Swearing is a universal language, scientists have found, as expletives in all languages miss out the same letters.
Certain sounds such as l, r, and w rarely feature in curse words, scientists find, and are more likely to be used in so-called minced oaths, diluted versions designed to cause less offence.
Darn, for example, is a minced oath of damn and is deemed to be a less-offensive version.
Prof Ryan McKay and Dr Shiri Lev-Ari, study co-authors and psychologists from the Royal Holloway University of London, told The Telegraph that the use of the letter r, one of the more inoffensive letters, “may be part of the reason” as to why these PG swear words are deemed more acceptable.
‘The most vulgar words’
The team recruited 215 people who spoke either Arabic, Chinese, Spanish, French, German or Spanish and asked them to rank the offensiveness of “the most vulgar words” that 20 native speakers of Hebrew, Hungarian, Russian, Hindi and Korean could come up with.
After filtering out duplicates and racial slurs, the team was left with 34 swear words and phrases in Hebrew; 14 in Hindi; 14 in Hungarian; 17 in Korean; and 26 in Russian.
The words when translated to English included s—,f—, b——, f—— idiot, w—– and d——-, among others.
Data shows that participants shown these foreign curses were significantly less likely to think that words with r, l and w sounds were swear words.
However, foreign words without these sounds were judged to be swear words 63 per cent of the time.
The scientists say that the r, l and w sounds may make words less offensive because they are sonorous, or filled with deep and rich sounds.
‘Calm and contentment’
“It may be that people associate these sounds with calm and contentment, and so perceive them as unsuitable for giving offence,” the scientists told The Telegraph.
“Both humans and non-human animals produce harsh, abrasive sounds when distressed (e.g., barks, screeches, screams) and smooth sounds when calm and contented, so these tendencies may underpin the associations we found.
“A previous study in English had found that lullabies contained proportionately more of these sounds, so there may be something intrinsically soothing about these sounds.”
The scientists believe their work shows that there is a universal theme to swear words that means they transfer well across languages.
The findings are published in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.
Writing in their paper the scientists said: “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.”
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