Swear words shed light on how language shapes thought

July 25, 2011
Swear words shed light on how language shapes thought

Why were people offended when BBC broadcaster James Naughtie mispronounced the surname of the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt? Why is it much easier for bilingual speakers to swear in their second language? Why are people offended by swear words – but not euphemisms?

New research from the University of Bristol sheds light on these issues and how they might help to answer the much-debated question: does the language you speak affect the way you think?

Professor Jeffrey Bowers and Dr Christopher Pleydell-Pearce of Bristol’s School of Experimental Psychology, asked trial participants to read aloud swear words, euphemisms of those swear words, and neutral words while measuring their autonomic responses by electrodermal activity.  The researchers found that autonomic responses to swear words were larger than to euphemisms and neutral words, that is, people find it more stressful to say aloud a swear word than its corresponding euphemism.

Professor Bowers said: “We argue that taboo words generate emotional reactions in part through verbal conditioning, that is through a simple form of learning, the sounds of taboo words become directly associated with emotional centres in the brain.  Accordingly, taboo words can evoke strong emotions even when they are uttered without any desire to offend.

“Euphemisms (such as ‘the F-word’), clever acronyms whose meanings are clear (for example, ‘FCUK’), and taboo words learned later in life (when learning a ) have not been associated with emotions through conditioning to the same extent, and as a result, do not trigger strong emotional responses.”

The authors relate this theory of swear words to the more general topic of ‘linguistic relativity’ – that is, how impacts on thinking.  People may avoid thinking or conversing about certain topics in order to avoid saying aloud taboo words.  It is not the topic they wish to avoid but the potential need to say aloud a given word.  The potential speech act discourages rather than encourages certain lines of thought and this, the researchers argue, constitutes a version of linguistic relativity.

More information:Swearing, Euphemisms, and Linguistic Relativity’ by Jeffrey S. Bowers and Christopher W. Pleydell-Pearce in PLoS One.

Related Stories

'Motherese' important for children's language development

May 6, 2011

(Medical Xpress) -- Talking to children has always been fundamental to language development, but new research reveals that the way we talk to children is key to building their ability to understand and create sentences of ...

Recommended for you

Neural efficiency hypothesis confirmed

July 27, 2015

One of the big questions intelligence researchers grapple with is just how differences in intelligence are reflected in the human brain. Researchers at ETH Zurich have succeeded in studying further details relating to suspected ...

How does color blindness affect color preferences?

July 21, 2015

(Medical Xpress)—Dichromacy is a color vision defect in which one of the three types of cone photoreceptors is missing. The condition is hereditary and sex-linked, mostly affecting males. Although researchers have explored ...

2 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

stealthc
5 / 5 (1) Jul 26, 2011
and some people don't care and think the notion of a "swear word" is a retarded superstitious belief that dates back to the bronze age.
Beard
3 / 5 (2) Jul 28, 2011
and some people don't care and think the notion of a "swear word" is a retarded superstitious belief that dates back to the bronze age.


Society does not and so you must either conform or sacrifice.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.