language taboo research
“There is no language community without taboos”

Auch in unserer heutigen Gesellschaft gibt es Tabus.
Auch in unserer heutigen Gesellschaft gibt es Tabus. | © triocean -

How do language taboos arise? What do they say about our society? And how can we avoid behaving impossibly in a strange culture? Professor Andreas Musolff of the University of East Anglia in Norwich explains.

Mr Musolff, “Taboo” doesn’t sound like a typical German word. What is the origin of the term?

The word “taboo” was brought back from the expeditions of the eighteenth century and introduced into the English and German languages by people like Captain Cook and Adalbert von Chamisso. It was used in one of the languages of the South Sea Islands and designated certain prohibitions ascribed to religion: these prohibitions regulated, for example, who was allowed to sit with whom, who was allowed to touch whom, who was allowed to eat what and that the names of holy persons and gods were forbidden to be pronounced. In the Western world taboo was initially investigated as a form of superstition, and then as an interesting, exotic phenomenon. Later the term was adopted in the common parlance. And today we know there are taboos in all societies – some of a religious nature (the naming of God’s name, for example, is rigorously regulated in Orthodox Judaism), some having to do with other issues such as sexuality, excrement, death and social hierarchies.

Political and social taboos

What is the role of linguistic taboos in our society today, which rather aims at getting rid of taboos?

Since the Enlightenment, people have been trying to portray themselves as more developed and cultivated by saying that they break taboos or have fewer taboos than other people. This is often nothing more than a rhetorical trick – for example, when politicians present themselves on talk shows as taboo breakers. Our society too has its taboos, which we handle more or less subtly or ingeniously – for instance, under the heading of “political correctness”. Consider, as another example, that the military mission in Afghanistan a few years ago was not allowed, under any circumstances, to be called a war. Politicians in the Bundestag had an almost magical, obsessive fear of the reactions that the word “war” could trigger in the public. They therefore spoke rather of a “policing action”, of “reconstruction measures” or of “peace assistance”. And another example: when an editor of a left-wing newspaper wrote of a concert that the hall was gaskammervoll, that is, as full as a gas chamber, he was unceremoniously sacked. This sort of pseudo-humorous reference to the Holocaust is rightly looked upon as inadmissible.

So, while old language taboos are falling away, quite new ones are arising. What do these taboos say about our society?

Language here is a mirror of society. These taboos concern social rules that are more or less constitutive of society and are therefore deemed to be important. When they arise, we develop terms in language so as to use a wide variety of words in a wide variety of situations for a certain taboo subjects. Thus, for example, the word geil has gone through some remarkable changes: it already had various meanings before it came to be used as a taboo word for sexual arousal about fifty to a hundred years ago. Then, because social conditions again changed, the word took on a new meaning by becoming a synonym for super or toll (i.e., great). As such, it has been established in the language of young people for thirty years now. Today nobody cares two hoots if the word geil is used.

You can certainly avoid breaking taboos

So taboos are a mirror of society. That explains why there are different language taboos in different language groups and cultures …

Yes, and there are countless examples of this. When in German, for example, I refrain from using the polite forms of address such as Sie [the formal “you”], this can lead to my being de facto excluded from certain social circles. In English usage, on the other hand, this plays no role whatsoever and, unlike in German, first names are also used more frequently in formal situations. All codes of politeness are culturally conditioned and can be seen as precautionary measures against violation of taboos. Another example: in German you can perfectly well say of someone that he “ist gestorben”. In English, on the other hand, the literal translation of this, “he died”, would be looked upon as offensive, and so one says instead something like “he passed away”. This is easy to understand for Germans because the subjects of dying and death are also hedged about by taboos here: in most cases people would find it insulting if someone said he had “ins Gras gebissen” [bit the dust] or “verreckt” [kicked the bucket].

How should we handle our own and others’ taboos in inter-cultural contact situations?

There are so many possibilities of breaking taboos that no one can predict them one hundred per cent. But if you have certain information, you can certainly avoid breaking taboos. For example, many Europeans have difficulties correctly pronouncing Chinese first names and produce instead, quite unawares, a word that in Chinese has a grotesque or insulting meaning. My Chinese students in Great Britain tell me that, in order to avoid such involuntary taboos violations, they give themselves English substitute names. Similarly, you can also avoid certain subjects so that a possible breaking of a taboo is no longer relevant at all: if I don’t want to hurt the feelings of my interlocutor, I wouldn’t discuss with a convinced Catholic the Virgin Birth of Mary. Learners of a foreign language, as also translators, should get to know not only the language but also the socio-cultural rules of usage in the target region. Otherwise inadvertent violations of taboos are unavoidable.