Oh Profanity!

Some of them may shock you and some of them you may have used yourself but swear words and cursing have always existed in languages.

It might not have always been in your lessons at school but Shakespeare’s great works are full of them. He’s great on insults and curses too, some of which we still use today.

“Villain, I have done thy mother.”
From Titus Andronicus

So it will come as no surprise that a group of researchers from Royal Holloway the University of London have studied swear words and in particular the sounds of them.

The study used 215 participants and 6 different languages.

Shiri Lev-Ari and Ryan McKay first looked at speakers of five unrelated languages (20 individuals per language) and asked them to list the most offensive words they knew in their language, excluding racial slurs.

The initial study revealed that swear words were less likely to include approximants, which include sounds like lrw and y.

To explore why this was the case the research was extended.

The 215 participants (from across six different languages) were asked to rate pairs of pseudo-words (imaginary words created by the researchers), one of which included an approximant. For example, in Albanian, the word “zog”, meaning “bird”, and changed this to “yog” to include an approximant and “tsog” without an approximant. They found that participants 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.

Then they 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. They propose that this introduction of approximants is part of what makes minced oaths less offensive than swear words.

The use of approximants may not necessarily render a word inoffensive but the researchers suggest that their findings indicate an underlying trend in how swear words may have evolved across different languages. Also highlighted in the research is that some languages do have swear words that include approximants such as French, 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.

Click on this link to access the study paper, The sound of swearing: Are there universal patterns in profanity, published in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review (2022)

“You starveling, you eel-skin, you dried neat’s tongue, you bull’s pizzle, you stock-fish!”
From Henry IV, Part 1

white and gray cat lying on mossy ground
Photo by Min An on Pexels.com

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  1. The only Gaelic words I know are nursery rhymes, endearments and …insults. It’s surprising how you can get by with those three forms of expression!