Sound symbolism is when a word sounds like what it means. One type is onomatopoeia; for example, words that describe a cat’s meow or a rooster’s crow are similar across many languages. Globally, words having to do with noses often include the nasal N sound, and words related to smallness often have an “ee” sound (as in “mini” or “teensy weensy”), like the squeaking of a small creature.
To look for patterns in swearing, the researchers asked fluent speakers of Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Korean and Russian to list the most vulgar words they could think of. Once they’d compiled a list of each language’s most frequently used epithets, the researchers compared these with neutral words from the same language.
In these languages, they didn’t find the harsh-sounding stop consonants that seem common in English swear words. “Instead, we found patterns that none of us expected,” Dr. Lev-Ari said. The vulgar words were defined by what they lacked: the consonant sounds L, R, W and Y. (In linguistics, these gentle sounds are called approximants.)
Next, the scientists looked for the same phenomenon using speakers of different languages: Arabic, Chinese, Finnish, French, German and Spanish. The subjects listened to pairs of words in a language they didn’t speak, and guessed which word in each pair was offensive. In reality, all the words were invented. For example, the researchers started with the Albanian word “zog,” for “bird,” and created the pair of fake words “yog” and “tsog.” Subjects were more likely to guess that words without approximants, such as “tsog,” were curses.
Finally, the researchers combed through the dictionary for English swear words and their cleaned-up versions, also called minced oaths (“darn,” “frigging” and so on). Once again, the clean versions included more of the sounds L, R, W and Y.