Kids’ language has been on my mind this week. For the past few days, when I haven’t been working, I’ve been hanging out with my 14-month-old grandson, who’s just learning to talk.
His lexicon is rather limited, of course, to familiar objects (“cat”) and simple statements of emotion (“uh-oh”) and direction (“down”).
I haven’t heard a single swear word from his innocent little lips … yet.
For who knows what words he’ll be spouting in just a few years? Or months? According to research presented earlier this month at the Sociolinguistics Symposium in Britain, kids are learning to use profanity (yes, including the f-word) at an earlier age than 30 years ago — in fact, often as early as age 2. And they’re using the words more often than in the past.
Ages 3 and 4 are when such usage really takes off, reports Timothy Jay, a psychology professor at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and “world-renowned expert in cursing.” (He must be an interesting dinner guest.) But don’t go blaming television. The rise in kids’ potty-mouth habits can be traced right back to their parents, Jay told the Montreal Gazette.
Two-thirds of parents who have rules against their children swearing, he said, will themselves swear at home.
Our children are “little vacuums” when it comes to language, he added. “As soon as kids can speak, they’re using swear words. That doesn’t mean they know what adults know, but they do repeat the words they hear.”
It’s no great psychological mystery why adults swear. “People need special words to convey emotion, which is, by nature, ineffable,” wrote Georgetown University linguistics professor Deborah Tannen in the New York Times earlier this year. “For those who use them, swear words are linked to emotion in a visceral way. People who speak more than one language report that they always curse in their native tongue; they can say swear words in a second language but they don’t feel them — the gut link to emotions just isn’t there.”
And, as I’ve reported here, cursing may actually help alleviate physical pain.
It may seem like people are swearing more these days, but the experts say we’re not. We’re only doing it more in public. “[W]e hear more and more examples of cursing in public — sometimes to re-create private conversation, as in fiction or on TV, and sometimes, as with [the microphone-caught f-word bomb that Vice President Joe Biden whispered to President Obama earlier this year], because of technology,” explained Tannen. “Whatever the reason, the public airing of words once confined to private conversation is one of many ways that the barriers between public and private are crumbling, just as topics previously whispered only in private are now discussed publicly. We’re unlikely to sweep those topics back under the rug; the same is true of profanity.”
I guess that means we’re going to have to get used to toddlers swearing. Damn. Darn.