The sound of swearing: Are there universal patterns in profanity?
Why do swear words sound the way they do? Swear words are often thought to have sounds that render them especially fit for purpose, facilitating the expression of emotion and attitude. To date, however, there has been no systematic cross-linguistic investigation of phonetic patterns in profanity. In an initial, pilot study we explored statistical regularities in the sounds of swear words across a range of typologically distant languages. The best candidate for a cross-linguistic phonemic pattern in profanity was the absence of approximants (sonorous sounds like l, r, w and y). In Study 1, native speakers of various languages (Arabic, Chinese, Finnish, French, German, Spanish; N = 215) judged foreign words less likely to be swear words if they contained an approximant. In Study 2 we found that sanitized versions of English swear words - like darn instead of damn - contain significantly more approximants than the original swear words. 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.