Philip Pullman’s Swearwords.

Remember A Child’s Garden of Curses? Here‘s a nice followup in the Guardian by Emma Byrne, an artificial intelligence researcher and the author of Swearing Is Good for You:

“Philip Pullman Litters New Children’s Book With Swear Words.” So ran the Daily Mail’s headline introducing pearl-clutching coverage of his bad language in the newly published La Belle Sauvage. Its 500 words of faux outrage (fauxtrage?) over a novel containing the words “bollocks”, “bastards” and “fuck” began with the stunning news that: “By his own admission, some of [his] fans are as young as seven”, seemingly inviting us to imagine some poor, innocent cherub asking: “Mummy, what is bollocks?”

What’s bollocks is the idea that a seven-year-old doesn’t have a firm grip on at least the rudiments of bad language. This degree of manufactured ire is comical to anyone familiar with the latest research about children and their swearing habits. The vast majority of kids know (and use) taboo language fluently by the time they leave nursery.

In the fantastically named paper A Child’s Garden of Curses, cognitive neuroscientist Kristin Jay and professor of psychology Timothy Jay studied children from one to 12 years old. They found that, aged one to two, boys know six swearwords on average, while girls know eight. Among three- to four-year-olds, girls still outstrip boys, cursing on average 140 times while they were being observed, while boys recorded a mere 99 rude words. By the time they are on the verge of their teens, though, boys outstrip girls: 335 recorded incidents of swearing, to girls’ 112.

So Pullman’s audience is definitely familiar with swearing, and it’s doing them no harm. On the contrary, learning to curse is an essential part of development. Children learn which words best express which emotions in exactly the same way that they learn everything: by watching us. Repeatedly attaching the “F-word” to the experience of someone’s poor driving is probably teaching my daughter a lot about both the acceptable expression of one’s emotional state (only with the car windows up) and what constitutes bad road skills. (I am slightly worried that she will grow up believing that the correct terminology for a turn signal is “fucking indicate”, but that should make driving lessons fun).

Children also learn, from a surprisingly early age, that swearing isn’t all negative. Research shows that swearing is linked with all kinds of emotional states, including joy, surprise and fear. By learning to swear, children learn to understand other people’s feelings in a more nuanced way. “Children learn that curse words intensify emotions in a manner that non-curse words cannot achieve,” says Professor Jay. But the biggest advantage, from my perspective as a parent, comes from studies dating back as far as the 1930s, which show that swearing quickly replaces biting, hitting, and screaming as children develop. To which I must say, thank fuck for that.

Thanks, Trevor!

Comments

  1. Byrne has misunderstood the “Child’s Garden of Curses” paper (available here).

    aged one to two, boys know six swearwords on average, while girls know eight

    No: seven researchers, listening out for a full year, overheard in total six different “swearwords” from one- to two-year old boys, and eight from one- to two-year-old girls. So that’s how many different “swearwords” this population produced altogether in a year. Since they weren’t tracking individual kids, the study doesn’t tell us (or claim to tell us) what the size of the average child’s taboo lexicon is. But considering many normally developing one-year-olds have a productive vocabulary of zero, an average vocab of six or eight “swearwords” would seem, well, a bit high in the 1 to 2 bracket. Still, it depends partly on what you’re counting – and their list of “swearwords” includes poop(y) (the commonest by a distance – heard 11 times), stupid (second place with five utterances), butt (joint third with four), (oh my) god (two), and bad (one). Fuck and shit were heard four times each in this age group, and bitch once.

    Among three- to four-year-olds, girls still outstrip boys, cursing on average 140 times while they were being observed, while boys recorded a mere 99 rude words.

    These aren’t averages per individual, they’re aggregated counts, the total number of swear-tokens recorded from three/four-year-olds in the course of a year. And because the data wasn’t individuated, we have no idea of how those tokens are distributed across individual children. There might have been a small number of sweary kids who contributed disproportionately to the corpus.

    My bet would be that there’s considerable variation in childhood swearing, with many kids swearing rarely or never. And Byrne’s advice to parents – e.g., go ahead and swear at other road-users, and never mind the kids – should be taken with a grain of salt.

  2. David Eddyshaw says:

    The article simply states as if it were accepted fact

    chimpanzees that learn sign language invent their own scatological swearing as soon as they’re potty trained.

    It links to a book by Emma Byrne herself, which doesn’t, as far as I can see, adequately justify this rather startling piece of overinterpretation (not to say anthropomorphism.)

    The words “chimpanzees that learn sign language” are enough by themselves to tell you that we’re not in Kansas any more.

  3. Graham Asher says:

    ‘I am slightly worried that she will grow up believing that the correct terminology for a turn signal is “fucking indicate”, but that should make driving lessons fun’ … er, no. Emma Byrne should learn some self restraint, which is one of attributes of a civilised person. I tried (with reasonable success) not to swear in front of my children when they were young, and I believe that was a good thing to do. They learnt to swear from their peers, of course.

    I haven’t read the Daily Mail article, but Byrne’s sneering attitude (‘pearl clutching’, ‘faux outrage’), not to mention her reliance on tired cliché, makes me feel rather sympathetic to it.

  4. David Eddyshaw says:

    They learnt to swear from their peers, of course.

    Just as it should be. My children would only make themselves ridiculous in the eyes of their contemporaries if they swore like me.

    My own father actually has been heard to say “By Jove!” (and not in any namby-pamby postmodern ironic way, either.)

  5. David Eddyshaw says:

    Conquering a natural aversion to giving a click to the vile online Mail (it’s OK, I did it via Tor, my ISP will never know), I have read the article. The headline is classic clickbait, but the actual article is far from the foaming-at-the-mouth stuff you would expect from what Byrne says. I don’t think their heart was really in it.

  6. Heh. I deliberately left out the link to the Daily Fail that was in the original, because I didn’t want to drive any traffic their way.

  7. David Marjanović says:

    No: seven researchers, listening out for a full year, overheard in total six different “swearwords” from one- to two-year old boys, and eight from one- to two-year-old girls. So that’s how many different “swearwords” this population produced altogether in a year.

    Ah. I was wondering.

  8. My daughter believes that we shouldn’t swear in front of my grandson, and consequently so does my grandson (now nine): “You shouldn’t say shit when I’m here, Grampa”, he says reproachfully. But I and his grandma say fuck and shit all the time anyway when we are angry enough, whether he is around or not. Here’s another tale of Dorian and polycontextuality.

    By the way, I wish people would stop talking about “clickbait headlines”; headlines have always been clickbait, in the sense of “something short intended to get you to read the main story”, since their invention in about 1898. (Before that, they were captions, typically NPs, that gave you the backgrounded topic of the story.)

  9. David Eddyshaw says:

    “Clickbait” in this context is simply short for “merely clickbait.”

  10. Also for “misleading clickbait”.

  11. I wonder, is there a swearword treadmill. As more and more classic taboo words become part of the normal informal speech, do the new words arise that you shouldn’t say if you want to keep yourself out of hell or something?

  12. David Eddyshaw says:

    The opposite is also possible. The classical verb for “marry” has come down in the world rather a lot in Modern Greek, for example.

    French is a good example of the treadmill you hypothesise, though: foutre is now pretty mild, and you have to say niquer to épater les bourgeois.

    The Russians, on the other hand, believe in continuity in these matters. The testimony of a Czech colleague suggests this is Pan-Slavic.

  13. The opposite is also possible. The classical verb for “marry” has come down in the world rather a lot in Modern Greek, for example.

    As indeed has the verb for “kiss” in French.

  14. And other words have gone from mildly insulting to extremely insulting; “bitch” as an insult meaning an unpleasant woman was relatively mild in the 1920s.

  15. David Eddyshaw says:

    This

    https://www.timeshighereducation.com/features/culture/it-wasnt-all-nasty-brutish-and-short/2017639.article

    which I think I came across via previous LH discussion of this evergreen topic, points out that the ancestors of “shit”, “turd”, “bollock” and “arse”, though “Anglo-Saxon” indeed, unlike (apparently) our most treasured four-letter words, weren’t actually obscene in Old English, so, like French kissing and Greek marrying, they too have come down in the world, if not quite so drastically.

    This seems to relate to the fact that different human cultures are obscene in different ways, a fact which surely further undermines Byrne’s implausible biological determinism. Signing chimpanzees, indeed! A pity to see a perfectly good thesis undermined by bad arguments in its favour.

  16. David Marjanović says:

    The Russians, on the other hand, believe in continuity in these matters. The testimony of a Czech colleague suggests this is Pan-Slavic.

    Fuck yeah.

  17. Wow, that’s a great comment thread.

  18. David Eddyshaw says:

    @David M:

    That is most illuminating. The locus classicus, as it were. I hadn’t thought of a connexion with οἴφω.

    Incidentally, in an incontrovertible demonstration of the validity of Ruhlen’s Proto-Sapiens, I can reveal that (ehem) “have carnal knowledge of a woman” in the Western Oti-Volta language Talni is nyɛb [jɛ̃b].

  19. David Eddyshaw says:

    (I was going to suggest that the striking coincidence of form and meaning might be attributable to onomatopoeia, but it struck me that that might be … too much information?)

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