The profane domain

… and pornlinguistics.

Recently on Facebook, from Dan Everett and then Rob Pensalfini, calls for research in what I’ll call the profane domain of linguistics:

Dan: How about a pop-up book on the interaction of pornography and linguistic relativity?

Rob: It’s about time for a revival of McCawley’s field of pornolinguistics (and scatolinguistics, while we’re at it).

Dan is a frequent presence on this blog; Rob is new (and I’ll introduce him below). Rob asks about the profane domain, under the name “pornolinguistics and scatolinguistics” (a label I seem to have been responsible for, in 1967, in a moment of careless playfulness). Dan asks about linguistic aspects of pornography (I’ll put pop-up books — they already exist — and linguistic relativity aside in this posting), a topic several commenters thought must be barren, though I’ve found quite a lot to say about it on this blog.

So: on the profane domain, other names for it, and resources on this blog about it. And then on pornography in a similar vein.

Profanity, first pass. From Wikipedia:

Profanity is socially offensive language, which may also be called swear words, curse words, cuss words, bad language, strong language, offensive language, crude language, coarse language, foul language, bad words, oaths, blasphemous language, vulgar language, lewd language, choice words, or expletives [or indelicate language or taboo language]. The use of such language is called swearing, cursing, or cussing.

Used in this sense, profanity is a subset of a language’s lexicon that is generally considered to be strongly impolite, rude or offensive. It can show a debasement of someone or something, or show intense emotion. Linguistically, profanity takes the form of words or verbal expressions that fall into the category of formulaic language.

In its older, more literal sense, “profanity” refers to a lack of respect for things that are held to be sacred, which implies anything inspiring deserving of reverence, as well as behaviour showing similar disrespect or causing religious offense.

Crucial distinction here, things and words, basically. On the one hand, there are

profane topics (delicate, edgy, etc. topics): sex and sexuality (sexual body parts, sexual acts, identities associated with sex); excretion (and bodily effluvia in general); religious mysteries; devalued or disparaged behaviors or identities

and then there’s

language about such topics: lexical items (whether “bad” or not) in these domains; their morphology and syntax; phonetics of speech in these domains; sociolinguistics of their use; discourse organization of speech in these domains

Profane-domain linguistics is mostly lexicography, and mostly about “bad language”, especially sexual language. As in Jesse Sheidlower’s triumph of demotic scholarship, The F-Word (3rd ed.), about the uses of fuck.

(#1) The 3rd edition, in basic red

But there’s syntax too. On this very blog: for example, on 12/27/17, “Expletive syntax: I will marry the crap out of you, Sean Spencer” — with a reference to Studies Out in Left Field (SOLF, 1967), which will now become significant.

What to call the field of profane-domain linguistics? One Wikipedia page (clearly written by someone who knew James D. McCawley, since it refers to him as “Jim”) proposes scatolinguistics (lit. ‘shitty linguistics’, but naturally extendable to ‘dirty-language linguistics’):

(#2) The 1992  John Benjamins reprint of SOLF, with the virtue of not falling apart into a pile of pages the first time you open it

Jim McCawley (1938–1999, professor of linguistics at the University of Chicago, who wrote his scatolinguistic treatises under the noms de plume of Quang Phúc Đông and Yuck Foo, both of the fictional South Hanoi Institute of Technology) is credited, on page ix of the preface of Studies out in left fieldas having “created the interdisciplinary field[s] of pornolinguistics and scatolinguistics virtually on his own” in 1967 [my own words, as the senior editor of the volume]. Technically, scatolinguistics is the study of the words for various forms of excrement (compare scatology) [extended here to “dirty talk” in general, excrement being the central exemplar of dirt]. But, given the lack of any [generally used parallel vocabulary] such as “pornolinguistics” (despite the above) or “coitolinguistics”, it has come to cover the study (including etymology and current usage) of all rude and profane expressions [or “bad language”].

Digression on Rob Pensalfini. From the UQ website:

(#3) RP thumbnail

Dr Rob Pensalfini received his PhD in theoretical linguistics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1997, with research based on his fieldwork in the Barkly Tableland of Australia’s Northern Territory. He then worked as a Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago for two years prior to commencing as a Lecturer in Linguistics at the University of Queensland in 1999. He was promoted to Senior Lecturer in Linguistics and Drama in 2003, and to Associate Professor in 2016. He has published several books and numerous articles in both linguistics and drama, including ground-breaking work on the performance of Shakespeare in prisons. He leads Australia’s only ongoing Prison Shakespeare program and is the Artistic Director of the Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble.

Yes, before the theatrical career, the linguistic one. From the Google Books summary of his Jingulu book:

A Grammar of Jingulu: An Aboriginal Language of the Northern Territory

This book is intended as a thorough description of the Jingulu language as spoken by the handful of speakers remaining in the Northern Territory during the mid to late 1990s. The description is based on material which the author collected during three field trips from 1995 to late 1998. Chapter 1 focuses on the socio-historical context in which he language is spoken, including estimated of tradition area, number of speakers, and genetic and cultural affiliations. Chapter 2 is devoted to Jingulu phonology, from the phoneme inventory and phonotactics to a spectacular system of vowel harmony and some interesting facts on reduplication. Chapter 3 outlines the parts of speech of Jingulu as understood by the author, and argues for the particular labels and categories that the author assumes in following chapters. Chapter 4 discusses Jingulu syntax, from simple verbal and non-verbal predication to the encoding of dependent and conjoined clauses. Chapters 5 and 6 are expositions of the morphology of Jingulu nominal and verbal words respectively. Chapter 7 contains a few exemplary texts, glossed and translated into English.

Profane-domain linguistics on this blog. In response to Rob’s request. (I note that my writing has been mostly about English in American and British contexts, but there’s significant literature on other languages and varieties.)

A set of Pages with links to material relevant to profane-domain linguistics (with brief descriptions in most cases):

A Page on Taboo vocabulary, covering tabooing: choice of words labeled as taboo; use: open use of these words; regulation: regulation of taboo words in public; avoidance: schemes for avoiding taboo words [including euphemisms]; grammar: the grammar [morphology and syntax] of taboo words; searching: searches for taboo words

A Page on Slurs, with sections 1 nigger, N-word, nig, spade, etc.; 2 Other ethnic and racial slurs; 3 fag(got), F-word, etc.; 4 Other sexual(ity) slurs; 5 Other slurs [scumbag, retard, dickhead, etc.]; 6 Other offensive language

A Page on Language and the body, about reference to body parts (postings on sex positions are in a separate Page)

A Page on Language of sex, on vocabulary in the domains of sexuality, sexual roles, and sexual identities; sexual practices and devices; and sexualized clothing

A Page on Homosexuality postings, with postings on homosexuality and anti-homosexuality; the gay voice; gay slang; labels for lgbt people; insults and slurs

A set of XBlog essays (gay-oriented, treating both real life and gay porn/fantasy), each with its own Page: Angle and curvature (of cocks); b/t roles; Beautiful cock; Body size; Cock tease; Concealing / revealing (the penis); Cum; Daddy – Boy, DILF (Dad I’d Like to Fuck); Facial expressions in mansex; Fetishes and paraphilias; Gay for pay; Group sex; Male prostitution; Men kissing; Messy sex; MSM (Men who have Sex with Men); Penis art; Penis size; Pits ‘n’ tits (display of the body); Pornstar dildos; Pornstar files; (facial) Scruff; Sex in public; Sex positions; Soft / hard (cocks)

Only a few of the XBlog essays are directly relevant to linguistics, but almost all of them bear directly on pornography, so they’re part of an answer to Dan Everett’s query.

The field covering linguistic aspects of pornography should have been called pornolinguistics, but I seem to have balled things up in SOLF, so I suggest pornlinguistics instead.

I haven’t created a Page specifically for pornlinguistics. But I’m a consumer of gay porn and an analyst of the genre, and a large number of my postings on this blog (146 as of this morning) have been tagged with the category Gay Porn; the archive of these is available here.

There’s another archive (37 items as of this morning) for postings tagged with the category Gayland, on the fictional world of men in gay porn and fantasy; the archive of these is available here.

Recurrent themes in these porn postings: the use of language in gay porn, the organization of narrative in gay porn, b/t roles, porn personas, facial expressions during sex, the porn business, the lives of sex workers (including pornstars), and vocabulary of the porn business (g4p, cumshot, etc.). Some recurrent themes in my gay-related postings aren’t directly related to gay porn, but often touch on it nevertheless: in particular, body types (muscle hunk, swimmer, etc.) and subcultures / identities / “types” (twink, bear, etc.).

In any case, profane-domain linguistics and pornlinguistics have not languished.


2 Responses to “The profane domain”

  1. thnidu Says:

    “B/t”, I take it, stands for “bottom/top”; yes?

    Mark Mandel

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