Stanley H. Brandes
The anthropological approach to taboo words and language begins with an understanding and acceptance of cultural relativity. Anthropologists are keenly aware that everyday speech that might be perfectly decorous in one society is often laughable or, in extreme cases, scandalous in another. Anthropologists also identify taboo words and language by popular responses to their utterance. According to anthropological definitions, tabooed behavior—be it verbal or otherwise—must be negatively sanctioned. Sometimes sanctions take the form of public rebuke. At other times they are expressed through collective scorn or ostracism. This essay explores these ideas with ethnographic examples chosen from the closely related fields of cultural anthropology and folklore. Supporting material comes from a variety of societies located in sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, Latin America, and—within the United States—Native America and African America. The author analyses nicknaming, verbal dueling, and various types of joking relationships, among other speech forms, as anthropologically prominent forms of tabooed language.
Though most approaches to lexical semantics have shown little interest in cultural aspects of meaning, the subject holds intense interest for adjacent disciplines such as anthropology, cultural history, literary studies, and translation studies, as well for the general public. The chapter reviews different ways in which word meanings can be ‘culturally laden’, starting with cultural key words, i.e. intense focal points of cultural meaning, typically untranslatable, by normal means, into other languages. Words can also be culturally important in less dramatic fashion. The chapter reviews examples from various abstract and concrete domains, stressing that cultural themes are oftentimes conveyed by a suite of related, mutually reinforcing words. The chief methodological challenges in this arena are how to capture subtleties of meaning with precision, while avoiding the danger of conceptual Anglocentrism creeping into the description. The chapter demonstrates how the Natural Semantic Metalanguage (NSM) approach deals with this challenge.