I’m interested in looking at taboo language usage in different Englishes from around the world.
For this analysis, I’m going to use the GloWbE corpus, which can be found at:
The corpus of Global Web-based English contains about 1.9 billion words from texts from twenty different English-speaking countries. The corpus allows you to carry out comparisons between different varieties of English from around the world.
Taboo language refers to words or phrases that are generally considered inappropriate in certain contexts. In every society, there are things which are believed to be inappropriate if spoken or written in public domains. I want to look at a variety of taboo language in differing cultural settings from around the world. People from different cultural backgrounds use language in unique ways.
Taboo language can be divided into various categories, but at the moment, I’ll look at three:
- Words that are concerned with sex and excretion, such as fuck, shit and bugger.
- Words that are related to religion, such as Christ and Jesus.
- Words that are related to animals such as bitch and cow.
Firstly, I want to look at the word fuck. This word can be used in many forms and functions, but for now I’ll just focus on the single word fuck. I’ll use the GloWbE data to look at frequencies of this usage in different countries.
The chart shows the frequency of usage, but as each corpus is of a different size, it’s also important to look at the words per million figure. From the chart it can be seen that the United States, Great Britain and Jamaica have the greatest frequency and Ghana, Bangladesh and Pakistan the least.
Next, I’ll look at taboo words related to religion. Of the many possible words and phrases, I’ll look at the phrase Oh, Christ!
This is quite interesting. The United States, which had the highest usage of fuck, has a much lower usage of this blasphemous taboo phrase in comparison to Great Britain, Ireland and Australia. Quite a few countries have no examples of this phrase, the majority of which are countries without a strong Christian culture, so this may be expected.
Next I’ll show the data of bitch:
So again, the United States appears to use this phrase the most frequently. What’s interesting is that Singapore and the Philippines have a high frequency usage of this word. Again, Ghana, Bangladesh and Pakistan have the lowest levels of frequency/million usage.
The last word I’ll look at to try to show a pattern in taboo word usage is shit.
So again, American appear to have the greatest frequency of this taboo word followed by Australia and Great Britain. The countries with the smallest frequencies of this are Pakistan and Bangladesh.
The data appears to be quite clear. Taboo language usage is much more prevalent in the United States, and much less so in countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh. What’s the significance of this? Does is mean that American’s are the rudest people on the planet and Bangladeshis and Pakistanis the most polite? Well, probably not! I would argue that it is more related to notions of politeness / impoliteness and possibly the value has towards face and the preservation of face for oneself and others.
I did find it interesting though that Americans have the highest usage of all taboo words that I looked at until blasphemous taboo words were search, which demonstrates how culture is very closely related to politeness / impoliteness.