Reading Damasio’s The Emotional Brain which frankly could be a little more concise and generous with the science and a little leaner on the exposition, I happened on an interesting little snippet about people who’ve suffered damage to the language areas of the brain, Broca’s and Wernike’s area, to such an extent that they are almost literally without language. Classified as global aphasics, they cannot read or understand words and are unable to produce speech beyond stereotypical words, largely curse words. Intuitively enough, this also affects deaf sign language users in much the same way.
So, two points that are interesting about that.
According to Damasio global aphasics are still clearly conscious, self-aware and self-reflexive. The question then remains whether these people still have language as a means of thought and self-awareness but are now permenantly trapped in world where every form of external language is incomprehensible and one’s internal language is inexpressible. Hence, simple gestures and facial expressions as well as tone can be understood but everything else has fallen away.
The alternative which Damasio favours is that self-awareness and consciousness is not dependent on language, that is our mind and sense of self, is not language dependent. Possibly, global aphasics would then think in loosely structured images that have to bear close resemblence to objects. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to tell which is the case as global aphasics can generally draw simple sketches to communicate but this ability is true in either case, ie whether aphasics have language or not.
The second thing of interest is that little end note about how stereotypical words, especially swear words and non language emotional expressions are still generally expressible. This leads me to think that curse words are emotional expressions that can stand by themselves without any need for meaning, functioning similarly to growls, meows, barks and hisses. In other words, swear words, through association with stressful emotional situations and training through expression are extended means by which our sub-cortical emotional structures communicate. I might be out on a limb there but that explains why it can sometimes be quite difficult to not swear – our sub-cortical structures generally get first dibs in reaction.
The following link provides a good summary of aphasias.