How Language Came to Be — and How We Use It Today

Melissa Dahl in the New York Times:

18SHORT1-superJumboIn the 1960s, a chimpanzee named Washoe learned how to sign. Shortly thereafter, as Byrne tells us in this entertaining and thought-provoking book, she learned how to swear.

Roger Fouts — now a respected primatologist; then a lowly research assistant — was tasked with potty-training Washoe, who lived with researchers almost as if she were a human member of their family. Eventually, Washoe internalized the notion that “dirty” (the sign for feces) was shameful outside of the toilet. Soon, “dirty” became her favorite insult. “Dirty monkey,” she signed at the macaque that scared her. “Dirty Roger,” she signed at Fouts when he refused to let her out of her cage.

The potty-mouthed Washoe may help us understand what happened when early humans learned to lob the idea of excrement at one another instead of the real thing. Swearing, Byrne argues, helped us begin to form stronger societies. Today, a well-placed curse word at work can help colleagues bond; studies have also found that swearing, curiously, often indicates that someone is less likely to become physically violent. Perhaps it’s a little like the way toddlers finally, blessedly, learn to use their words instead of their fists, or their teeth.

More here.