Curse Words Around the World Have Something in Common (We Swear)

Sound symbolism is when a word sounds like its meaning. One type is onomatopoeia; for example, words that describe a cat meowing or a rooster crowing are the same in many languages. Globally, words related to nose usually include FEMALE nose sounds, and words associated with smallness often have an “ee” sound (as in “mini” or “teensy weensy”), like the cry of a small creature.

To look for swearing patterns, the researchers asked fluent speakers of Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Korean and Russian to list the most vulgar words they could think of. Once they compiled a list of the most frequently used adjectives of each language, the researchers compared them with neutral words from the same language.

In these languages, they did not find the harsh-sounding stop consonants that are common in swear words in English. “Instead, we found patterns that none of us expected,” says Dr. Lev-Ari. Vulgar words are identified by what they lack: the consonants L, R, W, and Y. (In linguistics, these gentle sounds are called approximations.)

Next, the scientists looked for the same phenomenon using people who spoke different languages: Arabic, Chinese, Finnish, French, German, and Spanish. Subjects listened to pairs of words in the language they did not speak and guessed which word in each pair was offensive. In fact, all words have been invented. For example, the researchers started with the Albanian word “zog” which means “bird” and created the pair of pseudo-words “yog” and “tsog”. Subjects were more likely to guess that words with no approximate words, such as “tsog,” were curses.

Finally, the researchers searched the dictionary for swear words in English and their cleaned up versions, also known as scrap swear words (“darn”, “frigging”, etc.) . Again, the clean versions include more L, R, W, and Y sounds.


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