Editor’s note: This is an adapted excerpt from What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves, by Benjamin K. Bergen. Copyright © 2016. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, a division of PBG Publishing, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
In the late 1970s, University of California, Los Angeles, anthropologist Elinor Ochs recorded arguably the most surprising discovery ever made about how children acquire their first words, and she did it in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Ochs was conducting research in Samoa, looking at how people there interact and use language. She spent time with locals, observing their daily routines and asking about their experiences. One question she asked mothers was what their child’s first word was. She doubtless expected something along the lines of patterns we’re familiar with from English and many other languages: names of (human or animal) members of the household or other nouns for common objects, like ball or bottle (or, as a British survey found, beer). She probably also expected a lot of variability. While over half of English-speaking kids do produce a name for a caregiver first, the distribution has a long tail.
But when Ochs asked the mothers in the families she was working with about their children’s first words, she got a completely unexpected response. Every single one of them reported the very same word. It did happen to be a noun, but it was a special one, used in a very specific way. It was the word tae, which, as suggested earlier, doesn’t mean “mommy” or “daddy.” It means “shit.” More precisely, it’s an abbreviation of the Samoan expression ‘ai tae, which means “Eat shit.”
This startling fact turns what we thought we knew about children’s first words on its head. It means that a child’s first word is determined by more than just his or her internal values. Obviously, the children in these families didn’t value telling people Eat shit more than they valued their caregivers. No, something else must have been going on. As we’ll see, nothing reveals better where first words come from and what they mean than the story of these particular Samoan children and their little potty mouths.
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Why was shit the first word these children said? Let’s look first at the environment. Perhaps this word happened to be particularly frequent in the ambient language that the child was exposed to. Children, of course, are linguistic sponges during their second year of life. It’s reasonable to presume that these Samoan children were telling people to ‘ai tae because their parents were casually tossing the expression about as well.
But when Ochs asked the Samoan mothers, they rejected outright the idea that they could be the sources. They reported embarrassment that their kids were using words that the mothers themselves shied away from. And even if we retain some lingering suspicion—perhaps the mothers simply weren’t aware of what they were saying or were embarrassed to admit it to some strange woman from California or perhaps the fathers were the culprits—the story still seems unlikely. Imagine how many factors would have to line up. A derogatory epithet like ‘ai tae would have to populate the parent’s speech with such overwhelming frequency that it would take pole position in the child’s vocabulary ahead of other words denoting familiar people, objects, actions, or events. And this would have to be the case for every parent in every family. That’s the type of parental behavior a careful anthropologist like Ochs would have noticed.
Perhaps the children were learning this word from some other source in the environment. This is of course a common complaint among parents—you don’t have to travel to Samoa to find parents asking where a child learned to say something vulgar. Often the answer is other kids.
Again, on the surface, it looks likely. These young Samoan children interacted with other children a lot. Most American children spend the majority of their time in the care of adults—parents, older relatives, nannies, babysitters, or teachers. But in the families Ochs observed, parents primarily cared for only very young infants. After a certain period, they recruited their older children to take over the infants’ primary care. So a one-year-old might be supervised distantly by a mother and more closely by a six-year-old. Children were taking care of children.
It’s not hard to imagine six-year-olds telling each other and their infant charges to ‘ai tae—especially if that was the child caregiver’s own first word!
Developmental psychologists Paul and Lois Bloom encountered one very clear example of this when they conducted a little experiment on their own children. They wanted to see if they could trick their kids into not swearing by surreptitiously training them to use a made-up curse word. Thus began the short and underachieving life of the pseudo-swearword flep. When one of the elder Blooms stubbed a toe, flep! Broken dish? Flep! Another red light? Flep! As Paul Bloom reports, however, it was a total failure. Whenever the Blooms cried out flep! their kids looked at them like they were out of their flepping minds.
Once they reach a certain age, kids actually learn most of their language from peers and older children, and they do a very good job of ignoring what they hear from their parents. Profanity is especially likely to be learned from peers, not only because it’s more likely to be said on the playground than at the dinner table but also because of what kids use it for. Profanity is different from mama and bottle and other words that kids learn from their parents in that children use it as a way to show who they are—to forge their own identity. And for most kids, a lot of their identity is wrapped up in their relations with their peers.
But like parental swearing, kids raising kids doesn’t provide a satisfactory explanation for the case of Samoan ‘ai tae. For one thing, getting the kind of consistency that Ochs observed would require an organized effort on the part of the child caregivers. Consider that merely 63 percent of British children reportedly say a variant of mom or dad first, despite the impassioned full court press that their parents apply. Certainly juvenile caregivers couldn’t pull something so extensive off with ‘ai tae, with or without malice aforethought.
In sum, environmental factors—the way people speak around kids—seem like a red herring. There must be another explanation for Samoan tae.
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If ambient words alone didn’t lead these children, across the board, to say tae as their first word, then perhaps the cause has to do less with what the children hear than with what they’re able to articulate. Learning to speak is hard. Maybe tae is just easy for a one-year-old to pronounce.
Again, there’s a lot to recommend this explanation for the tae mystery. Suppose you’re a year old, and you’re about ready to pronounce your first word. People around you are flapping their lips, and sounds are coming out—in English, say, or Samoan—and you think this seems like an activity you could get into. But you have a lot to figure out. For one thing, you don’t know what the important sounds are—which differences are worth paying attention to. The first sound of tuck seems different from the first sound of truck (the latter sounds more like what we’d spell as ch). Is that important enough that you need to pronounce them differently? Furthermore, you can’t see much of what’s going on when people pronounce words because lips and skin hide from view most of the vocal tract. So you have to figure out what to move when via inference and trial-and-error exploration of your own vocal tract. And finally, learning to articulate words is hard because even if you knew which sounds were important and how to produce them, you’d still have to put in the work of actually training yourself to pronounce them. As a consequence, kids systematically struggle to pronounce words early on.
The kids-say-tae-because-it’s-easy-to-articulate story also assumes that not all sounds are equally hard to pronounce. This is also true. Some sounds come more naturally to young children than others. By about six months, infants enter a developmental stage during which they babble—producing nonsense sounds and sequences of sounds, like dadada or bidubidubidu. And the particular sounds they articulate are remarkably consistent, not only within but across cultures and languages. As far as consonants go, the ones you typically find in babbling include m, n, b, and d, and these are often followed by p, h, f, t, k, g, f, and w. As for vowels, across languages, children seem to be more proficient early on with vowels that you might transcribe as ee, ey, uh, and ah.
Nevertheless, early speech sounds—at least in hearing infants—are relatively predictable. And so are the syllables that children assemble those sounds into. Syllables are the rhythmic units that structure words. And they aren’t all equally easy for children. In the simplest terms, you can think of any syllable as structured around one vowel and optionally one or more consonants that precede and/or follow it. So if we write out consonant and vowel sounds as C and V respectively, the simplest syllable is a V syllable, like the words a or I. Children are pretty good at V syllables. They’re even decent at VC syllables, like it and up. But early on, they seem to prefer CV syllables, which are in evidence in words like mama and dada, each of which just repeats a single CV syllable twice.
So we’ve established that learning to pronounce speech sounds is hard, but not uniformly so. Could it be that tae just happens to be assembled from easy, typically early sounds?
To answer this, we need to break down the word. The t seems like a good candidate for early children’s speech. But it’s not pronounced how you think it is. Spelling can be deceiving. Samoan words spelled with t are only pronounced like the English t in formal speech. In informal registers—for instance, when telling someone to ‘ai tae—it’s pronounced like k. So the word begins with k, a sound that children around the globe are a little slow to master. K doesn’t usually come online until after m, n, b, and d. Then comes the ae. This is a diphthong. You should be familiar with diphthongs from English, which has a lot of them. They’re just vowels that start in one part of the mouth and end somewhere else. The diphthong in tae is similar to the vowel of night, but it ends with the mouth a little wider open. The upshot is that it’s a complicated sound. Not exactly what you’d expect in a first word.
In sum, tae seems like it would be moderately challenging for a child to pronounce. The t—that is, the k sound—is not well represented among children’s earliest sounds, although it does come along soon after. The diphthong vowel itself would not be easy. So it’s a stretch to think that children would regularly articulate precisely tae as part of their exploration of speech sounds. And even if they did, this would still be only one of many syllables they’d be articulating and typically not among their first.
So the question remains, why is this rare, somewhat challenging syllable interpreted as the Samoan child’s first word? The answer will bring us back to the parents. Although we originally exonerated the parents for tae, at least in modeling behavior, we have to return to them now to understand why, in the face of a flood of word candidates during babbling and then single syllables, they interpret this particular sound as their child’s first word.
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Suppose that children across the world and across languages produce largely similar patterns of sounds through babbling and early word attempts, modulo some influence of the ambient native language. In that case, several factors will determine what a caregiver counts as a child’s first word. Not least of these are, of course, the words of the caregiver’s language. If your child produces something that sounds like dada and your language has a word that sounds something like that, then there’s a chance you’ll interpret it as that word.
But perhaps more important are your expectations about what sorts of words a child is likely to say. If a child says something like dada, a caregiver could interpret that as an approximation of dada or daddy. But because infants’ word-like vocalizations at around one year don’t quite use the specific sounds of the language around them, it might sound less like the father label dada and more like Dada, the European avant-garde art movement of the early twentieth century that’s pronounced slightly differently. The same vocalization might sound a lot or even more like dawdle or ta-ta or duh-duh. A caregiver might assume that this ambiguous sequence of sounds is an incipient approximation of dada in part due to the belief that a one-year-old will have no particular interest in or knowledge of Dadaism or dawdling. No, the caregiver presumes that the child is interested in Dad.
The explanation isn’t sound symbolism: mothers don’t sound more or less like m or n than any other thing that a word could name. It’s also not due to some sort of linguistic founder effect, whereby the words used by humans 100,000 years ago have persevered to this day. That would be impossible.
No, the languages of the world have mama– and papa-like words because parents hear what they want to hear.
Influential linguist Roman Jakobson—an exile of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia who founded the influential Linguistics Circle of Prague in the early twentieth century before he was again exiled during World War II and found his way to a chair at Yale—explained this better than anyone has since. Parents, he argued, have expectations about what their children will say, and they specifically expect that their children will talk about them. Since mothers throughout history—for biological and cultural reasons—have tended to spend more time with infants than fathers, they’ve often been the closest on hand to deploy that assumption, and as children most commonly produce something like mama before dada or papa, mama gets interpreted as referring to the mother.
But parents go farther. They don’t just categorize what the child says as an instance of an existing word; they frequently repeat, reuse, and reinforce it. Adults come in this way to adopt changes originated by children that the caregivers interpret as meaning specific things. As a consequence, the language changes.
This explains why so many languages have such similar words for mothers and fathers. And it also explains why, even when they’re dissimilar, words for mothers and fathers are simple for children to pronounce.
And so, with that in mind, we can return to Samoa. Samoan does have words for mother and father, tina and tama, respectively (pronounced kina and kama). But Ochs’s study reported neither of these as a child’s first word. That, of course, was tae. So why doesn’t Jakobson’s explanation apply here as well? Why would mothers in Samoa not believe what their counter- parts around the world do—that their children’s first interpretable utterances refer to them?
Here’s the way the Samoan villagers whom Ochs worked with thought about children, as explained by Ochs herself:
From the Samoan point of view, the small child is heavily under the influence of amio [natural drives that lead people to act in socially destructive ways]. Infants and small children carry out such outrageous behaviors as running and shouting during a church service or formal chiefly council meeting, throwing stones at caregivers, hitting siblings and the like, because they are [believed to be] incapable of . . . suppressing amio.
These Samoan parents considered children uncontrollable, unruly, and socially destructive. It’s not hard to see what would lead someone to such a belief. I have thirty pounds of insuppressible amio at home myself. The difference between these Samoan mothers and, say, my household isn’t that Samoans think children are out of control, whereas we don’t. And if you’re more prone to think children are ruled by amio, then your expectations about what they’re likely to say will reflect this belief, just as your belief that children are trying to connect through language with their parents will create your expectation that they’ll say a caregiver’s name first. Uncontrollable, unruly, socially destructive little people are more likely to tell those around them to ‘ai tae. And so, whereas an English-speaking North American might interpret something a child emits that sounds like ka as car or cat, the Samoan parents in question were apparently led by their expectations to believe that the child’s little amio was hurling an antisocial epithet.*
And so ends the mystery of the diminutive Samoan swearers. Their parents were exceptional not because they happened to have diabolical children or because they let themselves incautiously swear in the presence of infants. Like caregivers around the world, they let their beliefs affect their expectations. In the mushy, imprecise vocalizations of their children, they heard what they anticipated hearing. In other words, in this particular case, the kids didn’t have potty mouths; the adults had potty ears.
*The Samoan mothers told Ochs something else, which she was kind enough to relay to me. They told her that, at some level, they liked their kids to be tough, for self-protection. Sticking up for yourself can be a useful survival tool. And so, as they explained it, “sometimes bad is good.” This belief might have contributed to making the parents more prone to hearing profanity.