Although different languages may have different swear words, they all tend to lack similar sounds, according to new research.
Sounds such as I, r and w are missing from a range of swear words in five different languages.
This common pattern of profanity indicates that these sounds, called approximants, may sound less offensive to listeners, the researchers said.
Swear words are believed to have sounds that facilitate the expression of emotion and attitude.
However, according to scientists, so far no study has investigated whether there is a universal pattern in the sound of swear words in different languages.
Writing in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, the researchers say: “Our findings reveal that not all sounds are equally suited to profanity and demonstrate that sound symbolism – in which certain sounds are intrinsically associated with certain meanings – is more widespread than previously appreciated, extending beyond naming single concepts to serving pragmatic functions.
The researchers asked 215 people (from six different languages - Arabic, Chinese, Finnish, French, German, Spanish) to rate pairs of 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 it to “yog” to include an approximant and “tsog” without an approximant.
The study found that people were significantly less likely to judge words with approximants to be swear words and selected words without approximants to be swear words 63% of the time.
In a later study, the authors also looked at hash oaths – which are variations of swear words deemed less offensive, for example “darn” instead of “damn”.
They found that approximants were significantly more common in hashed oaths than in swear words.
According to the researchers, the introduction of approximants is part of what makes hashed oaths less offensive than swear words.
Although the use of approximants does not necessarily render a word harmless, the authors suggest that their results indicate an underlying trend in the way swear words may have evolved in different languages.
They also point out that some languages, such as French, have swear words that include approximants, but the French speakers included in the study still rated pseudo-swear words without approximants as swear words, suggesting that there may be a universal bias.
The results suggest a potential universal pattern for swearing in different languages, with the lack of approximations being a common feature when perceiving swear words, the researchers said.