What swear words have in common in all languages

A the swear word is like a linguistic punch in the nose. Virtually all languages ​​and cultures have them – and virtually all languages ​​and cultures formally disapprove of them. But that does not prevent them from being widely used, loudly and vigorously.

What gives a swear word its power is partly its meaning – usually referring roughly to bodily parts and functions – and partly its sound. In English, for example, studies have shown that swear words contain a higher ratio of so-called plosive sounds, including P, T, and K. Secular English monosyllables are particularly likely to end in a plosive rather than begin with a . In German, profanity is also heavy on plosives, as well as on short vowels.

What has been less well explored is what sounds don’t end up in curses – which soften the sound of a word so it can’t pack the angry, cathartic power that common curse words do. Now, a new study in the magazine Psychonomic Bulletin and Review addressed this question and concluded that if you want to clean the language, the best way is to rely on words that contain what are called approximants – sounds that include the letters I, L, R, W and Y, formed by passing air between the lips and the tongue, which do not touch when the sound is pronounced. Across several languages, the new paper showed that words containing approximants are generally judged to be less profane than words containing other more aggressive sounds.

The study, led by psychologists Shiri Lev-Ari and Ryan McKay of Royal Holloway, University of London, recruited 215 native speakers of six languages ​​- Arabic, Chinese, Finnish, French, German and Spanish – and presented them with words with which they were unfamiliar with 20 distinct languages. Although some of the speakers’ languages ​​were included in the list (Arabic, Chinese and German), there was a good reason why none of the subjects recognized any of the words: all of them were actually pseudo-words, based on real words. in the multiple languages ​​but changed slightly, both to include an approximant and not to include an approximant.

The Albanian word zog, for example, which means bird, has been replaced by the nonsense words yog, which contains an approximant, and tsog, which does not. The Catalan word soka (or rope) has been changed to both sola (with an approximant) and sotsa (without an approximant).

The participants in the study – which was titled “How good is your ‘sweardar’? Instead, they were told one was a swear word in an unnamed foreign language and the other was not a swear word; they were then asked to guess which was which. In total, subjects were presented with 80 word pairs each, and in 63% of these cases they chose the word that did not contain the approximation as likely obscene. Significantly, these results were true even for French speakers, whose language includes swearwords containing approximants, but who still found pseudowords less offensive if they included approximants.

“Our results reveal that not all sounds are equally suited to profanity,” the authors wrote, “and demonstrate that sound symbolism is more prevalent than previously appreciated.”

In a second part of their study, Lev-Ari and McKay looked at “chopped oaths” in English — words like “darn” and “shucks” that are used in place of their cruder alternatives. They collected 67 hashed oaths which were variations on 24 swear words. (Some words are associated with multiple hashed oaths: “frigging,” “freaking,” and “effing,” for example.) Overall, they found that approximants were 70% more likely to be found in hashed oaths than in swearing. .

In a third part of their paper, the researchers recruited 100 other volunteers, 20 each fluent in one of five languages ​​- Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Korean and Russian – and asked them to provide a list of the most vulgar words. in their language. they might think of. Lev-Ari and McKay only included words submitted by at least two participants and ended up with a list of 141 swear words. Participants then rated each swear word in their own language on a scale of 0 to 100, from least offensive to most offensive, and on another scale from least common to most commonly used. Again, approximants were underrepresented in the most offensive words behind plosives, fricatives (a consonant like F or V produced by forcing air through a narrow opening in the lips or throat) and other categories of sounds.

Exactly why approximants are considered less offensive than other sounds is unclear, but the researchers cited a body of existing work that found that certain phonemes, letters, and sounds are closely associated with both the meaning of words and imagery. Several studies, for example, have shown that smaller objects are assigned words spoken at a higher frequency than larger objects. Another one found that when people were shown drawings of spiky, curved shapes, they chose irregular-sounding nonsense words like “takete” and “kiki” for the spiky images and softer-sounding “moluma” and “bouba” for winding images. yet another compared swearing to lullabies and carols and found that while swearing contained a disproportionate share of plosives, songs contained so-called voiced consonants – such as L and W – which are produced without turbulent airflow in the vocal tract.

“The connection between the sound and the meaning of a word is arbitrary,” write Lev-Ari and McKay. “Nevertheless, swear words have sounds that make them particularly suited to their purpose.”

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Write to Jeffrey Kluger at [email protected].

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