While different languages may have different swear words, they tend to all lack similar sounds, new research suggests.
Sounds such as I, r, and w are missing from a range of swear words across five different languages.
This common pattern in profanity indicates that these sounds, called approximants, may appear less offensive to listeners, researchers say.
Swear words are thought to have sounds that help facilitate the expression of emotion and attitude.
However, according to the scientists until now no study has investigated if there is a universal pattern in the sound of swearing across different languages.
Writing in the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review journal, the researchers say: “Our findings reveal that not all sounds are equally suitable for profanity and demonstrate that sound symbolism – wherein certain sounds are intrinsically associated with certain meanings – is more pervasive than has previously been appreciated, extending beyond denoting single concepts to serving pragmatic functions.”
Researchers asked 215 people (from across six different languages – Arabic, Chinese, Finnish, French, German, Spanish) to rate pairs of imaginary words created by the authors, one of which included an approximant.
For example, in Albanian, the authors took the word “zog”, meaning “bird”, and changed this to “yog” to include an approximant and “tsog” without an approximant.
The study found that people were significantly less likely to judge that words with approximants were swear words and selected words without approximants as swear words 63% of the time.
In a following study, the authors also looked at minced oaths – which are variations of swear words deemed less offensive, for example “darn” instead of “damn”.
They found that approximants were significantly more frequent in minced oaths than swear words.
According to the researchers, the introduction of approximants is part of what makes minced oaths less offensive than swear words.
While the use of approximants may not necessarily render a word inoffensive, the authors suggest their findings indicate an underlying trend in how swear words may have evolved across different languages.
They also highlight that some languages, such as French, do have swear words that include approximants, but French speakers included in the study still rated the pseudo-swear words lacking approximants as swear words, suggesting there may be a universal bias.
The findings suggest a potential universal pattern to swear words across different languages, with the lack of approximants a common feature when perceiving swear words, the researchers say.