Philip Pullman has caused controversy with his newly published ‘La Belle Sauvage’, billed as a children’s book, which contains swearwords. Pullman himself admits that his books have a readership as young as seven, which means his choice of words has caused outrage amongst some readers.
However, neuroscientist Kristin Jay and psychologist Timothy Jay have conducted a study with children between the ages of one to twelve and found that, even aged one to two, boys know on average six swearwords, and girls know eight. Between the ages of three and four this increases, with girls cursing on average 140 times during observation, and boys 99 times. Boys gradually overtake girls by the time they reach their pre-teens, recoding 335 incidents of swearing as opposed to girls’ 112.
This research demonstrates that Pullman’s audience is familiar with swearing, but research also shows that learning how to swear is a crucial part of development. As with everything, children learn emotional expression through language through watching their parents and other adults, and therefore learn that swearing isn’t all negative, but can be used to show joy, surprise and fear. Thus children learn to understand others’ emotions (as well as their own) in a more nuanced way.
Psychology or linguistics applicants can explore further the way in which acquiring certain aspects of language is linked to emotional or social intelligence and development in children. Along with Biology applicants they might also look into how taboo and swearing is found across all languages, including when chimpanzees learn sign language and invent their own scatological swearing. English literature students can look into the nuanced and complex field of children’s literature (still a divisive area amongst academics) and the differing opinions on the content and language which should be used.