EGHAM, United Kingdom — Curse words sound the same across the globe — no matter what language you’re swearing at someone in! Researchers from the United Kingdom have found that profanity across different languages follows similar trends and produces similar sounds.
Specifically, the team from Royal Holloway, University of London discovered that curse words tend to lack the sound of the letters l, r, w, and y. Researchers add these sounds are called approximants and listeners tend to view them as less offensive.
Shiri Lev-Ari and Ryan McKay say swear words typically contain sounds which “facilitate the expression of emotion and attitude.” However, there haven’t been any studies examining the universal patterns profanity shares across the world — until now.
The team recruited speakers of five unrelated languages (20 participants for each) and asked them to list the most offensive words they knew in their language — with the exception of racial slurs. This initial stage found curse words across all five languages were less likely to contain the sounds of an l, r, w, or y.
This led researchers to believe that people worldwide believe the sounds of approximants are not suitable to “properly” offend someone.
From there, the team gathered 215 participants who spoke six different languages and asked them to rate pairs of pseudo-words — imaginary words created just for the study. One of these fake words contained an approximant. For example, study authors took the Albanian word “zog,” which means “bird,” and changed it to “yog” (containing the approximant) and “tsog” (no approximant).
Results reveal respondents were significantly less likely to think words with approximants were curse words in any language. In fact, they selected words without approximants as the swear word 63 percent of the time.
There’s a reason ‘darn’ is ok to say
Lev-Ari and McKay also examined the sounds of minced oaths, which are less offensive variations of curse words, like saying “darn” instead of “damn.” They found that minced oaths frequently contained approximants, which may be why people consider them far less offensive when they hear them.
The presence of an approximant doesn’t guarantee that a word sounds less offensive, but the team says there’s a clear trend which reveals how swear words may have evolved across different languages.
Study authors also note that languages like French do have swear words which include approximants. However, the study found that even French speakers were more likely to think pseudo-swear words lacking approximants were the real curse words — revealing a potential universal bias.
The study is published in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.