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Why Do Swear Words Rarely Contain These Sounds?

A man and a woman stand in a park arguing.
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Researchers at Royal Holloway tested whether there is something special about the sound of swear words.


In the study, Dr Shiri Lev-Ari and Professor Ryan McKay, both from the Department of Psychology at Royal Holloway, invited fluent speakers of Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Korean and Russian to provide the most offensive swear words in their language. They compared the sounds in these words against sounds in other words in those languages.


The first thing they noticed was that a class of sounds called approximants – like L, R, W and Y in English – rarely featured in swear words.


Next, they tested whether people find these sounds unsuitable for swearing. To do so, they created a ‘sweardar’ task. They presented 215 speakers of a variety of languages (Arabic, Chinese, Finnish, French, German, and Spanish) pairs of pseudo foreign words and asked them to guess which of the two pseudo-words was a swear word. The words in each pair were always identical except for one sound (e.g., taju – tayu).


They reasoned that if approximants are less suitable for swearing, pseudo-words containing an approximant would be less likely to be identified as swear words, than matched control words - and that is what the results showed.


Dr Lev-Ari, said: “We tend to think that the sounds of words are arbitrary. After all, there’s nothing window-like about the sounds in the word ‘window’ and in different languages, other sounds are used to express the same meaning, from fenêtre in French to shubak in Arabic. Yet, as our study shows, the sounds of swear words are not arbitrary.”


Prof Ryan McKay added: “It’s striking that, even without knowing a language, people can agree on which words are more likely to be vulgar, and words that contain an approximant are less convincing swear words.”


After discovering that approximant sounds were less suitable for swearing, the academics wondered whether people turn swear words into more polite words by introducing approximants into them.


To test this idea, they examined ‘minced oaths’ - sanitised versions of swear words formed by altering one or more sounds in the original word. For example, changing ‘damn’ to ‘darn’.


They compared all the minced oaths in the Oxford English Dictionary to their original version and found that, as expected, minced oaths contained significantly more approximant sounds than the original swear words (as can be seen in examples such as flipping and frigging).


Altogether this study shows that the sounds in swear words are not arbitrary and that when swearing, you should mind your Ls and Rs, they could dilute the effect of your words.


Reference: Lev-Ari S, McKay R. The sound of swearing: Are there universal patterns in profanity? Psychon Bull Rev. 2022. doi: 10.3758/s13423-022-02202-0


This article has been republished from the following materials. Note: material may have been edited for length and content. For further information, please contact the cited source.



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