that determines the swear-like force of the expression.

    w xIn his book on the history of swearing, Montagu 181 Ž .distinguishes between swearing ‘‘damn it’’ , cursing

    Ž . Ž .‘‘damn you’’ , and oaths ‘‘by God’’ . He offers fourteen categories of swearwords that have been utilized through

    Ž . Ž .the ages: 1 Supernatural or infernal powers e.g., ‘‘God’’ ; Ž . Ž . Ž .2 Sacred matters of religion e.g., ‘‘holy mass’’ ; 3

    Ž . Ž . Ž .Saints; 4 Sacred places e.g., ‘‘Jerusalem’’ ; 5 Future Ž . Ž . Ž .life ‘‘Heavens’’ ; 6 Ancestors and heroes; 7 Ruler or

    Ž . Ž .authority e.g., ‘‘by the royal robe’’ ; 8 Oaths by natural Ž wobjects sun, German ‘‘Donnerwetter’’, English ‘‘thun-

    x. Ž . Ž .derstorm’’ ; 9 Vulgar or obscene words body parts ; Ž . Ž .10 ‘‘Bloody’’ and its variants; 11 Miscellaneous phrases

    Žhaving unusual force ‘‘hang it’’, ‘‘gracious’’, ‘‘shiver my . Ž . Ž . Ž .timbers’’ ; 12 Classical divinities ‘‘by Jove’’ ; 13

    Ž . Ž .Animals, plants, products ‘‘goose’’, ‘‘mackerel’’ ; 14 Ž .Name of valued personal attributes e.g., ‘‘maidenhead’’ .

    A 15th class may be added: social insults, including racial and ethnic slurs.

    Euphemisms, flux of popular terms, and variations in social attitudes toward the words considered ‘‘taboo’’

    w xfurther complicate the ma