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Swearing Through the Centuries

One West Virginia University professor is teaching producers of a new HBO miniseries all about language in the 1800s — including swearing.
Kirk Hazen, professor of linguistics in the Department of English, is serving as a linguistic consultant for the miniseries that focuses on the Lewis and Clark expedition and is produced by actors Tom Hanks, Edward Norton and Brad Pitt. As a well-respected linguist, Hazen has been called upon to analyze speech in an ISIS execution video, a cold case murder trial and a newspaper defamation case. As of this spring, he can add HBO consultant to that list.

QWhat was your role in the HBO miniseries?

A I was brought on as a language consultant to go over the script, which has been 10 years in the making with many different writers, and to see if there is any way to improve the dialogue for the characters. Do the words fit for this time period? And right off the bat, I found some words in the dialogue that weren’t around in that time period. For example, the story is taking place around 1800-1806, and they had the word “golden boy” in the dialogue, but that word wasn’t documented until 1937. In addition to choosing words that made sense for the time, I also talked with the dialect coach to help depict accurate representations of dialect. People who are from different regions — Kentucky, Virginia and Massachusetts — will have different vowel sounds. Plus a few of the characters are more educated and refined, while others are more rough and tumble, so that is reflected in the way they speak and the words they use. I sent in 13 reports overall, on everything from profanity to pronunciation. Whether or not they get incorporated in the final product is yet to be seen.

What types of things did you discover? 

Sexual swearing hadn’t developed yet. It wasn’t until after 1900 that sexual swearing became popular. Before then, it was excrement-related or religious cursing — like taking the Lord’s name in vain, cursing or damning. Words like “tarnation,” “hell,” “good heavens,” “bloody” all had a real effect then. There were also words like “dungworm” and “fartleberries.” But, while wanting to remain authentic to the time period, we run into the problem of making the person sound like Yosemite Sam. The insults seem tame in comparison to modern language. So, it’s a balance of accuracy and art. 

Which swear word is your favorite? 

I liked “hell-hatched” and “crap castle”: nice alliteration in each one and both provide some figurative language. 

How do you think the way in which we swear has changed? 

Slang in general — and swearing is part of slang — is a kind of arms race. One person ups the ante, then the other person ups the ante more. You’re competing in that way. Once one person says something, the other person says something more taboo. You work with it, and things get more graphic, newly offensive, more aggressive. 

What was this experience like? 

It was good to see the effort and consideration that went into crafting the scripts. The writers and directors had to balance authenticity and watchability for modern audiences. I’ve never studied profanity or language change like this before, so to go back and actually get the timeline on it and its development was fun. I can use those changes in all kinds of ways for teaching. It’s quite useful to look at how it has evolved. 

Why is it important to study language?

Language is part of who we are as humans; it’s a social tool to identify people. It's one of our most important tools for communication. It’s a beautifully complex natural system. And to study it is to study a piece of our social fabric.

What is the study of linguistics?

Linguists conduct scientific studies of language and provide a descriptive account of what's going on, while a prescriptive grammar class focuses on the social fashions of writing. The prescriptive grammar class is going to give advice on social missteps to avoid in formal writing.

So, is there a correct way to speak?

No dialect is "incorrect." English is an ever-changing, living language, and all dialects of it are legitimate forms. Human languages change because our brains are wired for language variation. But some dialects carry more social baggage than others – certain characteristics signal a standard or stigmatized way to pronounce a word or phrase: For example, saying “birfday” in the North is stigmatized, but there are parts of the South where it is standard. The ways we classify and judge people get transferred to the way they speak, and often, judgments of language are socially motivated.

Follow Hazen, author of “An Introduction to Language” (Wiley-Blackwell, 2015), on Twitter @DrDialect.
Kirk Hazen with painting of "Anvil Rock on the New River Gorge, West Virginia" by Thomas J. Fenimore in the background.
Photo: Raymond Thompson Jr. Painting: Thomas J. Fenimore (American, 1842-1873) "Anvil Rock on the New River Gorge, West Virginia," n.d., oil on canvas, Art Museum of WVU purchase.

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