The perception of swearing in different languages

Damn!: the perception of swearing in different languages

In most languages there are taboo words or expressions which, though considered to be inappropriate in many situations, are omnipresent and used by all groups in a society.

Swearing is very fascinating for all who are interested in linguistics and society, and because it is so little understood, it is still a social taboo. Used as simple expressions, or with the function of acting as a relief valve, or even to “clarify” some concepts, swearing is part of everyday language. This phenomenon is often underestimated, yet it constitutes a form of language with dignity and strong meaning which, is actually deeply rooted in linguistic and cultural heritage.

How old is swearing? Actually, a better question would be; how old is language?! According to some studies, some of the first sounds emitted by our ancestors had the form and the function of our bad words, and they were produced as a reaction to different situations of shock or surprise, danger or pain. According to this theory, the first words derive from shouts which, for animals and for primitive men, had the function of anger, fear, threat, pain and delight. Thus, those sounds would have an emotional origin. We don’t know if this is true or not, however the idea that a bad word – the emotional word par excellence - could have been the first word pronounced by a human being is very striking!

While such a theory has its attractions, we have no proof of it. What is certain though is that many ancient populations used to swear.

There are records of swearing among the Egyptians of antiquity. That the Jews of old were swearers is evident from the number of the prohibitions referring to this practice. Though the swearing of the Greeks was a very light and innocuous kind, they were a swearing people. Like the Greeks, the Romans swore by their gods.

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