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Frickin’ darn it! What swear words and their ‘clean’ substitutes share across languages

A paper published this week in Psychonomic Bulletin and Review highlights common patterns in profanities across the world, whether they're in Hindi or Hebrew.

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Bengaluru: “What a frickin’ pain!” If someone wants to register a strong complaint but still not cause too much offence, this is what they might say rather than the first profanity that pops into their mind.

According to new research, “sanitised” swap-outs for expletives provide a major clue that curse words across languages share some common patterns. While profanities contain different sounds in different languages, what they do tend to have in common is a lack of certain consonants.

In a paper published in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin and Review this week, two psychologists from Royal Holloway, University of London, argue that swear words are less likely to contain the consonant sounds l, r, y, and w, suggesting that these seem less offensive to listeners.

Further, these “sonorous” sounds, called approximants, are often used in “minced oaths” or cleaned-up versions of cuss words — like darn for damn, sugar for shit, and frickin’ or friggin’ for you-know-what.

The authors also found that plosive consonants like p, t, k — sounds where the air flow is blocked before exiting the body — are common for insults in English and other related languages, but not necessarily an indicator for profanity in other language families.

The broader importance of these findings is that “sound symbolism” — which refers to certain sounds being associated with certain meanings (like buzz for bees) — could have relevance beyond just language acquisition in young children.

“Our findings demonstrate that sound symbolism is more pervasive, with a broader functional role, than has previously been appreciated,” the researchers write.

The practical implication of this, they add, is that “using words rich in approximants may help defuse tense social situations and so may be important in a range of real-world contexts (e.g., relationship conflict, diplomacy, hostage negotiation).”

Also read: Grunt, hoo & bark — study shows chimpanzees can string together sounds to form ‘sentences’

The human ‘sweardar’

To arrive at their conclusions, the researchers conducted two studies on swearing across languages, combining real-world and experimental data.

In their first study, researchers Shiri Lev-Ari and Ryan McKay recruited speakers of five unrelated languages — Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Korean, and Russian.

The 100 participants, 20 for each language, were then asked to list the worst swear words they knew in their language, a task that some of them quite enjoyed, according to the researchers.

The two psychologists then compared these swear words to control words from an existing database called the Swadesh list (named after linguist Morris Swadesh), which is commonly used in linguistic studies.

They found that swear words rarely include approximants, which are sounds made when air passes between lips and tongue, such as l, r, y, and w.

The next step was what the researchers call their “sweardar” experiment. Here, 215 native speakers of various languages — Arabic, Chinese, Finnish, French, German, and Spanish — were made to hear 80 pairs of pseudo-words. They were then asked to guess which word in the pair was a profanity.

Each pair contained similar words that were modified forms of existing words. The words in a pair differed only in that one contained an approximant and one didn’t. For instance, the Albanian word hosto was changed to josto and wosto, the Tamil word pen to jen and wen, the Greek word dasos to datsos and dalos, and so on.

As the researchers had predicted, the study subjects were significantly less likely to categorise words with approximants as profanities.

Notably, this was true even for native speakers of French, a language that includes swear words with approximants.

This finding suggested that people tend to exhibit a cognitive bias towards sounds as opposed to a linguistic bias learned from their own native languages.

To test the idea that people used approximates to soften harsh words, the researchers looked at a dataset of 67 English “minced oaths” or cleaned-up versions of swear words. Here they found that approximants were more commonly found in minced oaths than in the original swear words. This, they write, indicated that “when speakers altered swear words to render them less offensive, they did so by introducing approximants”.

‘Sound symbolism’ across cultures

Swear words often break taboos by invoking sex and bodily excretions, but they also derive some of their offensiveness from the sounds they typically produce.

The study found that not all sounds are equally suited for profanity. Approximants especially don’t seem to be up to the job — not even in constructed fictional languages like Klingon from the Star Trek universe.

But when it comes to minced oaths, approximants, as mentioned earlier, are quite the go-to.

The authors note that when Douglas Adams’s American publisher objected to the f-word in the third book of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, he replaced it with ‘Belgium’, padding it with jokes about how the word was forbidden everywhere except Earth.

“’Belgium’ is actually a minced oath… The joke plays on the stereotype of Belgium as bland and inoffensive… but the approximant in the word might have helped seal the deal,” the researchers suggest.

Citing previous studies, they delve into why some sounds are perceived as gentler. One reason is that humans and other animals tend to produce harsh sounds when in distress and smoother ones when calm and contented.

These tendencies, they write, may underpin symbolic associations between certain sounds and profanity — and, by extension, others with calmer meanings.

Sound symbolism extends to other things, too. A notable example is a psychological phenomenon called the bouba/kiki effect, which gets its nomenclature from two nonsense words that are presented to participants, along with pictures of a spiky shape and another with rounded edges. Subjects across ages and languages tend to associate “bouba” with the rounded shape and “kiki” with the sharp-edged one.

Similarly, in most languages, the word for nose tends to include the n sound, while the word for skin almost never includes the sound m. People also associate ee sounds with smaller objects, something that even young children do.

When it comes to swear words and sounds, the researchers conclude that here too there seems to be a “robust cross-linguistic sound symbolic association in the minds of human speakers”.

Also read: Meow to you too: Cats know when their human is talking to them, finds French study



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