The Current

Cognitive scientist celebrates profanity, argues swearing a primal skill

Comedian George Carlin's famous "seven dirty words" may be over 40-years-old but the taboo around swearing continues to persist, especially around children. But some studies suggest swearing can't hurt, so stop feeling guilty.
Linguist Benjamin Bergen argues swearing in front of kids is not a problem because neuroscience reveals swearing is a pre-lingual, primal skill and there is no evidence that it hurts children to hear profanity. (Ivan Alvarado/Reuters)

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It has been more than 40 years since American comedian George Carlin immortalized the "seven dirty words" one can't say on TV, and most of them are still taboo on the airwaves. 

But in everyday conversation, social attitudes have changed, professor of cognitive science Benjamin Bergen tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

For starters, he suggests, just look at the first word in Carlin's list. 

The F-word isn't even in the top-10 most offensive words of English anymore according to young American adults, says Bergen, author of What the F: What Swearing Reveals About our Language, our Brains, and Ourselves.

Swear words, he explains are little more than words that we all agree to react to in a certain way. And we all learn that from a young age. 

"We're creating bad words in the minds of our children exactly by our reaction to them," he says. 

Bergen has a young son, and tells Tremonti in his own home "run-of-the-mill" swearing is an everyday occurrence. But he draws a distinction between swearing when you stub your toe and using abusive language meant to cause harm.

The important thing, Bergen says, is to make sure kids understand that swear words may carry negative consequences when used in certain ways. 

Dr. Michael Yogman at the American Academy of Pediatrics says while it's difficult to measure the effects of parents swearing around their children, he doesn't recommend it. 

"We know that learning to talk civilly with children really helps their social relations later on," says Yogman. 

"And I think that we've got far too much anger and hate speech and bullying in our culture right now."

But Bergen counters swear words aren't what makes hate speech hateful. 

"The main possible consequence of using profanity around the home — not verbal abuse, not slurs — is that children might learn that their parents use these words," says Bergen.

"I think it's actually giving children too little credit to say that they can't learn that there are different behaviours appropriate for different contexts." 

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Kristin Nelson.