Like other aspects of social life, speech and conversation have their own rich and intricate history. But even in fairly recent scholarship, they remain subjects which have gone largely unexplored, mostly due to the limitations in sources which face all researchers and grow ever more intractable as one travels further back in time. This article takes a fresh look at these problems by examining literary and legal materials from Ottoman Damascus in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It reconstructs patterns of speech and manners, and links them with different sets of ideals and social norms that prevailed throughout urban society in the early modern Middle East. Of particular interest are habits of cursing and swearing, which have left residual traces even in written sources. One critical issue is the relationship between language and law, which turns up most vividly in the use of oaths, which were very much a part of everyday speech. They demonstrate how townspeople treated words virtually as deeds, regarding them with a degree of literalism which may not have been present in other cultures such as Western Europe, where their use had become more restricted.