“Holy motherforking shirtballs!” a character exclaimed on The Good Place, a television show that took place in a version of the afterlife where swearing is forbidden. In a way, this celestial censorship was realistic.
A recently published study in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review found that curse words in several unrelated languages sound alike. They’re less likely than other words to include the consonant sounds L, R, W or Y. And more family-friendly versions of curses often have these sounds added, just like the R in “shirt” or “fork”. The finding suggests that some underlying rules may link the world’s languages, no matter how different they are.
“In English, some of the worst words seem to have common phonetic properties,” says Ryan McKay, a psychologist at Royal Holloway, University of London. They’re often short and punchy. They also tend to include the sounds P, T or K, “without giving any obvious examples”, McKay says. These sounds are called stop consonants because they interrupt the airflow when we’re speaking.
McKay teamed up with his colleague Shiri Lev-Ari to learn whether this familiar pattern went beyond English. They wondered whether it might even represent what’s called sound symbolism.
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Sound symbolism is when a word sounds like what it means. One type is onomatopoeia; for example, words that describe a cat’s meow or a rooster’s crow are similar across many languages. Globally, words having to do with noses often include the nasal N sound, and words related to smallness often have an “ee” sound (as in “mini” or “teensy-weensy”), like the squeaking of a small creature.
To look for patterns in swearing, the researchers asked fluent speakers of Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Korean and Russian to list the most vulgar words they could think of. Once they’d compiled a list of each language’s most frequently used epithets, the researchers compared these with neutral words from the same language.
In these languages, they didn’t find the harsh-sounding stop consonants that seem common in English swear words.
“Instead, we found patterns that none of us expected,” Lev-Ari says. The vulgar words were defined by what they lacked: the consonant sounds L, R, W and Y. (In linguistics, these gentle sounds are called approximants.)
Next, the scientists looked for the same phenomenon using speakers of different languages: Arabic, Chinese, Finnish, French, German and Spanish. The subjects listened to pairs of words in a language they didn’t speak and guessed which word in each pair was offensive. In reality, all the words were invented. For example, the researchers started with the Albanian word “zog”, for “bird”, and created the pair of fake words “yog” and “tsog”. Subjects were more likely to guess that words without approximants, such as “tsog”, were curses.
Finally, the researchers combed through the dictionary for English swear words and their cleaned-up versions, also called minced oaths (“darn”, “frigging” and so on). Once again, the clean versions included more of the sounds L, R, W and Y.
“What this paper finds for the first time is that taboo words across languages, unrelated to each other, may pattern similarly,” says Benjamin Bergen, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, San Diego, who was not involved in the study.
Unlike other cases such as cock-a-doodle-doos or words for “nose”, these words don’t share a meaning but a function. They’re meant to offend. The results suggest that “not all sounds are equally suitable for profanity”, the authors wrote.
“That’s a new thing,” Bergen says. “Maybe the things that we want to do with words lead us to expect those words to have particular sounds.”
To make sure the pattern of approximants missing from curses isn’t an accident, it would be nice to find it in an even larger sample of languages, says Bergen, author of a book called What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains and Ourselves.
It would also be nice to learn why those consonants are missing. “There may be some deeper explanation,” he says.
A 20th-century linguistic principle held that the sounds of words were arbitrary: any word could have any meaning.
“That’s really supposed to be one of the things that defines language,” Lev-Ari says. With profane words, though, as in other cases of sound symbolism, the sounds themselves seem to carry meaning.
“This can shape and change our understanding of how languages are formed,” she says.
French is an exception, she notes – swear words in French have just as many of the gentler consonant sounds as other words. Yet when native French speakers heard pairs of foreign-sounding words, they were still less likely to guess that words with L, R, W and Y sounds were curses.
“This is really something fundamental,” Lev-Ari says. “There’s something about the sounds that inherently sounds non-sweary.” – This article originally appeared in The New York Times