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Issue 34: there’s a universal pattern in profanity, but it’s not what you probably think
How the sounds of a word determine its impact and insult.
When I was in my teens, my best friend and I decided that we were swearing too much. Our solution was to come up with an alternative word for ‘f**k’. We settled on ‘hank’.
At least part of our reasoning was that we felt the ‘k’ sound was fundamental to the potency of a swear word.
Truth be told, our use of ‘hank’ was pretty short-lived and mostly confined to notes we wrote each other.
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Swear words have a unique linguistic power.
Previous research has shown that swearing produces a physical response in us – our heart rate increases, and our sweat glands respond to the change in our emotional state. Swearing out loud increases our tolerance to pain and boosts physical performance.
And like my friend and I, many people have hypothesised that swear words are defined by what are called ‘plosives’ – groups of sounds that include letters such as p, t, and k.
Plosives: b, d, g, p, t, and k
Affricates: c, C, and j
Approximants: l, L, w, y, and r
Sibilant fricatives: s, z, S, and Z
Non-sibilant fricatives: f, v, x, h, and X
Nasals: m, n, and N
Cognitive scientist Shiri Lev-Ari and Professor Ryan McKay from Royal Holloway, University of London, recently set out to understand what role sounds play – and which ones are most effective – in expressing the intended emotion or attitude of swear words.
“We had an intuition that sounds in swear words are not arbitrary, that there is something about why they sound the way they do,” Lev-Ari explained.
This is what’s known as ‘sound symbolism’ – when there’s a relationship between the sound and meaning of a word.
“When we first started, Ryan actually had the same hypothesis that many other people have proposed – that swear words probably have a lot of plosive sounds.”
To test that theory, they did what no one else had done before: examined swear words across a range of disparate and distant languages.
And it turns out: “The hypothesis we started with was wrong. Plosives have nothing to do with how we perceive offensiveness1.”
Their research had three parts to it:
Identifying and analysing more than 100 swear words or phrases in Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Korean, and Russian language (and secondarily, English and French) to determine the frequency of different sounds.
Testing whether native speakers of Arabic, Chinese, Finnish, French, German, and Spanish could identify which was the swear word when they listened to pairs of words2 in 20 different foreign languages.
Identifying and analysing almost 70 sanitised versions of English swear words (what are known as ‘minced oaths’, eg: ‘frigging’ or ‘effing’ instead of ‘f**king’) to determine the frequency of different sounds.
A clear pattern emerged, and it had nothing to do with plosives, but rather, approximants: deep or full sounds made by letters such as l, r, w, and y.
Swear words across all languages studied were less likely to include approximants than would be expected by chance. People were significantly less likely to judge foreign words with approximants as swear words. And sanitised versions of swear words contained significantly more approximants than the original swear words.
Interestingly, there was no sound group in swear words that stood out as being more highly represented than others.
“We never expected anything about approximants. It’s not something we predicted, and it’s not something anyone else had before, either,” Lev-Ari said.
It suggests a “universal phonemic pattern in profanity”, or, put more simply, “that not all sounds are equally suitable for profanity”.
“There is a universal shared bias across humans that there’s something about the sound of approximants that’s inappropriate for offending, inappropriate for venting. Like the way you pronounce the word just doesn’t help you get out that level of emotion,” Lev-Ari said.
“It may be that approximants are sound-symbolically associated with calm and contentment.”
A next step in their research could involve analysing whether – when there are multiple ways to say something – people choose words with approximants in situations when they’re trying to calm things down.
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And what of ‘hank’? Did my friend and I hit upon a new swear word or just create a sanitation?
Lev-Ari said: “We didn’t report this, and it needs more following up [but] if there’s a next candidate for something that is over or under-represented in swearing, then h would be a candidate for something that people seem to avoid. So, I guess you went for the minced oath.”
Lev-Ari said plosives do occur more frequently in English swear words than in swear words in other languages, but that English speakers don’t try to get rid of them when they create minced oaths, which indicates they don’t think plosives are what makes a word offensive.
The words in this test were what Lev-Ari called ‘pseudo words’. They stared with real words from each language and then changed one sound – one of the pairs was changed to an approximant sound and the other to a control sound (an affricate). They then used speech synthesizers to simulate what the word would sound like in its original language.