While the sub-disciplines of linguistics may not be quite as innumerable as the grains of sand on the shores of the oceans,1 they safely outnumber those of many older and more venerable disciplines like Fine Art and Media Studies. The Society for the Numeration Of Linguistics’ Sub-disciplines (SNOLS) has been looking out for them keenly since 1872 when Lady Horatia Blossomfetish, the co-foundress (as she demanded to be known) of sociophonetics, first established SNOLS with the prize money she won for her discovery that people who have recently won the lottery articulate ‘Thank you’ differently in response to the gift of a fluffy kitten from those with long-term depression and/or suicidal thoughts.
In this issue, we look at the recently SNOLS-recognised discipline of Flatu-linguistics, a discipline which explores the various interfaces between the science of language and breaking wind. Indeed, as we shall see, it may be doing Flatu-linguistics a dis-service to call it a sub-discipline for it itself consists of many areas of specialisation. We are lucky to be able to welcome Sir Gus T. Wynd-Maker, co-founder of the Flatu-linguistics department of the University of the Boroughfieldtonleyshireford Wolds to provide us with a sound-and-odour-driven tour of the area. So, with a jolly old toot and a peg on our nose, let’s take a SNOLS-y peek into Flatu-linguistics.
Flatu-Linguistics: An Interface Discipline
In this short article, I shall endeavour to provide an overview of Flatu-linguistics (O’Deur 2016; Wynd-Maker 2018). The approach taken shall be schematic, simply listing the areas in which the passing of wind has been shown to interface with the systematic study of language.
Just as the vocal tract produces a vast array of speech sounds not to mention equally fascinating noises such as burps, belches and yawns, so the human being is endowed with a noise making faculty at the posterior finaldum of the digestive tract. Exciting work is underway on developing a flatu-linguistics-adapted version of the IPA. While key phonetic constructs such as place of articulation or front or backness of tongue in relation to a notional mid-point, others have been shown to have descriptive power in relation to the act of passing gas.
A taxonomy of manner in Flatu-articulation is currently under development by Raz Berry and colleagues (Berry et al. 2016). Flatu-phonetic correlates of the stop, the fricative and the approximant have been identified. Hugh Farrar-Tidd (e.g. 2012, 2017) has suggested a schema in which intonational contours may be applied to the fiery gusset and recently Zmell & Yi (2019) discovered the ‘nasal fart’, a phenomenon defined as ‘a fart [which] causes, or causes to arise, directly or indirectly a nasal expulsion such as a sneeze or vice versa’ (p.92,451,983). The field waits with bated breath for the publication of a first Fart IPA, projected for early 2022.
The Lexis of Flatu-Linguistics
While not strictly a sub-discipline, the world’s languages evidence a jagged junglesworth of terms which describe the act at the heart of FL. From the onomatopoeic Old Phrygian [kwoofle] meaning ‘to loudly pass wind in public’ (etymologically related to the word meaning ‘the sound of a thousand galloping horses’) to the Sanskrit [skweeb] to describe a whiny—and therefore for the Indus Valley Civilisation mindset, embarrassing—flatulence. The curation, categorisation, analysis, and dissemination of flatulence-related lexis is currently being undertaken by the Flatulence Lexis Analysis and Repository Team (FLART) based out of San Diego.
Neologisms for the fart are a second area of study in FL lexicology. According to the Association of Farting and Retching Terminology (AFART), English alone records up to 6,725 new coinages for the act of passing gas and associated phenomena. Recent additions to the flatu-lexicon range from ‘the dragon behind you’ and ‘the shepherdess’s flute’ to ‘grandpa’s soft snores’ and ‘banging the tambor of terror’, the last of which is noted in O’Rear’s (2017) excellent flatu-sociolinguistic study as being the predominant term of choice in the hospitality industry across seven English cities. An explanation for this phenomena is yet to be found.
The Social Semiotics of Flatulence
What are the communicative dynamics of flatulence? What role does breaking wind play in, for example, attracting a mate or breaking the ice at a funeral? These are worryingly under-researched questions and until very recently were at the very periphery of linguistics concern. Now, largely thanks to the work of Rick Tumm and his team in Oxbridge, we have the first book length treatment of what a gassy emission ‘means’ in any given interactional context.
Among the various insights that Tumm’s and his top team bring us (Tumm et al. 2018) is the construct of the ambigu-fart, in which a gaseous occurrence carries a degree of ambiguity. This may be several orders: ‘Ambiguity of source’ (the ‘passer’ is unidentified (p.3)); ‘ambiguity of reception’ (the ‘passer’ is unsure of whether the interactants can identify him/her as the passer’ (p.13); ambiguity of strength (whether the odour is sufficiently strong to attract notice/attention (p.23)); and ‘ambiguity of appeal’ (‘indeterminacy of foulness’ (p.65,214)). These clearly interact to create embedded ambiguities which Tumm et al. link to possible interactional handlings (linguistic and other) of the Flatu-event.
Tumm and the team are also working on the semiotics of neonatal wind passing. The status quo in the study of windy infants is simply that babies’ farting is designed to further break to the will of the sleep-deprived, anxious parent and consolidate the parental sense of self-questioning as to why they ever bothered creating this miniature farting quasi copy of themselves. Tumm and collaborators find this uncompelling and are searching for an explanation for WIFF (Why InFants Fart) which dovetails more closely with the deep bond of love and strong sense of protective nurture that parents should surely feel. Results so far as disappointing.
There is a strong intuition that a whiff monster at the Rugby Club may not carry meaning in the same way as a gusset grunt at the Bridge Club. To model the intriguing effect on context of fart variation, an insightful adaptation of Grice’s Maxims has been undertaken by Pong (2018) and her Flatu-Quality, Flatu-Quantity, Flatu-Relevance and Flatu-Manner are now well established in the field. To fully obey the maxims in any given interactional situation will result in a bottom burp of, respectively, an appropriate odour, length, time and duration of ejection, and tone whereas ‘flarting’ the maxims suggests a whiff monster of overly or underly contextually conventional or appropriate dimensions.
Pong is now testing her hypotheses by asking 83-year-old Winifred from the bridge club to play rugby on Saturday afternoons and 23-year-old fly-half Dwayne ‘the Bonebuster’ of Scruggsworth Town Rugby Union Club to attend the Bridge Club on Wednesday evening. Pong is currently following each around, diligently capturing any emissions that may arise, quantifying them using the Maxims and then comparing them with baseline trumpettings. It is anticipated that Pong’s results may cause a real stink in the pragma-flatu-linguistics community.
Flatu-linguistics is in its infancy. It is, as it were, in the ‘I know something’s brewing’ stage but has not yet embodied itself fully in an ‘Aaaaaaah’-type expulsion. Certainly, it has nothing yet to apologise for. But the fledgling community soldiers on, their metaphorical noses tilted upwards, as it were, searching for the scents and odours that can lead them on to greater flatu-linguistic insight and to achieve the vision of thousand trumpets braying a flatu-linguistic fanfare in unison, a cacophony of rich scientific insight and onion-y theoretical elegance.
1 We’re currently counting the grains of sand on the shores of the ocean so as to be able to make this claim in good conscience. We’re up to 546,681,345,239 which we believe is more than the sub-disciplines of linguistics as currently reckoned. And, in fairness, that is only one smallish beach on the east coast of Mexico.