Warning: this article contains strong language.
Ever heard a phrase in a language you don’t speak and had a feeling it was offensive? Or heard a made-up swear word that doesn’t really sound like an oath?
According to a new paper in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, sounds in swear words can translate across languages.
Specifically, the researchers found that swear words in various unrelated languages were more likely to lack sounds like l, r, w and y: a class of sounds known as “approximants”.
The researchers conducted three online studies to see whether there were universal patterns in swearing.
First, they asked 100 fluent speakers of five different languages (Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Korean and Russian, 20 speakers of each) to list the most offensive words they knew in their language, excluding racial slurs.
When they went looking for patterns in this list, the most promising they found was that swear words in all five languages tended to avoid approximants.
“We also noticed that h might also be avoided in swear words, but we are less certain of this pattern and didn’t pursue it experimentally later on,” says lead author Dr Shiri Lev-Ari, a lecturer at the Department of Psychology at the University of London, UK.
Read more: Why do Australians like swearing so much?
Next, the researchers asked 215 fluent speakers of six different languages (Arabic, Chinese, Finnish, French, German and Spanish) to listen to pairs of made-up words and decide which word sounded more like a swear word.
One word in each pair contained an approximant sound. Participants rated the approximant-less words as swear words 63% of the time.
This was true even of the French speakers, which was interesting because prior research had shown that French curses still contain plenty of l, w, r and y sounds.
“The fact that French speakers consistently avoided selecting words with approximants as swear words even though they are not avoided in French, indicates that participants were not just relying on their linguistic knowledge but on general cognitive biases,” says Lev-Ari.
“Our experiment shows that people perceive approximants to be less suitable for swear words regardless of their native language.”
Finally, the researchers examined “minced oaths”: modifications of swear words that make them less offensive (like ‘damn’ becoming ‘darn’, or ‘fucking’ becoming ‘frigging’). They found that minced oaths were significantly more likely to contain approximants.
“Our findings suggest that approximants are a relevant ‘restraint’ – the verbal equivalent of fitting a compressed air hinge to a door,” writes Lev-Ari and co-author Professor Ryan McKay, also from the University of London, in their paper.
They point out that this “transgresses a fundamental linguistic principle”: the idea that there’s no connection between how a word sounds, and what it means.
While this has been pointed out in specific languages before – including by fiction authors, many of whom have said that certain sounds work better when inventing swear words – the researchers believe this is the first time anyone’s looked at multiple languages systematically.
“As to the wider universe, the jury is out: surprisingly, according to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the rudest word in the universe is ‘Belgium’, which contains an approximant,” the researchers conclude in their paper.
Or is it? As a matter of fact, “Belgium” is really a minced oath, added by Douglas Adams to the American edition of the book to appease their more delicate sensitivities – the original joke revolved around the word “fuck”. So actually, the approximant makes sense, reason the researchers.
“While the existence of approximants in the word might have helped, it was probably mostly driven by the stereotype of Belgium being bland and inoffensive,” says Lev-Ari.
Cosmos couldn’t help asking whether Belgium’s minced oath status may have influenced the study results, particularly among the French speakers.
“We have no reason to think that people in Belgium perceive approximants differently from speakers of other languages,” says Lev-Ari.
Ellen Phiddian is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a BSc (Honours) in chemistry and science communication, and an MSc in science communication, both from the Australian National University.
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