The common feature of all profanity, even in different languages


Psychologists at the University of London have discovered a feature of the words we use to swear that is consistent across a variety of languages ​​and may represent a universal phonetic pattern. According to psychologists Shiri Lev-Ari and Ryan McKay, profanity from around the world typically lacks “approximants,” sounds made by bringing the lips, teeth, hard palate, or tongue together, but not making contact . As an example, in their study, English psychologists suggest thinking about the y sound in the word “yes” or the w sound in “war.”


Consonants in words that contain approximants are less likely to drown out nearby vowels, creating a softer sound when pronounced than in words that use stoppers like p, t, and k, which make words like “pop” or “kart”.

The almost universal lack of approximants in swear words contributes to them sounding harsh, regardless of language. The findings suggest that profanity may have been carved into the human brain by a shared bias . This bias is called sound symbolism is the idea that some phonetic elements trigger a universal cognitive response that helps make the perception of some sounds consistent across different languages.

For example, studies have shown that speakers of more than 20 different languages ​​tend to associate the nonsense word “bouba” with a round shape and “kiki” with a sharp shape. These results suggest that some consonants may sound sharper than others to the human ear, and this may also be the case for profanity.


I study

To test this idea, the researchers asked 20 people, each native speaker of five very different languages ​​far from English, to name as many swear words as possible. After eliminating repetition, variation, and racial slurs, the researchers sorted through 34 profanities and phrases in Hebrew , 14 in Hindi , 14 in Hungarian , 17 in Korean , and 26 in Russian . Analyzing the sounds of these words, the researchers found no indication that the swear words contained more stops than usual, but they did notice a clear absence of approximants in the swear words, including the sounds of l, r, w, and y.


To complement their study, they performed perceptual tests on 215 people, who spoke six different languages, to see if they could guess whether a pseudo-swear word was offensive based on its sound. Ultimately, words that contained approximants were less likely to be considered profanity than those that contained no hint of the sounds of l, r, w or y.

The authors conclude that the sound of an approximant can dampen the perceived effect.


“What our results indicate is an underlying cognitive bias, a predisposition that will have acted in concert with historical incidents to shape the evolution of profanity,” write Lev-Ari and McKay.

“Just as the association between nasal sounds and words meaning ‘nose’ does not occur in all languages ​​- or even most languages ​​- we should not expect the pattern we have identified to occur in all languages, and even in languages ​​that reflect the model there are likely to be profanities with approximants, albeit fewer than their sound system would allow.”

If the authors are right, sound symbolism may be more pervasive in our languages ​​than many suspected. Sounds could change the way listeners perceive a speaker’s attitude, emotion, or excitement.


  • The sound of swearing: Are there universal patterns in profanity? (


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