Almost all languages contain swear words, and almost all of these words work in a similar way by showing our strongest feelings about someone or something in particular. But there is another similarity that unites swear words spoken around the world, and that is the way these words sound.
Actually a paper published in Psychonomic Bulletin and Review states that the similarity of swear words across a range of languages is due to their lack of soft consonant sounds associated with letters L, R, W and Y. And according to the paper’s authors, this similarity in sounds is important, suggesting that some universal standards shape the words we all use.
Sound symbolism in language
In 1900, when the formalities of linguistics were first taking shape, linguists inclined to think that the sounds of the words were arbitraryand that they can mean anything in the world. To these linguists, snakes were snakes and they were dogs dogs because the speakers simply decided that these sounds would mean snakes and dogs, not because of any inherent association with these animals in the sounds themselves.
Although linguists today support such ideas, some are also interested in the foil of these theories, also known as sound symbolism. It’s the idea that the sounds of some words aren’t completely random, and that those sounds hold a tiny bit of meaning in their own right—conveying certain properties, such as sizes, shapes and feelings all alone.
For example, while onomatopoeic words like sizzle and whistle imitate the sounds they were originally intended to mean, the sounds of other words (including the terms glass, glossy and they shine) seem to hint at specific textures (in this case, something shiny and smooth). And some of these sound patterns persist around the world, with words associated with smaller sizes involving specific sets of sounds, including eh sound in tiny tiny in a set of unrelated languages.
Setting out to find similar types of patterns in profanity from around the world, a team of researchers evaluated profanity sounds from a selection of different languages. What they found was not the presence of certain sounds, but their absence. They concluded that this contributed to the insulting of words around the world.
According to the researchers, these results “reveal that not all sounds are equally suitable for profanity.” Much more amazingly, the team adds that they also highlight “that sound symbolism is more widespread than previously thought.” This challenges the traditional understanding of the formation and functioning of languages.
Cursive and agreeable
To discover these patterns, the researchers recruited 100 fluent speakers of Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Korean and Russian and asked them to compile a list of the dirtiest and most vile phrases in their language. Creating a catalog of over 100 swear words from these fluent speakers, the team then compared the sounds of the offending words to the sounds of a selection of harmless words from the same five languages.
Although they expected profanity to include an above-average amount of sharp consonant sounds, including P, T and K, who delve into profanity in English, that was far from what they found. Instead, they saw that swear words in the five languages lacked the soft-sounding consonants of L, R, W and Yalso known as approximations.
The team then looked 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 asked individuals to identify which word in a pair of imaginary, made-up words was a swear word based solely on its sound. For the most part, speakers of all six languages rated words without approximations as saltier.
Not only that, but the team also found that sanitized substitutes for some swear words, such as devilishly as a substitute for damn it often include approximants, indicating that the mere introduction of these sounds makes the words more polite and appropriate.
“Our results point to robust cross-linguistic sound-symbolic association in the minds of human speakers,” the researchers conclude in their paper.