There are billions of people living on Earth, who speak more than two hundred different languages. There are languages of different natures, such as analytic or synthetic; in any case, every language is beautiful in its way. It is always pleasant to listen to a native speaker, even if we do not understand what they are saying.
From a mouth of a good speaker, the words seem to flow out smoothly, like a flute melody. However, far not all the words have such melodic properties. Some of them people refuse not only to use, but also to hear. Addressing with these words can be treated as a sign of disrespect, while their use by a good-mannered person is unacceptable. These are taboo words.
It is a well-known fact that taboo words constitute a group of lexical units, which are undesirable to be used in speech (Jay, 1). However, despite the prohibition of such words, they still exist, function, and, what is most striking, developing in all the languages of the world.
This fact obviously points to the controversial nature of taboo words: they were invented by people, and now the same people are trying to vanish them from their languages, and visa versa, while some are trying to avoid taboo words, others are successfully using them. In any case, it should be remembered that society is the only judge, who is to decide, whether a certain word should be referred to as taboo or not.
Indeed, one of the main questions about taboo words is: what criterion should be used, while defining, which words are taboo? Obviously, the words are most likely to be considered as taboo, in case they are aimed at humiliation. Admittedly, as a rule, taboo words have a great destructive power; their pronunciation can offend the addressed person, make them feel disgraced or ashamed (McGregor, 27). Taboo words are definitely a tool of an ill-mannered person.
However, despite the rather negative nature of taboo words, they are still sometimes resorted to sometimes. Consequently, there have to be some situations, in which the use of taboo words should be justified, or at least explained. Judging from this point of view, we should note, that offence is not the only purpose of taboo words use. Such lexical units are often used in order to emphasize one’s speech, and make it more expressive.
In addition, the use of taboo words is proved to be more often observed in people, who are in a state of emotional excitement. Interestingly, not only negative, but also the most positive emotions are sometimes expressed with the help of taboo words (McGinnies, 245). This points to the fact, that taboo words have a very important function in the society, which is serving as a means of expressiveness.
Due to being useful at a certain level, taboo words still exist in many languages. What is more, they are not likely to disappear. If to think logically, it can be concluded, that taboo words serve as balancing units for the normal language. Indeed, language can only exist in oppositions, and if there are common words, there should be some taboo words. Thus, another function of these lexical units is constituting an opposition to the normed language.
In fact, in order to understand the essence of taboo words, it might be useful to analyze the sphere they cover. In case of English language, most of the taboo words are connected to the sphere of sexual intercourse. In other languages, for example Russian, such character of taboo lexicon is also present.
However, some of the Russian taboo words originated from Slavic languages, where taboo words were made synthetically, and were used as spells. Logically, those words were to be used very carefully, and they were usually addressed to the most evil enemies. Surprisingly, in French language taboo words are mostly those, which name church attributes (Struck, 1). As it can be seen from these examples, taboo words cover various spheres of life.
It may seem hard to establish connection between all the facts, mentioned above. However, there is one feature, which connects sexual intercourse, magic spells, and church attributes. This feature is their secrecy. Indeed, sexual intercourse is an ultimately personal issue, and in our subconsciousness we know that everything connected to it should not be revealed.
Similarly, religious rituals are very intimate, and sacral relationships between a human and God should be kept in secret. Therefore, the conclusion to be made is that taboo words usually refer to a sphere of life, which people prefer not to speak about; these spheres are very private, and this determines the nature of taboo words.
As a consequence, using taboo words means revealing something secret, showing the bold truth. Furthermore, in taboo words this truth is often used with some rude or negative connotation. All these factors suggest that the first natural reaction to such words is shame. This is the reason why taboo words are most often used by teenagers in communication with their peers, where the feeling of shame is considerably diminished (Stenstrom, 116).
However, despite the often negative meaning of taboo words, some of them are not totally taboo, so to say. Indeed, some taboo words in the linguistic environment can be used with other lexical units, and as a result, they lose their taboo character. One of the examples of such phenomenon is the word “pussycat”, from which, in case of its division into morphemes, one can derive a very rude taboo word.
In addition, taboo words, as any other words, can have multiple meanings, which suggests that their use in different situations is not only desired, but needed. As an example, the word “bitch” in English has a range of meanings, primary of which is a female animal. Thus, in zoology this word is normal, while in common conversation with people this word can be considered as taboo.
Having analyzed the meaning and nature of taboo words, we can now explain the existence of such words. It became obvious that secret thoughts, notions, and actions need to be named; even if people are forbidden to pronounce some things, there still exist names for them. Indeed, deeply believing people prefer not to pronounce the word “devil” aloud, but they still know this word, and what notion it describes. A similar attitude society has towards taboo words. Even in case these words are not often used, people still need them.
Moreover, taboo words reveal one significant feature about society. Their existence proves that the society has a sense of limits both in their culture and in their language. The sense of shame, which is a very important quality, is also indicated through the taboo words in language.
However, the modern world, in which the sense of shame is rejected, suggests that the use of taboo words is normal. Some words, which used to be taboo less than half a century ago (such as the word “sex”), now have moved into the category of normed lexicon. However, with the progress of life new taboo words appear, as far as it has been proved that society needs them.
All in all, it can be stated that the nature of taboo words is rather controversial. Their occurrence, use, together with prohibition are estimated by the society, which both needs and rejects them. Taboo words denote secret spheres of human life, which intensifies their unallowable character.
Jay, Timothy. “The Utility and Ubiquity of Taboo Words”. Perspectives on Psychological science. May 2009. 15 May 2010. http://pps.sagepub.com/content/4/2/153.abstract
McGinnies, Edward. “Emotionality in perceptual defense”. Psychological Reviews 56 (1989): 244-251.
McGregor, William. Linguistics: An Introduction. NY: Continuum, 2009.
Stenstrom, Anna-Brita. “Taboo words in teenage talk: London and Madrid girls’ conversations compared”. Spanish in context 3.1 (2006): 115-138.
Struck, Doug. “Holy cow! In French-speaking Canada, the sacred is also profane” Chicago Tribune. Dec. 2006. 15 May 2010. http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2006-12-14/features/0612130414_1_french-speaking-swearing-profane