Here at ITL we are fascinated with languages, and how they work. In today’s blog we wanted to talk about an interesting phenomenon known as ‘taboo deformations’. This refers to the process of transforming a word that is taboo into something else less inflammatory. Although you might not have heard of the name for this particular phenomenon before, it is actually widespread across all languages, found commonly with holy names, or swear words. For example, using ‘gosh’ instead of ‘God’, or ‘jeez’ instead of ‘Jesus’.

A very interesting example of taboo deformation is the word ‘bear’. ‘Bear’ is not the true name for the creature. In fact, in proto-indo-european (PIE), the hypothesized base language for a number of languages including English, French, Hindi and Russian, linguists have reconstructed the word for bear as *rktho-, *rkto-, *rkso-, or *rtko- (* indicates hypothetical reconstruction). The bear was the most dangerous animal in the northern areas where proto-indo-european was spoken. Linguists theorise that people at this time were so afraid of bears that they didn’t want to refer to them directly, in case speaking their name caused them to appear. Because of this taboo, the original PIE word began to be displaced.

The word couldn’t be changed completely, or it would not be possible to communicate what you were trying to say. Instead, the PIE word was replaced in different cultures by descriptions of the bear, so it was possible to talk about the animal, without saying the taboo word. In Slavic languages the word was displaced by a compound meaning ‘the honey eater’, (Russian & Czech: Medved), in Baltic languages the PIE word was displaced by derivatives meaning ‘one who licks’ ( Lithuanian: lokys) ,and in Germanic languages by an adjective meaning ‘brown’ (German: Bär).

Interestingly, not everyone was afraid of bears, so in some languages the true name of the bear was able to evolve in a normal fashion, with quite minor changes. For example, the Greek name was ‘arktos’, the Latin ‘ursos’, and today in French it is ‘ours’ and Spanish its ‘oso’. The bear was not as much of a threat in the warmer climates of the Romance language speakers, so the name was not a taboo to be avoided.

What other taboo defomation words can you think of? Let us know on our social media pages! 



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