No F—ing Way: No Matter Where You Travel in the World, Swear Words Sound the Same
One of the beautiful things about travel is that even when you don’t speak the language, you can distinctly tell when the locals are muttering under their breath that they think you’re “a dumbass tourist.” You’re not just being paranoid either; new research has recently confirmed that no matter where you are geographically in the world, most swear words sound the same.
More specifically, there are particular sounds that make words come off as less offensive, known as approximants, that are universal across different languages. On the flip side, profanity contains fewer approximants (mainly the letters l, r, w and y), regardless of what language you’re cussing someone out in.
Shiri Lev-Ari and Ryan McKay, both psychology professors at Royal Holloway University of London, confirmed this through a series of three studies. First, they recruited 20 fluent speakers in Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Korean and Russian and asked them to “consider both the most vulgar words that are used in (their language) when someone gets hurt or frustrated, and the most offensive words that are used to curse someone (i.e., to disparage or insult them).”
The participants were asked to provide a minimum of five to 10 words, but occasionally gave phrases that were “the equivalent of ‘Go suck your sister’s balls,’” Lev-Ari and McKay noted in the most academic way possible. In total, they identified 39 swear words and phrases in Hebrew, 19 in Hindi, 27 in Hungarian, 25 in Korean and 31 in Russian. Overall, these swear words were less likely to contain approximants compared to non-offensive words.
From there, Lev-Ari and McKay tasked 215 participants who spoke six additional languages — Arabic, Chinese, Finnish, French, German and Spanish — with picking out profanity in other languages. Again, most of the words they selected didn’t contain approximants.
For the final part of their study, Lev-Ari and McKay investigated near swear words like “darn,” which are called “minced oaths.” Or as they explained with their scientifically-sanctioned filthy mouths, “Fucking has many altered versions including frigging and effing.” After analyzing 67 minced oaths that corresponded with 24 different swear words, including a large proportion of English words, Lev-Ari and McKay discovered that these cleaned-up versions of profanities were more likely to contain approximants, theoretically making them less loaded.
“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,” they concluded.
So no matter where you go, you don’t need Rosetta Stone to understand if someone is calling you a “f-cking asshole.” You’ll just know from the sound of it.