Almost all languages feature foul words, and almost all of those words work in similar ways, functioning to show off our strongest feelings toward someone or something in specific. But there’s one other similarity that ties together the swear words spoken all around the world, and it’s the way that those words sound.
In fact, a paper published in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review states the similarity of swear words in an assortment of languages is thanks to their lack of the soft consonant sounds associated with the letters L, R, W and Y. And, according to the authors of the paper, this similarity in sounds is important, suggesting that some universal standards shape the words we all use.
Sound Symbolism in Language
Throughout the 1900s, when the formalities of linguistics were first taking shape, linguists tended to think that the sounds of words were arbitrary, and that they could signify anything in the world. To these linguists, snakes were snakes and dogs were dogs because speakers simply decided that those sounds would signify snakes and dogs, not because of any intrinsic association to those animals within the sounds themselves.
Though linguists support similar ideas today, some are also interested in the foil of these theories, also known as sound symbolism. That’s the thought that the sounds of some words aren’t wholly arbitrary, and that these sounds maintain a small morsel of meaning in and of themselves — conveying certain properties, such as sizes, shapes and feelings all on their own.
For instance, while onomatopoeic words such as sizzle and swoosh imitate the sounds that they were initially intended to signify, the sounds of other words, (including the terms glass, gloss and glisten) seem suggestive of specific textures (in this case, something shiny and smooth). And some of these sonic patterns persist all around the world, with words associated with smaller sizes featuring specific sets of sounds, including the ee sound in teensy tiny, in an assortment of unrelated languages.
Setting out to find similar sorts of patterns in profanities from around the world, a team of researchers assessed the sounds of swears from a selection of various languages. What they found wasn’t the presence of particular sounds, but the absence. They concluded this is what contributed to the offensiveness of the words around the world.
According to the researchers, these results “reveal that not all sounds are equally suitable for profanity.” Much more strikingly, the team adds that they also stress “that sound symbolism is more prevalent than was previously suggested.” This challenges the traditional understanding of how languages form and function.
Curses and Consonants
To pick these patterns out, the researchers recruited 100 fluent speakers of Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Korean and Russian, and asked them to compose a list of their language’s filthiest, foulest phrases. Creating a catalog of over 100 profanities from these fluent speakers, the team then compared the sounds of the offensive words with the sounds of a selection of inoffensive words from all five of the same tongues.
Though they anticipated that the swear words would feature an above-average amount of the sharp consonant sounds, including P, T and K, that pervade profanity in English, that was far from what they found. Instead, they saw that the profanities of the five languages lacked the soft-sounding consonants of L, R, W and Y, also known as the approximants.
The team then searched for similar patterns in six additional languages, including Arabic, Chinese, Finnish, French, German and Spanish. Working with a second set of fluent speakers, the researchers requested that the individuals identify which word in a pair of imaginary, invented words was a swear word, based solely on its sound. Overwhelmingly, the speakers of all six languages identified words without approximants as saltier.
Not only that, but the team also found that the sanitized stand-ins for some swear words, such as darn as a replacement for damn, frequently feature approximants, indicating that the mere introduction of these sounds make words more polite and more appropriate.
“Our results point to a robust cross-linguistic sound symbolic association in the minds of human speakers,” the researchers conclude in their paper.