Curses! Ctd

Some linguists assert that swearing aided the evolution of language:

To understand why, consider a certain type of grammatical construction called an exocentric compound. This involves cramming a noun and a verb together to create a new term, but without one necessarily modifying the other. As [linguist Ljiljana] Progovac puts it, “A scatter brain is neither a type of scatter, nor a type of brain.” Conjuring the idea of this person’s disorganized thoughts requires an extra leap in logic compared to a phrase like “navy blue” – in which “navy” more straightforwardly modifies the description of the color. Exocentric constructions are rare now, but were thought to be more common in the past, leading some to consider them linguistic fossils of our first stabs at grammar.

But when [linguists John] Locke and [Ljiljana] Progovac examined these fossils in English and Progovac’s native Serbian, they found that they were often teasing or downright insulting.

“Fuckwit” and “shithead” are two examples that survive in English, while they found insults like “shit-sword,” “fart-rabbit,” and “no-wash-underpants” in Serbian. As a result, the researchers wonder if the construction first evolved in verbal duels, as our ancestors competed to come up with more creative curses. “What we are saying is that the ability to build abstract words was enhanced by the creation of these types of insults,” Progovac says.

They point out that the practice of “flyting”  exchanging humorous insults in public – has been recorded throughout history in works such as the Iliad and Beowulf. In some ways, they say, it is simply an extension of the vocal duels shown by other primates, in which the males size each other up with their calls. If the most creatively vulgar men were viewed as more dominant, sexual selection might have pushed us through further linguistic evolution.

Previous Dish on obscenities here, here, and here.