The idea that language changes over time isn’t very controversial, but how it changes and whether or not we can or should try to control those changes certainly is controversial. Without thinking about what they are doing in these terms, many groups both along the political spectrum and among the religious sects seek to control language to some degree.
Mormons aren’t above such attempts either. Both General Conference and local meetings have seen plenty of sermons against profanity, evil speaking and the like, as well as discourses praising kind and gentle speech. But the following excerpt from a 1967 talk by Elder Boyd K. Packer went a bit further than most, suggesting both a pattern for how language changes and implying that something should have been done differently so that language usage had less profanity. And, he blamed the proliferation of profanity in the 20th Century on novelists:
The Disease of Profanity (excerpt)
by Elder Boyd K. Packer
“¦ A generation ago writers of newspapers, editors of magazines, and particularly the producers of motion pictures, carefully censored profane and obscene words.
All that has now changed. It began with the novel. Writers, insisting that they must portray life as it is, began to put into the mouths of their characters filthy, irreverent expressions. These words on the pages of books came before the eyes of all ages and imprinted themselves on the minds of our youth.
Carefully (we are always led carefully), profanity has inched and nudged and pushed its way relentlessly into the motion picture and the magazine, and now even newspapers print verbatim comments, the likes of which would have been considered intolerable a generation ago.
“Why not show life as it is?” they ask. They even say it is hypocritical to do otherwise. “If it is real,” they say, “why hide it? You can’t censor that which is real!”
Why hide it? Why protest against it? Many things that are real are not right. Disease germs are real, but must we therefore spread them? A pestilent infection may be real, but ought we to expose ourselves to it? Those who argue that so-called “real life” is license must remember that where there’s an is, there’s an ought. Frequently, what is and what ought to be are far apart. When is and ought come together, an ideal is formed. The reality of profanity does not argue for the toleration of it.
Sunday Morning Session,
General Conference, October 1967
While I’m not sure that the details of the change Elder Packer describes are accurate (One book I read recently suggests a pivotal point at the premiere of Shaw’s Pygmalion in 1914. Packer may also be looking at the then recent “beat” generation, although profanity was also a feature of the modernist movement that began in the 1910s), it is certainly true that the use of profanity in print and in other public media has expanded significantly in the 20th Century while the stigma against its use has declined significantly. Perhaps it doesn’t matter much if this change originated in novels or plays or even in changes in the general culture as the Victorian period moved on to Modernism. The more important question raised isn’t where the change began, but what could or should be done to change it.
I must admit that Elder Packer’s description gave me pause, not because I’m anxious to eradicate profanity, but because he implies a evolutionary cycle that society may not have realized. I’ve long been of the opinion that changes in language are normal and often good, and that taboo words, such as those considered profanity, are a natural (but hopefully infrequently used) part of language. I also tend to agree with the idea that literature and other forms of media need to have a high degree of verisimilitude–that literature does need to portray life as it is.
But the cycle implied by Elder Packer makes me uncomfortable. I find it believable that the cumulative effect of using profanity in novels and other media may give license for readers and viewers to increase its use in everyday life. This increased use then contributes to authors, in turn, increasing their use of profanity in new works, continuing the cycle. That idea does give me pause.
I believe this cycle happens because it matches my understanding of how language changes and the power that media does have. But what I’m not sure about is whether there are, as often happens with similar systems among groups of people, some natural counterforce or countercycle that will limit its spread. Where will it end? Has it reached a balance already?
My own belief is one I arrived at many years ago, which happens to echo the point made by the comedian Lenny Bruce in the 1960s–that profanity and offensive terms gain their power from their taboo. Increasing their use weakens the taboo, perhaps to the point that they lose their power altogether and become useless. The history of our language does include some profanity (e.g. swive) that have disappeared and other words whose offensive status has declined or disappeared. Is that what will happen because of the increased use of profanity in our culture?
Regardless, the assumptions in Elder Packer’s talk about language and how it changes show a particular conception about the role of language and literature and raise questions about how exactly our society can and should react to changes in language and its use.
 Lynch, Jack. The Lexicographer’s Dilemma: The Evolution of “Proper” English, from Shakespeare to South Park. (New York: Walker & Co., 2009), p. 234.