Bastard, cunt, damn it: swear words like this contain relatively few ‘soft’ sounds like r, l, w and y. And it is not unique to Dutch, say two researchers from the University of London in an international study. After research among native speakers of different languages, they conclude that soft sounds are generally used less for cursing or cursing.
The researchers, who are not linguists but psychologists, asked speakers of Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Korean and Russian to name the most offensive words in their languages. These swear words were found to contain fewer r, l, w and y sounds than in ‘normal’ commonly used words from the five languages, all of which come from a different language family.
The researchers then showed native speakers of six other languages—Arabic, Chinese, Finnish, French, German, and Spanish—lists of two made-up words. Subjects were told that one of the two words each time was a swear word and that they had to guess which word it was. The result: Participants identified the words with ‘soft’ sounds as swear words less often than the other pseudowords.
Furthermore, the researchers state on the basis of a literature study: If swear words or offensive words are toned down, they contain the soft sounds. An English example is friggingwith the ‘softer’ r sound, a milder version of Goddamn.
People don’t seem to associate sounds like r, l, w and y with cursing, the researchers say. In linguistics, these sounds are called approximants. In terms of sound and formation in the mouth, they lie between a vowel and a ‘normal’ consonant.
No bath towel
Linguist Mark Dingemanse from Radboud University in Nijmegen, who researches sound symbolism, is not surprised by the results of the research. “It’s not unexpected that some sounds don’t curse nicely,” he says.
Dingemanse explains this in terms of other sounds studied in phonetics. “You have the plosives, like p, j and k. To pronounce them, you hold the air still for a moment, so to speak, and then it comes out all at once. There are also fricatives, like . The approximants, sort of sliding sounds, are in between. And it doesn’t sound good. Logically, because there is no friction.”
Dingemanse would have preferred that the researchers had investigated what fine exclamations are in terms of sound. He compares their study, which he calls interesting, to finding an answer to the question: what can be used as sandpaper? “They basically conclude that bath towels are not used for that in any culture. But what is it? I want to know.”
Diseases and genitals
To what extent is it not logical that people hardly choose those bath towels or those soft sounds? Many swear words draw on an extensive vocabulary of diseases and genitalia. And words like cancer, typhoid and cunt just don’t contain soft sounds – with exceptions, such as dick.
“It may also be that we deliberately do not select diseases that would not do well in relation to sound as a curse,” speculates Dingemanse. “There are hundreds of diseases, some of which may sound softer, but they don’t work as well. It has to be some wear and tear, literally friction.”
It is fodder for follow-up research, says the Nijmegen linguist. In any case, the British research shows (again) that there is often a connection between a word’s form and meaning. Whereas earlier linguists such as Ferdinand de Saussure still believed that this relationship is always completely coincidental—a chair happens to be called a chair—according to Dingemanse, linguists now agree that this is by no means always the case.
Profanity demonstrates this, but there are other examples as well. For example, in many languages the word for “little” contains an i sound, so your mouth literally shrinks to form that word. And the r sound is used for rough textures in many languages.
“And then you have words like ‘zigzagging’ or ‘wiggling’,” says Dingemanse. “With those words, some of the meaning can already be heard in the sound.”