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Why Your Brain Wants to Swear

New study shows why kids absorb taboo words so readily.
 
 
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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  childrenas 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 Russianmedvedev means "honey eater", and "bear" itself means brown – as a direct reference was considered too unpleasant.

 
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