The Bearable Crudity of Being*
It’s sometimes claimed that there’s no true taboo without its occasional relaxation, all laws are meant to be broken, and the population is equally split between those who do what they can and those who do what they can get away with. We take great measures to keep private the sounds of certain bodily functions, because there will probably come a time when some matters are no longer private. Behavior is often a risky whisk of survival instincts and social conventions. I try to swear only in specific settings of necessity or choice expression, but this last week I swore publicly at several individuals. I said, “Fuck you all, very much.” It seemed the polite thing to say at the time. The bearable crudity of being doesn’t distinguish between whether belching is mannerly or not. But, then stuff happens. It's a difficult call.
Due to the paucity of early language examples preserved in ancient inscriptions, and as any conjecture of language before the examples is hypothetical, it’s safe to say we haven’t a clue as to what sounds were made by early humans when they cursed, cussed, profaned, or used a proto-expletive. Sure, there’s the ur-language of grunts and groans which Anthony Burgess invented for the 1982 film, Quest For Fire, but that was entertainment, not scholarship. We assume grunts and groans at 100,000 BCE, however proto-languages are not out of the question. As a matter of fact, the model has its champions.
Our understanding of evolution, genes, and human phylogeny, though far from complete, is greatly advanced from Darwin’s initial theory of natural selection in 1859. Likewise, we know much more about languages and their relationships to each other than in 1786 when William James pointed out the similarities between Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin. We’re far afield from Grimm’s Law and even the much beloved “Appendix of Indo-European Roots” found in many editions of the American Heritage Dictionary. Relationships between way disparate languages have been argued for and well argued.
I’m still amazed that Colin Renfrew, an epitome of British conventionalism, went from participating in and defining the “New Archaeology” of the late 1960s and the 1970s, to spending the last decade speculating on various proposals which might one day suggest a hint at a word/idea which was used 100,000 years ago. Proto-language? The first grunts and groans which made sense? J. R. R. Tolkien, the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, was a philologist who worked on the Oxford English Dictionary as a young man, had a thing for Beowulf as a mature scholar, and, after wisdom settled in, he was asked to help translate the Book of Job for The Jerusalem Bible. Tolkien loved words, entertained some private diffusionist ideas, but always separated his facts from his fictions. On another side of Oxford, Renfrew seems to have left physical archaeology behind for an adventure Indiana Jones might not have been up for. Looking for a proto-language 100,000 years ago is trying to see very very far. Time, distance, and paradigms. Prof. Renfrew should be encouraged. [Note: See "Before Babel: Speculations on the Origins of Linguistic Diversity," by Colin Renfrew, Cambridge Archaeological Journal, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 3-23, in which Renfrew asks, "Is it then inconceivable that there might be preserved within the modern diversity of human speech some echoes of words from the early dialects then spoken in a single hypothetical 'proto-language'?" Also, "World Linguistic Diversity," by Colin Renfrew, Scientific American, Vol. 270, No. 1, January 1994, pp. 116-123.]
Maybe, just maybe, one day we’ll accept a common origin for languages, apart from the Hebrew allegory of “Babel,” and begin to truly appreciate what we share, rather than catagorize with differences. We might agree that some sounds represent an object or an emotional reaction, such as rock and dropped on foot. I, for one, am glad there are some out there working diligently to identify such sounds. It’s just, ...damn! We might reconstruct a few social building blocks of ur-verbiage, but we’re not going to get back any choice terms. No proto-swearing. We’re stuck with grunts and groans.
I’m not a Classicist by any means, but I’ve a hunch even rumored Vatican pornographic mss. don’t contain any choice terms we could benefit from today. The philosophical lesbianism of Sappho or playscripts of deviant pagan theatrics from Pompeii and Herculaneum, just won’t share what the average soldier, doomed gladiator, or even a privileged citizen, would have probably utilized to express those special feelings. Despite civilization and the Internet, if we choose to use vulgarities we’re fairly limited to a small number of terms and expressions.
“Fuck you” is a common expression in English (specifically American English), though it’s used globally. It’s a minimalist contribution. German needs way more breath to express anything close. Many languages are stuck with saying this and that, but American English has “Fuck you.” Other than as subliminal signals broadcast whenever Republicans announce a compromise, the expression, “Fuck you,” is also heard on The Sopranos, the Emmy Award winning modern Roman tragedy in New Jersey. And, most disturbing, we hear “Fuck you” from school children and grandmothers. It’s a common expression. There’s nothing wrong with being common, I’m often such, but it’s always a good thing to go out of your way to be polite. When I said “Fuck you all, very much,” I believed I was demonstrating refined behavior. Perhaps over refined, ground a bit too well, and definitely processed. I’m not going to say “Fuck you” to some strangers in public; no, it’s “Fuck you all, very much,” or it just won’t work. Manners are important.
What was I thinking? That I wanted to use proto-profanity? Actually, I’m going to have problems looking a few of my friends and family in the eyes, as it’s pretty standard that anyone worth saying “Fuck You” to, isn’t worth further consideration. I could have used Klingon. But, that lacks the Ugly American arrogance and wastes saliva and bandwidth. Being crude is bearable when it has to be. And then there are manners.