Table of Contents
2 What is a Taboo?
2.2 Taboos and swearing
3 When do we swear?
3.2 Written Versus Spoken Discourse
3.3 Situational Context
3.3.4 Implications for swearing
4 Swearing and Dialect
4.1.1 Implications of Dialect for Swearing
4.1.2 Examples of dialect swear words in Great Britain
4.2.1 Social Rank
4.2.2 Level of Education
In most languages there are certain expressions which are regarded taboos. These are words that native speakers learn are inappropriate to use in many situations. But despite these conventions on swear words they are omnipresent and used by all social groups in a society. This paper aims to have a closer look at the dynamics of taboo words and their use. The focus is on the use of swear words by native speakers of English, primarily in Great Britain. Since the regional and social dialect varieties of a language often come up with words the standard variety does not know they mostly offer a greater lexical variety than the standard dialect. My aim in this work is to show that the conditions promoting swearing also promote the use of dialects and that therefore the regional, as well as social, dialects have a greater taboo word variety than the standard dialect of a language, in this case Standard (British) English. I assume so because dialects are rather the private language spoken in contexts in which swearing is not inappropriate and not considered to be impolite, sometimes even expected. The standard variety of a language, however, is rather used in formal situations in which swearing is deemed impolite and inappropriate.
I will first give a general overview of what a taboo and what swearing actually is and for what reasons and under which circumstances people swear. By the results I intend to show that the dialects create the perfect prerequisites for the use of swear words and hence also the creative dealing with and coinage of a larger variety of imaginative swear words that a standard variety will not produce. In order to prove my thesis, I will also compare standard variety and dialect taboo or swear words (just as Jay [2009:3] I will use both terms interchangeably), especially focusing on the British dialects of English.
2 What is a Taboo?
The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English provides us with three definitions for the word taboo: firstly (1) “a taboo subject, word, activity etc is one that people avoid because it is extremely offensive or embarrassing” (Summers et al. 2007:1687). This first definition already points out explicitly that there are taboo words and thus reveals the connection between swearing and taboos. The second definition refers to taboos as (2) “not accepted as socially correct”, here the social aspect of taboos is emphasised. This social dimension of taboos supports the argument that taboos and swearing are closely linked since language serves communication which is a social act. And finally the last definition states that taboos are (3) “too holy or evil to be touched or used” (Summers et al. 2007:1687). This alludes to the domains taboos are drawn from. Typical lexical fields taboo words belong to are for instance profanity or sex but also religion (Jay 2009:154). Since in many cultures religion is so central and “too holy […] to be touched” (Summers et al. 2007:1687), blasphemy is a taboo and thus a domain for taboo words to draw from.
2.2 Taboos and swearing
In order to describe the nature of the connection between societal taboos and swearing it is useful to have a look at the acquisition of swear words, in particular in contrast to the acquisition of nontaboo words. Nontaboo words are usually acquired unconsciously, whereas taboo words are mostly explicitly pointed out as such by caretakers and their use is often punished. This has also something to do with taboos, since they are passed on from generation to generation and so are taboo words (see Jay 2009).
But not only concerning their emergence taboos and taboo words are very closely linked but also when it comes to different levels of severity. The taboos in a society are not all considered equally severe and correspondingly the taboo words are not equally offensive, but there are different levels. These different levels of swear word offensiveness are generally equivalent to the severity of the taboo they allude to. These different levels differ from culture to culture. In very religious cultures, blasphemy is very likely to be the biggest taboo, therefore the taboo words drawn from this domain are considered to be the most offensive ones. In other cultures, like the American where sex is the biggest taboo, words revolving around this domain are the least accepted ones. Interestingly, the taboo words referring to the biggest taboos of a society – so actually the ones considered as the most offensive – are usually the ones that are used most often (see Jay 2009:154).
Jay and Janschewitz (2008:277) refer to a norming study carried out by the University of California, Los Angeles which categorises swear words into three levels of tabooness: “Taboo words high in tabooness were cocksucker, cunt and fuck”, bastard, goddamn and piss were rated as medium and crap, hell and idiot as low taboo. The frequency of some of these swear words will be examined further below.
A phenomenon which shows the tabooness of certain topics and words are euphemisms. Words like poo(p), pee or screw refer to societal taboos but would be much more accepted in most situations where swearing would usually be restricted and are also not censored in the media. There are also euphemisms “which replace taboo counterparts” like friggin for fucking, gosh for God, darn or dang for damn, shoot or sugar for shit and the expression oh my goodness which is a non-blasphemous version of oh my god (see Jay 2009:5). The existence of such words, on the one hand shows people’s urge to swear, also in situations in which it would normally not be accepted. On the other hand it illustrates that there are certain taboos which may not be addressed in certain social contexts.
3 When do we swear?
Swearing is very closely linked to emotions. Jay and Janschewitz (2008:268) define swearing as “the use of taboo language with the purpose of expressing the speaker’s emotional state and communicating that information to listeners”. Furthermore swear words are “primarily meant to convey connotative or emotional [rather than literal] meaning”. The involvement of emotions when people swear is even manifested in the structures of the brain. Allan and Burridge (2006:237) claim that “[f]orbidden words are the most emotionally evocative of all language stimuli” and “are processed differently [neurologically] from ordinary language”. The areas in the brain that are activated when we swear are the same areas that also process emotions (Jay and Janschewitz 2008:270). The extent to which emotions are involved when people swear, however, varies. Jay and Janschewitz (2008:271) name two types of swearing: propositional and unpropositional swearing. Propositional swearing is deliberate as in telling a joke which involves vulgar words – the speaker deliberately chooses the words. Unpropositional swearing, however, is not as controlled but rather an emotional outburst like shouting “Shit!” when stumbling against something. There is a “continuum from thoughtful and purposeful […][propositional swearing] to automatic and uncontrollable” unpropositional swearing. All forms of swearing lie somewhere in this continuum of emotionality.
Since swearing is so closely linked to emotions people tend to swear in emotional situations. Such situations are usually within contexts familiar to the speaker and in which the speaker feels comfortable. In which contexts this is the case will be discussed further below.
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- Anglistik Linguistik linguistics Englisch English Dialekt dialect swear words swearing four letter words cuss words British English British dialects English dialects Englische Dialekte Schimpfwörter Great Britain Großbritannien Malediktologie maledictology Englische Sprachwissenschaft Sprachwissenschaft