Course slides and student work available upon request.
Linguistics 192: Fall 2019
Things You Can’t Say
Under certain circumstances, urgent circumstances, desperate circumstances, profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer.
Things You Can’t Say is a class about bad words—what they are, and what processes all languages share with respect to them. This is a class on how a word becomes inappropriate, about the ways naughty words operate in the brain. This is a class on what it means to tell people what they can or cannot say, and how that control extends through spoken, written, and signed language—and through the lifetime. Indeed, some of the language considered offensive in our society mere decades ago is now considered utterly mundane—and vice versa. We will investigate what kinds of topics or words are typically considered to be taboo or off-limits and how bans on blue language are enforced. In so doing, we’ll discover that what is considered profane is determined by social and cultural norms, situational expectations, and individual preferences, habits, and identities; we will consider the similarity of linguistic operation beneath that dynamism. We will also discuss the cognitive paths obscenities take, and the psychological and physiological consequences of communicative processing. The goal of this class is to take unmentionable and illicit language as an inherently interesting lens through which to learn about human linguistic capability and creativity. Swearing is, scientifically and socially, cool. We will approach Things You Can’t Say from the viewpoint of multiple disciplines that concern themselves with the study of Language and its use, including Linguistics, Neurobiology, Anthropology, Psychology, Literature, Rhetoric, and The Law. Students will have the opportunity to engage in self-directed research on a pejorative word of their choosing, and will have the space to present that research to our classroom community.
We will be talking about topics that are offensive and we will also say, read, and sign vulgar words, phrases, and gestures that make people uncomfortable in the wider world. Do not take this course unless you are interested in critically engaging with religious terminology used outside of prayer or ritual; graphic descriptions of bodily functions; suggestions or descriptions of sex acts; ethnic, racial, gendered, and aged epithets or slurs—or if you feel you cannot personally work to maintain open-minded, professional decorum in the presence of reprehensible language usage. Be ready for frank and mature discussions about controversial topics, and to work within yourself to encourage openness for reconsidering your ideas about language and society.
Required Texts and/or Coursepack
Bergen, Benjamin. (2016). What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves. New York: Basic Books.
Words Paper (Midterm): 25%
You will choose a profane word or phrase and conduct a word history analysis that goes beyond a search in the OED. This paper will be 3-5 pages of academic prose due by Midterm.
The objective of this assignment is to equip you will the skills to do lexicographic research and corpus-based analysis. This assignment will demonstrate that you understand the history of a word and the effect it has on its contexts of usage overtime and today, to reflect on current domains and registers of usage and to assess its taboo status.
In-Class Presentations: 5%
You will construct and deliver a 5-minute presentation of your Words Paper, so that your peers can learn about the words you’ve now become an expert on.
The objective of this assignment is to introduce you to the process of restructuring academic work made in one medium to another (written to spoken), which you will do after incorporating commentary from myself and your peers. This assignment also functions in giving you the opportunity to refine and present original work and opens up space for us to discuss our thoughts on your subject as a community of scholars.
Observations in The Wild: 10%
Occasional Discussion posts tied to chapter topics that require you to observe pejorative language being used in the world around you and/or metalinguistic commentary about pejorative language occurring in the world around you. You will describe, report, and analyze the usage and/or topics you’ve been tasked with observing in a discussion post due before class, and we will use your observations to fuel our discussion in class on those days. Observations from The Wild are worth two (2) points each, and six (6) total points are needed for full credit. Extra credit is available if all Observations are completed.
The objective of this assignment is to encourage you to be finding and analyzing the usage of the terms and the presence of phenomena under discussion in this course in their in contemporary, contextual nuance. Too, this assignment functions to create a low-stakes space for each student to participate in our collective knowledge-building, and allows for active engagement with the surrounding community.
Chapter Presentations: 10%
The objective of this assignment is to ensure attentive reading, for you to take personal ownership in our community learning, and to encourage all voices to be equally active in the classroom. You will be required to present, in a group of three, once in the semester on the given homework chapter to begin our discussion in class the day that chapter is covered. This can involve presenting a summary, designing an exercise, or organizing a series of questions for your classmates to consider. These presentations are informal in the sense that their format is not strictly regulated, but they are important in the sense that they are worth a significant portion of your grade--a high stakes method of measuring your overall engagement with the text for this class, an opportunity to demonstrate that you can think critically and work collaboratively on a complex topic.
Follow this link after September 6th at 10:00 PM to sign up for your chapter presentation. Feel free to skim through the textbook chapters for a preview of the possible topics.
Plan accordingly your reading schedule with your group so that you have time to collaborate at least once together after everyone has read the chapter. I will make available all digital spaces on Canvas to facilitate your coordination in these matters. You will be graded on three criteria: the working notes you keep while reading the chapter; your contribution to the presentation in class; and your short response/self-assessment completed after the in-class presentation.
Daily Participation: 20%
You will earn participation points for contributing to in-class discussion and for responding to the weekly discussion posts of your peers. You will earn points for participating openly and cooperatively during in-class group work and workshop sessions. Participation points will be updated quarterly on Canvas; updates in office hours by request.
The objective of this requirement is to create a culture of free-flowing commentary; to ensure when you are not doing a chapter presentation you have a way to receive credit for contributing to discussion; to create a culture of open exploration and scientific investigation in our classroom. All of our small homework assignments (mostly reading responses) will contribute to this grade as well, ensuring that you receive credit for preparing for class, whether you audibly contribute to in-class discussion or not.
Final Exam: 30%
The final exam will be take-home and you will have one week to complete it using only your textbook and class notes. The exam will consist of a combination of T/F, Short Answer, and Essay questions. The objective of this assignment is to give you a space to demonstrate a command for the overarching topics of this course, which are the nature of profanity, linguistic universals, socialization’s role in acquisition and pejoration, censorship and best practices (if any) for protecting the innocent and the defamed.