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Researchers: Profanity Has Some Elements of a Universal Language

They found that, in a number of languages, profanity omits certain sounds and stresses others

In a study, researchers found that, across different languages, swear words tended to lack sounds
such as l, r, and w:

Shiri Lev-Ari and Ryan McKay from Royal Holloway, University of London conducted a pilot study with 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 l, r, w and y. The authors suggest that approximants may be less suitable than other sounds for giving offense and investigated this in two further studies.

Springer, “The universal sound of swearing across languages” at Eurekalert (December 5, 2022) The paper is open access.

Then the researchers tried another technique: They made up possible swear words.

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

Springer, “The universal sound of swearing across languages” at Eurekalert (December 5, 2022)

Lastly, they looked at the words people sometimes substitute for swear words, to avoid giving offense:

In a following study, the authors also looked at minced oaths – which are variations of swear words deemed less offensive, for example “darn” instead of “damn”. The authors found that approximants were significantly more frequent in minced oaths than swear words. The authors propose that this introduction of approximants is part of what makes minced oaths less offensive than swear words.

Springer, “The universal sound of swearing across languages” at Eurekalert (December 5, 2022)

Approximants, as they are called, would tend to soften the speech, lessening the impact of the profanity — whereas the speaker may prefer an enhanced impact. The researchers suggest that this may be a universal bias but it would take much more study to determine that.

Why does swearing appear to matter so much anyway? At American Council on Science and Health, Chuck Dinerstein has some ideas:

It is believed that the forbidden quality of swearing heightens its power, especially in the interpersonal sphere. When used among friends, it increases camaraderie, acting as a signal of trust – “I trust you enough to swear in your presence.” The ability of swearing to gain our attention allows it to be used for emphasis, with both the moron driving in front of you or as a stylistic feature of communication with kith and kin.

Chuck Dinerstein, “The Health Benefits Of Swearing – WTF?!” at American Council on Science and Health (November 29, 2022) The paper is open access.

Well, yes, and there are other factors as well. Shouting profanity thoughtlessly in a social setting often causes people to move away from the shouter (after all, he may get drunk and cause real trouble later on…). But when we hear someone shouting profanity in the office or workshop, many of us will tend to move toward the cube or work bench to find out what has happened. In that case, profanity can be both a vent for frustration and a distress signal. But if profanity becomes a regular feature of the employee’s interaction with colleagues (or the public!), it may also be a career-limiting move. In some cases, it may signal a cognitive decline. So much depends on context.

The neurology is interesting:

Studies using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) have suggested that our swear words are stored and processed differently than our everyday speech. A small portion of patients with Tourette’s syndrome exhibit uncontrolled and frequent swearing (the medical term is coprolalia), suggesting that the processing lies in those more “primitive” portions of our brain (amygdala and limbic system) that feature automatic, “impulsive,” behavior …

Chuck Dinerstein, “The Health Benefits Of Swearing – WTF?!” at American Council on Science and Health (November 29, 2022)

Many of us will continue to think that meditation is a better way of dealing with stress.

You may also wish to read: Tibetan monks CAN change their metabolism. Far from disproving it, science has documented it. For decades, a default assumption would be that claims that meditating monks in the Buddhist tradition could greatly raise their temperature or slow their metabolism were assumed to be exaggerations that would yield to a scientific explanation. The scientific explanation turned out to be that they can do exactly that.

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Researchers: Profanity Has Some Elements of a Universal Language