There is a universal pattern to swearing, across languages

There is a universal pattern to swearing, across languages
According to research published in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, swear words in different languages may lack particular consonants such as l, r, and w. This regular pattern in profanity suggests that certain sounds, known as approximants, may be perceived as less offensive by listeners.

Swear words are supposed to have sounds that aid in the communication of emotion and attitude, but no study has yet looked into whether there is a uniform pattern in the sound of swearing across languages.

Shiri Lev-Ari and Ryan McKay of Royal Holloway, University of London, ran a pilot study with speakers of five unrelated languages (20 people per language), asking them to name the most offensive phrases they knew in their language, omitting racial insults.

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The initial study found that swear words were less likely to contain approximants, such as l, r, w, and y. The authors hypothesise that approximants are less suitable for giving offence than other noises and test this in two additional trials.

The authors asked 215 people (from six different languages) to score pairs of pseudo-words (imaginary words made up by the authors), one of which contained an approximant. In Albanian, for example, the authors modified the word "zog," which means "bird," to "yog," which includes an approximant, and "tsog," which does not. The authors discovered that participants were considerably less likely to believe that words containing approximants were swear words and that those without approximants were chosen as swear words 63 per cent of the time.


In a subsequent study, the authors looked at minced oaths, which are less unpleasant variants of curse words, such as "darn" instead of "damn." The authors discovered that approximants were far more common in minced oaths than swear words. According to the writers, the use of approximants is part of what makes minced oaths less offensive than swear words.

The introduction of approximants does not inherently make a term less objectionable, but the authors believe their findings point to an underlying tendency in how swear words may have evolved across languages.

The authors also highlight that some languages do have swear words that include approximants such as French, but French speakers included in the study still rated the pseudo-swear words lacking approximants as swear words, suggesting there may be a universal bias.

The authors conclude that their work suggests a potential universal pattern to swear words across different languages, with the lack of approximants a common feature when perceiving swear words.
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