Do swear words contain some sounds more often?

A recent study suggests that approximants—sounds such as /l/; /r/; /w/; and /y/—appear less often in swear words than they do in other words. The paper is The sound of swearing: Are there universal patterns in profanity?, by Shiri Lev-Ari and Ryan McKay (2022) published online in December 2022 by the experimental psychology journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.

Background

Typically, there is no link between the sounds contained in a word and that word’s meaning, except in cases of onomatopoeia. In other words, in most cases the relationship between the sound of a word and its meaning is arbitrary.

Nevertheless, previous research has suggested that, in words with some meanings, some sounds tend to occur more often than would occur through chance alone. For example:

  • the nasal sound /n/ is much more likely to occur in words for ‘nose’ than in other words;
  • when presented with spiky and curved line drawings, speakers of different languages overwhelmingly favour names such as ‘takete’ and ‘kiki’ for the spiky drawings and ‘maluma’ and ‘bouba’ for the curved ones; and
  • the sound /m/ is statistically unlikely to appear in words for ‘skin’.
  • the vowel /i/ is persistently associated with the concept ‘small’ across languages from different continents and linguistic lineages. Also, adults tend to assign novel words with high formant-frequency vowels to small rather than large objects. And, when infants hear those vowels, they prefer to look at a small rather than a large circle.
  • listeners tend to associate higher pitched sounds with objects that are small, bright and high up.
  • sometimes, sounds and meanings co-occur randomly in a language forming a small cluster of words. Some such clusters later attract new words, snowballing into larger language-specific clusters. For example, more than a third of English words beginning with /gl/ relate to vision or light, such as glisten and glow, but this link is specific to English and arose randomly.

Lev-Ari and McKay (2022)

Lev-Ari and McKay investigated whether particular types of sound appear more commonly in swear words than in other words. They carried out:

  • an initial pilot study to assess whether some sounds appear in swear words more often than in other words.  
  • a test using constructed ‘words’, supposedly in a foreign language
  • a test of ‘minced oaths’

Pilot study

In the pilot study, the authors explored whether particular sounds are unusually common or unusually rare in the swear words of 5 typologically distant languages (Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Korean and Russian). This work suggested that approximants are unusually rare in swear words in those languages—they are less common in those swear words than you would expect if those sounds were independent of the words’ meaning.

Approximants are consonants that obstruct the airflow only slightly, unlike plosives, affricates and sibilants. The authors list the following approximants: /l/; /r/; /w/; and /y/.

Because of the results of the pilot test, the authors focused on approximants for their other 2 tests.

Constructed ‘foreign’ pseudo-words

The authors then conducted an experiment using pairs of ‘foreign’ pseudo-words differing in just one sound). They created the pseudo-words from real words in 20 languages. For example, from the Basque word <begi>, they created a pseudo-word containing an approximant (<beri>) and another pseudo word containing an affricate (<betsi>). (The example uses the authors’ conventions in spelling the words ‘as they would be rendered in English’.)

The authors used a speech synthesiser to ‘say’ those words to 215 listeners who had a variety of first languages (Arabic, Chinese, Finnish, French, German, and Spanish). The listeners were asked to guess which of the two pseudo-words was a swear word.

Listeners consistently judged the words without the approximant to be the swear words. The authors suggest that this was because the listeners perceive approximants as unsuitable for use in swear words.

Minced oaths

The authors then looked at English ‘minced oaths’. Minced oaths are sanitised versions of swear words formed by changing one or more sounds—for example, by changing ‘damn’ to ‘darn’.

The authors found that many more approximants appear in the sanitised versions of English swear words than in the original swear words. The authors suggest that a swear word can be made less offensive by weaving an approximant into it.

Sources

The sound of swearing: Are there universal patterns in profanity?, by Shiri Lev-Ari and Ryan McKay (2022).  Available on open access at The sound of swearing: Are there universal patterns in profanity? | SpringerLink

The authors provide a concise and non-technical summary at Swear words: we studied speakers of languages from Hindi to Hungarian to find out why obscenities sound the way they do (theconversation.com)

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