Dirty words: What makes them taboo?

cute-18833_640This past weekend, I had the joy of lunching with my undergraduate advising professor. As a sociolinguist and professor of four romance languages, we share many interests, but one of our favorite topics is multilingual child-rearing. (Her English-Spanish-Italian-speaking 10-year-old was firmly in mind when I wrote this post.) Conversation turned, interestingly, to my squeamishness about using proper names for particular body parts around our toddler. I’m hardly demure, but it’s hard to feign nonchalance and get over the social weight of words for genitalia. She shared my burden, and had experienced the same tongue-tie raising her daughter… until she switched to Spanish. Even though she is a balanced bilingual, equally comfortable in English and Spanish, taboo words are more impactful in English than Spanish for her. Her solution was to use the language that offered a bit of distance from the discomfort.

Our emotions tend to be closely married to one language (usually our first) – It’s a well-documented relationship, especially by Catherine L. Caldwell Harris. In this book chapter, she discusses her research on electrodermal analysis, writing that physiological responses to language – like sweaty palms –can be captured by the technology that created the lie-detector. Such analysis reveals greater sensitivity to words like “death,” “kill,” and “f***” than to “passed away,” “collateral damage,” and “the f-word,” which likely explains why euphemisms exist at all and why they simply feel more polite. In this article, Caldwell Harris cites one study (among many others) that demonstrates that native speakers have a stronger blink reflex after reading taboo words compared to second-language speakers. Francesco Foroni has found similar physiological differences between first- and second-language speakers when it comes to reading books. When we read narratives in our first language, we tend to embody the same emotions of the characters, smiling or frowning unconsciously according to the described emotions. In our second language, this simply doesn’t happen.

The first language doesn’t always win, however – Both age of acquisition and proficiency play a role. An immigrant student may learn the home language from birth and have later English exposure, but if home language use is isolated, English proficiency may soon surpass it. Additionally, a person may have low proficiency in their dominant, that is, more frequently used, language. Different kinds of emotions can be associated with each language also. For example, EL high schoolers may resonate more with English swear words, but with native-language reprimands. (For much more, here’s that research by Caldwell Harris again.)

Language is so fluid, it’s hard to know for certain how language can play on a polyglot’s emotions. Even if I, like my professor, decide to use Spanish as an out for taboo English words, my toddler will undoubtedly pick up on the nuances in one language or another. And with a little brother fast on his heels (they’re 16 months apart), I’m sure we’ll have a linguistically dynamic potty-word phase. But you’ll likely hear more about that in another, future post.

What are your thoughts about explicitly teaching taboo language? If it’s detached from emotion, is there any harm? Does the mere impropriety of teaching taboo language eliminate its taboo status?

1 Comment

Sylvia Rasi Gregorutt October 23, 2015

I’m honored be referenced in one of your posts 🙂 You cited interesting research that really resonates with personal experience — the one about swear words vs. reprimands in different languages was particularly applicable. I figure if I don’t flinch with "pene", my daughter will have an easier time not flinching when she hears/says "penis"…but I could be wrong. I think general affect/attitude upon delivery speaks volumes. I try to be as matter-of-fact as I can, and keep in mind that she serves as a sex ed teacher for some of her peers. There’s little for me to draw on since most of my sex ed came from English-language books given to me by my parents. Silence also communicates, and I don’t want to be silent about this important aspect of life. I don’t necessarily consider these words as "taboo" for me or my daughter. They’re difficult, but not best ignored. Certain swear words definitely are taboo. Like a good linguist mom, I will say and explain them if/when the time comes, but I will add that they’re best not used at all, and will gladly explain my rationale.


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