Profanity and World Building

One of my favorite things about The Fifth Season is the incredible amount of detail N.K.Jemisin puts into her worldbuilding. Even the profanity the characters use is appropriate to the world they come from (thank you, Professor McCoy, for pointing this out). However, how do you build a new profane vocabulary? What words do you choose to be considered explicit in the context of a world completely different from our own?

Disclaimer: this post uses profane words.

To answer that question, it is important to understand the role of profanity in our own society and the types of words we have chosen to be profane. Typically, they are three to five letter, one-syllable words that have consonants on the end.  In fact, this pattern is so consistent in English that even people who make up new languages for TV shows, books, and other forms of media tend to follow this pattern, with notable examples being Dothraki and Klingon.

The reason for this may be that swearing is linked to a different part of our brain than most other language processing. In patients such as those with Tourette’s syndrome or those with aphasia (loss of language due to brain damage or dementia), swear words are treated differently than other words. Tourette’s patients have a more difficult time suppressing involuntary outbursts of swearing, and those with aphasia can often produce swear words with no difficulty. This is because swear-words are linked with the limbic system, which is responsible for processing emotion, learning, and certain automatic processes, as opposed to the left-side temporal lobe which is where the language processing center is located. Thus, swearing is a more primal, emotion-driven form of communication. This explains why swearing can be seen as so offensive and why profane words are on a different tier than the rest of language. To quote an excellent NPR article on the power of curse words, “After all, the basic point of swearing is to demonstrate that your emotions have gotten the better of you and trumped your inhibitions. That’s why the words have to be regarded as bad, not just inappropriate, so there’s a real weight to using them.”

According to Benjamin K. Bergen, author of What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains and Ourselves, the types of words that are used as profane usually fall into one of four categories: “Religious concepts; sex and sexual activity; body functions and organs therein involved; and terms for members of other groups, which are really just slurs.” The popularity of these types of words varies with the time and values of society. For example, the Romans tended to use sexual terms for their curse words, specifically insulting “passive” partners in sex. A popular curse word from the time was pathicus, which essentially means receiver. During the Middle Ages, religious oaths were more in use, especially because religious oaths were thought to physically injure Christ. These days, curse words tend to be more sexual in nature. However, one thing that has remained constant is the use of bodily functions as curse words. In fact, “shit” has its earliest roots in an Old English word that first appeared around 1,000 years ago.

So, based on this information, how does one build a set of profanity based on a world that sees different things as distasteful? In a world where there is no benevolent god, words like “damn” or other religious-based profanities (more popular in centuries prior to this one) can’t work – they have no power. This is why it is so interesting that Jemisin chose to create new swear words that are related to the earth, the most notable one being “rust” as a replacement of “fuck,” although “fuck” does exist in The Fifth Season. For a long time, I thought about why she chose “rust” as this universal curse word in addition to having characters use words such as “earthfires” and “evil earth” in the place of profanity. My initial assumption was that the characters in The Fifth Season were simply using things that were distasteful to them – rust being the corrosion of metal, earth-based profanities being the regular events that constantly threatened their lives and civilization, and this makes sense in line with the research I have done.

However, I found a post on N.K. Jemisin’s blog that shows that she put in even more thought into creating a set of profanities for the Broken Earth trilogy. She writes, “The answer I came up with was stability. This is a world in which people avoid coastlines (because of frequent tsunamis) and faultlines whenever possible; only the poorest people are forced to live in such areas. The ideal community is built on good solid bedrock; the biggest cities are located at the center of a tectonic plate …So they swear by stone and curse by metal.” Thus, Jemisin has created a set of profanity that goes beyond distaste and gets to the heart of Allia’s values in a deeper way than I could have originally imagined. Once again, I find myself stunned by the level of detail she puts into her worlds.

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