This is why your brain wants to swear
Man shouting and swearing with chalk blackboard background (Shutterstock)

A recent study shows that children are adept at absorbing swearwords. That's the power of linguistic taboos for you

Most of the time, words behave themselves. They're just a useful arrangement of sounds in our mouths, or letters on a page. They have no intrinsic power to offend. If I told you that skloop was a vile swearword in some foreign language, with the power to empty rooms and force ministerial resignations, you might laugh. How could an arbitrary combination of sounds have such force? But then think of the worst swearwords in your own language and you quickly understand that something else is at play here. Our reaction to them is instant and emotional.

Which is why parents will not necessarily rejoice at the findings of a study by Timothy Jay, who looked at the range of "bad" words used by children as young as one. Between the ages of one and two, in fact, Jay's experiments showed that boys drew on a vocabulary of six such words; girls eight. This expanded rapidly, with five to six-year-old boys using 34 words, and girls of the same age 21.

Parents tend to want to protect children from swearwords. We've probably all experienced the awkwardness of swearing in front of the children of friends we forgot were there. But Jay's study suggests the impulse is futile, at least if we believe it'll stop them learning the words at all. What it might do, however, is teach them about context. There's a time and a place for swearing, and a sense of taboo can help children understand that society expects different standards of behaviour in different surroundings.

But this leaves us with some unanswered questions: why are certain words considered dangerous in the first place? And why, when they are, do they seem to possess that special raw power? Surveys of swearwords, which seem to be present in all cultures, have divided them into the "deistic" – those related to religion – and the "visceral" – those related to the body (a vivid example of the former is the Spanish hostia, the name for the host, or communion wafer). Fear and awe cling pretty closely to religion. And disgust, shame and the high-stakes business of sex all play out in the territory of the body. Words used in deistic or visceral contexts naturally get linked with these emotions too.

But the magic really happens as those links become entrenched. Somehow the words get dragged out of the linguistic realm, and into the emotional – quite literally. People who have experienced brain damage in certain areas of the left hemisphere, which is the seat of language in most right-handed people, may find themselves unable to form sentences, but able to swear. They might retain the ability to shout words like "Goddamit", even phrases like "Heavens above!" or worse. While parts of the highly evolved cortex may have been destroyed, areas that developed earlier in our history – the limbic system and basal ganglia, which mediate emotion and habitual movements – remain intact. This is where swearwords seem to live, in the animal part of the brain that once gave rise to howls of pain and grunts of frustration and pleasure.

Now, human culture has changed a lot over the years, and gone down some pretty weird avenues. A core of things we consider dangerous remains consistent across time and space, but there are some unusual examples of taboos you may not recognise. Do they send a charge through your limbic system?

The bear

We may laugh now humans have the upper hand, but for much of our evolution we were prey to large and unforgiving animals. As a result, the words used to name such beasts as the bear itself became taboo. Many European languages label bears euphemistically – in Russian medvedev means "honey eater", and "bear" itself means brown – as a direct reference was considered too unpleasant.

The dead

Many cultures have practised a prohibition on the use of a dead person's name – or even words that sound similar to it. According to James Frazer in The Golden Bough, the chief motive was "fear of evoking the ghost". Linguist Robert Trask records that in 1975 when a speaker of an Australasian language, whose given name was Djäyila, died, the frequently used verb djäl, meaning "to want" had to be abandoned and replaced with a word borrowed from a neighbouring community.

The cuckold

It's still not nice to be cheated on, but the man whose wife commits adultery has been singled out for special ridicule in patriarchal societies down the ages. Insults designed to evoke the situation – buck's face or wittol – have become meaningless in English. In many European languages, however, alluding to the horns a cuckolded husband is said to wear remains an insult. The word cuckold itself derives from the Old French for cuckoo, the bird that lays its egg in another's nest.

The name of God

In various religions it is forbidden not just to take a deity's name in vain, but to use it at all. For practical purposes, an indirect name may serve. The Hindu god Shiva (whose name means something like kind or gracious) originated as a way of referring to his forerunner Rudra. It is not known how the name of the Hebrew god was pronounced as it was subject to a taboo, and only the consonants, YHWH, were recorded. When reading the Torah Jews apparently say Adonai, a word meaning "master" instead.

The mother-in-law

In Dyirbal, a language of northern Queensland, it is considered grossly inappropriate to use everyday language in front of certain opposite-sex relatives, including mothers-in-law. A whole range of alternative forms are used instead that often refer to the animal or object in question in a roundabout way.

... and finally: resorting to clicks

Bantu languages spoken in southern Africa use unique click consonants borrowed from nearby Khoisan languages. These Bantu speakers encode many strong cultural taboos in their linguistic behaviour; even words which sound like unacceptable words, such as the names of dead relatives, may be jettisoned. Over time, this can limit the expressive power of the language, to the extent that a new range of sounds may be drafted in to help. Hence, the clicks. © Guardian News and Media 2014

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