Verbal expression that affects the listener negatively.
The term "undesirable language" refers to words and grammar that: (a) are judged to have a negative impact on listeners or (b) cause listeners to make negative evaluative judgments about speakers. In common, everyday language "undesirable speech" is more specifically understood as speaking "dirty words" or "curse words." "Curse words" are an important aspect of emotional expression, but they create problems for children when they use them in the wrong context.
Undesirable speech encompasses words categorized as obscenity, profanity, blasphemy, name calling, vulgarity, epithets, insults, slang, sexual harassment, and verbal abuse. Undesirable words in American English tend to relate to sex (fuck), religion (hell), deviance (whore), body parts (prick), body products (piss), disgust items (pus), ethnic/racial/gender discrimination (nigger), cultural taboos (motherfucker), and animal imagery (cock).
Communicating with others is grounded in a set of standards regarding what is acceptable or not acceptable in public. Speech patterns vary according to national and local standards. National speech standards are exemplified by news reporters in electronic or print media and by speakers engaged in formal business interactions. Federal and state laws prohibit offensive speech, such as obscenity and harassment. Speakers also conform to regional dialect standards and community preferences for speech patterns and vocabulary. And finally at the local level, one's group affiliations (cliques, prestige groups, ingroups) further define preferred language.
Teachers and parents guide children to acquire conventional speech so that they will "sound educated" and have access to desirable jobs and social circles. Many parents worry that when their child curses, it reflects badly on them. Frequently, though, children use unconventional speech to rebel against authority figures or to identify with different reference groups that use slang, obscenity, or racist speech. In spite of teachers' and parents' pleas for conventional speech, cursing seems essential to many American adolescents to express their emotions.
Language, emotion, and context
Human communication is conducted through different levels of formality. Speech styles range from very informal to very formal. Undesirable speech is usually informal and nonstandard. The acceptability of cursing or emotional speech depends heavily on the context in which it appears. Informal speech is acceptable in informal contexts but not formal ones. One easily imagines emotional speech in heated playground arguments or in sexual situations. Not only is emotional speech acceptable to the speakers in sexual or aggressive contexts, the absence of emotional language in these situations would seem odd. On the other hand, such emotional language would not be acceptable in a classroom or public place.
It is not effective to divide words into two-level categories like good versus bad or naughty versus nice since all speech is contextual. Some gray areas exist between speech that seems clearly acceptable and that which seems clearly unacceptable. It is more effective to conceptualize speech as a three-category system. First, there is acceptable speech, which is standard or conventional speech like that used in media broadcasts. Acceptable speech will prove appropriate in most contexts. At the other end of the spectrum is unacceptable speech, which violates federal or state laws or community standards. Unacceptable speech includes sexual harassment, obscenity, fighting words, and discriminatory speech. The gray area is inappropriate speech, which includes language that can be offensive when used in the "wrong" context; for example, a young child gets angry and curses in his classroom. While his angry curse words might be appropriate with peers in a playground dispute, it is not appropriate in a classroom setting.
Why do children use offensive language?
Research on language acquisition indicates that the use of curse words is frequent and normal in childhood (see Berges, Neiderbach, Rubin, Sharpe & Tesler, 1983). Americans hear curse words on a daily basis and most use vulgarities in informal language. Most adults, though, do not view childhood cursing as appropriate.
Knowing why and when children curse allows adults to develop strategies to deal with cursing episodes. Cursing is more likely in certain predictable contexts. Offensive words are highly probable in sex talk, joking, storytelling, name calling, insulting, racial/gender discrimination, emotional expressions (surprise, anger, elation), to establish one's personal identity, and in acts of verbal aggression, bullying, and gang-related violence. Children will also curse to defend themselves in disputes.
While normal cursing is primarily under a speaker's voluntary control, compulsive cursing is not. Compulsive cursing, or coprolalia, is often the result of neurological conditions such as Tourette syndrome (TS), frontal lobe damage, epilepsy, schizophrenia, dementia, Alzheimer's disease, and mental retardation. Children and adolescents are common victims of TS, and one-third exhibit coprolalia.
American children encounter cursing in everyday life and in the popular media. Children's cursing is normal and undergoes predictable shifts with cognitive development, sexual development, and social interaction. Cursing evolves with a child's need to communicate thoughts and feelings. While American English has hundreds of words to express emotion, the cursing lexicon is small. The spoken cursing lexicon during childhood is about 20-30 words and expands to 50-60 words by adulthood (Jay, 1992). While some curse words are used frequently and consistently throughout a speaker's life (shit), other terms are more likely to only occur in childhood (fraidy cat, poo-poo head) and later fall from usage.
From a parenting perspective, one needs to understand how cursing is acquired and used in society. It would seem wise when examining and responding to any child's cursing to keep a few strategies in mind: figure out why the child is cursing, act in his best interest, help the child express emotions, be prepared to talk about matters of sexuality and language in general terms. Be prepared for cursing to evolve with development and help children learn the contexts where emotional expressions are appropriate.
Toddlers repeat single, offensive words when they first learn to speak, about the end of the first year. However, they are merely imitating what adults or siblings are saying around them. Ignoring cursing at this stage will extinguish it.
During the preschool period one can hear offensive language used to express humor, anger, or frustration, in temper tantrums, for attention seeking, and in taunting and name calling. Preschoolers pick up language habits at home and in school settings. Offensive words that are reinforced by peers, siblings, and adults will be repeated, generally. Gender differences in cursing are minimal; preschool boys and girls use roughly the same lexicon of curse words.
Behavior modification strategies such as reinforcing acceptable speech and ignoring or punishing unacceptable speech will control cursing episodes by preschoolers. Adults would want to be attentive to their own language and serve as good role models.
During elementary school, children's sense of humor, sense of self, emerging sexual awareness, joke telling, and story telling rituals are associated with undesirable speech. School-aged children are particularly fond of scatology (references to feces and elimination), talking about sex, and improving their sense of humor. Gender differences in speech rituals appear here (see Thome, 1993), with some becoming stable in adolescence. Girls use less offensive words and swear less frequently than boys. At this age most cursing is used to express anger and frustration. Adults can encourage children to adopt communication habits grounded in good character traits such as reason, respect, and responsibility. For example, name calling is hurtful to others not because a child used a "bad" word but because such names are disrespectful to others.
The use of undesirable speech reaches a peak in adolescence. Adolescents will experiment with identity, seek negative attention, rebel against authority figures, and question rules, boundaries, and social norms. Offensive humor becomes abstract, socially and politically. Conflicts with authority figures (parents, teachers, adults) and peers can produce cursing quite readily. Some teens undergoing stressful life events or identity crises (antisocial or deviant personalities) will use offensive speech to distance themselves from outsiders.
It is important to realize that many adult-adolescent conflicts arise as adolescents explore boundaries and personal identity. Teens have the ability to use and understand offensive language, but they need to see that using conventional language is instrumental in gaining access to jobs and social groups. Cursing in the wrong context can produce negative consequences, such as failing a job interview or losing a job. Adults can help teenagers by modeling good communication skills.
Other factors that influence speech
Children generally learn language through experience with local speakers. Negative role models, abusive adults or siblings, and neighborhood language norms directly affect one's lexicon. Popular culture and media (television, film, radio, music) are also involved.
Ample anecdotal evidence suggests that today's children are using offensive language more frequently than ever before, but so are adults. This is a reflection of social changes such as: changing media standards, increasing acceptance of sexuality and sexual expression, decreased influence of organized religion, changing roles for women and the family, relaxing styles of dress and etiquette, increasing daily stress, increasing anonymity, and decreasing sense of community responsibility. Cursing has evolved as an aspect of human emotional expression. Adults can help children by being open about matters of sexuality and language by teaching them about the contexts where such emotional expressions are appropriate.
Berges, E., S. Neiderbach, B. Rubin, E. Sharpe, R. Tesler. Children and Sex: The Parents Speak. New York, NY: Facts on File, 1983.
Jay, T. B. Cursing in America. Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins Pub. Co., 1992.
——. What to Do When Your Students Talk Dirty. San Jose, CA: Resource Publications, Inc., 1996.
——. What to Do When Your Kids Talk Dirty. San Jose, CA: Resource Publications, Inc., 1997.
Thorne, B. Gender Play: Girls and Boys in School. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1993.
North Adams State University