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5 Examples of Taboo Language From Around the World

What is taboo language? Sometimes, politeness is as much about what you don’t say as it is about what you do say.  Swearing is part of that –  even today, when those “7 dirty words” have become a lot less dirty, there are still plenty of situations where you’d want to avoid using them. But swearing isn’t the whole story. “Language taboos,” words people aren’t allowed to say, are common to many cultures, both ancient and contemporary. Here are 5 examples of taboo language from around the world. Some of them may surprise you!

Taboo Language: When Your Mother-In-Law Is “She Who Cannot Be Named”

“Mother-in-Law” jokes were once a staple in Western comedy. You might not get along with your in-laws, but what if you literally had to treat them like Voldemort? An entire category of joke would have never existed!

Some cultures follow a practice called “avoidance speech,” where it is forbidden to say your mother-in-law or father-in-law’s name.  The details of this taboo vary by specific culture. The taboos most commonly affect daughters-in-law, and they don’t always stop with just names. For example, consider the Kambaata language of Ethiopia.  As Bryant Rousseau explains in the New York Times,

Some married women who speak the Kambaata language of Ethiopia follow ballishsha, a rule that forbids them from using words that begin with the same syllable as the name of their father-in-law or mother-in-law.

This rule can complicate a conversation, but there are workarounds. Certain basic words in the vocabulary come in synonymous pairs. “One is the normal term, used by everybody; one is the term used by women who are not allowed to say that word,” said Yvonne Treis, a linguist at a French research institute, Languages and Cultures of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Some languages also have rules about which words you can use in the presence of your in-laws. And in some Australian aboriginal cultures, men aren’t even allowed to speak to their mothers-in-law. Which might sound like a relief, until you realize how much it would complicate family gatherings. Read more