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Wednesday, 7 December 2011



Add a pinch of secret ingredient

One of the most graphical illustrations of the power of swearwords is undoubtedly the scene in The Crab with the Golden Claws where Tintin and Captain Haddock find themselves surrounded by armed Arab bandits in the desert. After Captain Haddock's bottle of whiskey is shot to pieces by the assailants, he becomes so enraged that he recklessly charges them, ignoring the bullets, waving his gun above his head, and releasing an unbroken torrent of swearwords in his mother tongue. As the book is aimed at children, the actual words are rather harmless, the most famous expression being 'mille milliards de mille sabords', translated into English as 'billions of blue blistering barnacles'. It is unclear whether the bandits understand French, but the swearwords are so powerful that they somehow get the message and flee into the desert. Whether words really have more power than bullets remains to be seen, but it is true that some swearwords and taboo words are the verbal equivalent of nitro glycerine.

The word taboo was originally used by the speakers of Tongan, living in the southern part of the Pacific Ocean to refer to persons, things and activities (including speech) that were sacred, forbidden or should be paid much attention to. Violation of taboo may result in various kinds of punishment, including death.

This phenomenon is not unique in Tonga, but exists widely in almost every culture throughout the world, ranging from personal to social life. It is also manifested in language: persons, things and activities that are tabooed should not be talked about or should be mentioned in a roundabout way in language. Words and expressions related to these social taboos are linguistic taboos.

Numerous studies have shown that language and its use are deeply rooted in the particular social and cultural milieu. It is impossible to understand language comprehensively without considering the context of culture and the context of communication in which language is used. Linguistic taboo is not only a linguistic phenomenon but also a social phenomenon.

Like other parts of language, it can reflect the social norms and the culturally accepted values and beliefs of a particular culture on the one hand, and its use is largely constrained by them on the other.

In communication, people from the same culture usually avoid using linguistic taboos spontaneously in order not to offend others. Due to their sensitive nature, they have long been put aside in the study of language. Few records can be found in the authoritative documents of linguistics and noble linguists also would not like to discuss them.

As a researcher on translation, I have found many instances that some translators have shown some reluctance in translating English words like 'whore' into it's natural Sinhalese term as it is a strong taboo word in Sinhalese. Instead they 'reduce' it to an equivalent of 'bitch'. Women particularly prefer to avoid taboos even though they are contextually relevant in their writings.

In foreign language teaching, both teachers and students are reluctant to mention them. But linguistic taboos, as an integral part of language, are closely related to social taboos. They have their own positive functions. They can reflect the change and the development of human society and the values and beliefs of the culture in which they were born. However, different cultures may not all agree on what is or is not taboo in a given context.

Lack of knowledge in this part of language or improper use of them may lead to misunderstandings, conflicts and other unknown serious consequences in intercultural communication, which is increasingly frequent and wide now.

Taboo, I must say, the secret ingredient of human language.



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