Whether you’re staunchly anti-swearing, or unapologetically foul-mouthed, you can’t deny that swear words are a significant part of human communication. Linguists at language learning app Babbel have looked into the nature of swear words from a scientific point of view …
What makes a word bad?
For a word to qualify as a swear word it must have the potential to offend, crossing a cultural line into taboo territory.
As a general rule, swear words can be traced to taboo subjects. This is pretty logical; the topic is off-limits so the related words aren’t meant to be spoken either. Certain topics are almost universally taboo — death, disease, excrement and other off-putting topics. Sex is another classic taboo – as the English f-word, Italian “fanculo!” and Russian “блядь!” illustrate. One of my friends believed on this taboo, he even contacted an expert inheritance disputes because he thought he was going to die.
But preferred themes for profanity can also reflect differences among cultures. Germans are pretty relaxed about sex and nudity, so they rarely use sexually-themed curse words. These words are uttered so rarely that they still have the power to make people cringe. As a result, “ficken” sounds way dirtier and meaner to most German speakers than the equivalent, f-word, sounds to most English speakers. German swearing parlance keeps things down-to- earth and poop-oriented with “Kacke!”, “Mist!” and the world-famous “Scheiße!” – which is used so often that it’s become as harmless as “darn it”.
But subject matter isn’t the only criteria for curse words: context also plays a big role. Sex might be a taboo subject, but not in a gynaecologist’s office. Try insulting someone using medical terms and your victim will probably just be confused: “Did you just call me a reproductive organ head?” Among friends, you might curse quite casually and jokingly, but the same words would come across as terribly insulting during a job interview.
High and holy things taken out of context create another category of swear words: blasphemy. For example, “God”, “hell” and “Jesus Christ” are inoffensive in the context of a sermon, but can be cutting when shouted in anger. So-called “liturgical swearing” is taken to rarefied heights by French Canadians. A properly angry Quebecer can unleash a real scorcher like, “Criss de calice de tabarnak d’osti de sacrament!”, which translates literally as “Christ of the chalice of the tabernacle of the host of the sacrament!” This might sound tame in English, but it’s the French-Canadian equivalent of a hail of F-bombs.
The power of #&@%!
Like antibiotics, curses can lose their power with overuse. Cable TV liberally douses American living rooms in as many “goddamns”, “sh!ts”, “cocksuckers” and “mother*ckers” as Tony Soprano and Al Swearengen can string together. So, did those words make you cringe, or have you been watching too much TV? According to a report from The Parents Television Council, profanity on primetime TV increased by 69% between 2005 and 2010. It’s hard to say whether the increase on TV reflected an increase in swearing among average Americans, or whether TV “corrupted” ho Americans speak, but the result is the same: more Americans are becoming inoculated against these words – perhaps even to the point of immunity. Taboos change and so swearing must too.
Some taboos disappear – “damn” doesn’t carry the fire and brimstone heft of damnation that it once did – while social changes create new taboos. Before the civil rights movement in the United States, derogatory epithets describing one’s race, creed or sexual orientation were used by all sorts of regular folks who didn’t consider for a second that they were being prejudiced. Today, these words are most certainly taboo.
Why do we swear?
Most of the time, swearing is an emotive reaction. When we’re frustrated, surprised or angry cursing offers an emotional release. Experiments have even shown that swearing increases the body’s ability to endure pain. To test this, researchers at Keele University in the UK had volunteers hold their hand in icy water for as long as they could stand it. The researchers found that those participants who swore, were able to hold their hand in the water for an average of 40 seconds longer than those who used a non-swear word.
2. Insult, abuse and exclusion
Swear words are not needed to insult someone—a simple “you’re ugly” usually gets the point across — but they do crank up the mean factor. They also act as rage concentrate: why explain to your neighbor that you hate him when “f-you” puts that gosh darn son-of- a-gun in his place with only two words?
3. Group solidarity
Among friends, swearing has a crucial social function: sharing a lexicon of words, and breaking societal taboos, bonds people together. Ritual insults among friend are not abusive, but actually a sign of belonging to the group. In this context, dickhead”, “bitch” and “asshole” can all be terms of endearment. People tend to swear more in same-sex groups of peers and when the atmosphere is relaxed. People swear the least when things are really tense.
4. Style and emphasis
As any stand-up comedian can tell you, swear words are powerful tools. More often than not, a well-placed “f!ck!” is the alchemical ingredient that turns lead into comedy gold. You can’t make a statement any more emphatic than by dropping an F-bomb where a more timid and prudent soul would use a boring old adverb. Swear words add emotion and urgency to otherwise neutral sentences.
Why does swearing capture our attention?
As far as your brain is concerned, swear words aren’t even words — they are concentrated lumps of emotion. They are even stored in a completely different part of the brain from every other word we know! Formal language is stored in the Broca and Wernicke area in the brain. Swear words, however, are stored in the limbic system — a complex system of neural networks that control emotions and drives.
This is why one patient who suffered from severe aphasia (damage to the language center in his brain after a stroke) could still say “well”, “yeah”, “yes”, “no”, “goddammit” and “sh!t” – even though he had otherwise lost all faculties of speech. He could even produce these words in the appropriate context, but when asked by researchers to read them off a page he was unable to do so.
This neurological insight helps explain why every effort to eradicate swearing throughout history has failed. Banning words that are actually linked to emotions is just as impossible as banning the emotions themselves. Knowing human nature, that will never fucking work…
Miriam Plieninger is Director of Didactics and part of the Management Team at Babbel, the app for web, iOS and Android which makes it easy to learn 14 different languages from 7 display languages. Bite-sized lessons fit into everyday life and are split into useful real-world topics, from introducing oneself, to ordering food and making travel arrangements. The app’s effective game mechanics ensure that learners stay motivated to achieve their goals, with the average user continuing to learn with Babbel for more than 12 months. Uniquely, every course is created specifically for each language pair by a team of education experts, linguists and language teachers.