When Douglas Adams’s U.S. publisher asked him to substitute something less offensive for the f-word in in his novel Life, the Universe, and Everything (one of the sequels to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), Adams made a cheeky decision to swap in the name of an entire country with a reputation for maintaining a diplomatic middle ground. A new linguistic analysis suggests that the choice Adams made—substituting in the word “Belgium” at every instance—may unconsciously have reflected a cross-language pattern of using certain consonant sounds to soften “taboo” words.
The findings, published on December 6 in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, support the idea that speakers may euphemize swear words, or “mince oaths”—think using “darn” for “damn”—by substituting harder consonant sounds with softer ones known as approximants. The pattern was detectable among speakers of several different languages, hinting at a possible universality to softening swears by swapping in more subtle sounds.
Linguists have found that the sounds of a word can sometimes mirror its meaning. A shared “sound symbolism” across languages is not especially surprising when it reflects a real sound in nature, says Benjamin K. Bergen, a professor of cognitive science and director of the Language and Cognition Lab at the University of California, San Diego, who was not involved in the work. Words can indicate something concrete, such as the way that “snap,” “crunch” and “cock-a-doodle-doo” evoke the sounds they represent.
But the sounds in “taboo words” tend to be specific to a given language and not to show the same pattern for similar words in another language. English, for example, relies on “k,” “t” and “p” in such words (you can probably think of a few that contain these consonants), yet that’s not necessarily a pattern in other languages.
The surprise with these new findings, Bergen says “is that this is the first time someone has documented a [sound symbolism] effect with something as abstract as taboo language” across different languages. Using less harsh sounds to mince oaths could be related to mitigating the intended force behind the words. The results may have more general implications and “raise questions about whether words that serve other communicative functions” also might share patterns among different languages, he says.
To detect these patterns for swearing, Ryan McKay, a professor of psychology at Royal Holloway, University of London, and his colleague Shiri Lev-Ari, a lecturer in psychology at Royal Holloway, first conducted a pilot study of 100 people who spoke one of five languages that are only distantly related: Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Korean or Russian. Participants listed the most offensive swears in their language (not including racial slurs). Across the five languages, swear words, compared with nonswear words, tended to be devoid of approximants, including “l,” “r,” “w” and the “y” consonant sound (as in “yawn” or “few”).
The results suggested that approximants might sound too moderate for swears. To test this idea, Lev-Ari and McKay recruited 215 people who spoke one of six languages: Arabic, Chinese, Finnish, French, German or Spanish. Each participant listened to 80 pairs of made-up words, all based on real nonswear words from 20 languages that did not include English.
None of the original real terms contained approximants. To make the word pairs, the authors modified each word to contain either an approximant or a more forceful paired consonant sound known as an affricate (such as “ts” in “tsar”). For example, they took “zog,” the Albanian word for bird, and subbed in the approximant “y” to make “yog” or the affricative “ts” to make “tsog.” Then participants heard the pair and decided which of the two words sounded more sweary.
Terms with approximants (yog) tended to get “not swear” ratings, and those without the more understated sounds (tsog) tended to be rated as swears. Even listeners whose first language was French—which is loaded with approximant-heavy swears (think “merde”)—were likelier to rate affricative-bearing pseudowords as the swearier option.
Finally, the researchers examined whether approximants were often the sounds that are swapped into minced oaths in English. They found that the gentler sounds were far more common in the toned-down versions of swear words.
All three investigations offer different types of evidence “that when you try to make a word less offensive, you introduce approximants,” Lev-Ari says.
What is not clear is how the ear might universally assign sounds as markers of taboo and nontaboo words. “We are not sure what mechanism it is,” she says.
Some researchers have suggested that in English, for example, all of those “p,” “t” and “k” sounds in swear words sound strong and require physical force to produce, perhaps allowing the words to serve as a pressure release valve. But before this study, the pattern was thought to be specific to English, Bergen says. “It’s possible we were looking at things the wrong way,” he says, “that it’s actually approximants that de-taboo words in English and maybe other languages,” whether the taboo versions contain those satisfying consonants or not.
Neither Bergen nor the study authors are comfortable speculating much on practical implications of the findings. It’s possible, Lev-Ari says, that to reduce tension in a stressful or delicate situation, a speaker might go for soothing sounds such as approximants. But “we can’t conclude that from our study right now,” she adds.
The aftermath of the 2020 U.S. presidential race offered a memorable example of mincing an oath, even though it wasn’t one the authors specifically examined. The infamous “Let’s go Brandon” slogan started cropping up on bumper stickers and t-shirts. The expression originated at an October 2011 NASCAR race where attendees were chanting “Fuck Joe Biden,” and a national sports reporter interviewing winner Brandon Brown at the time thought they were saying “Let’s go, Brandon.”
The error quickly became a meme and then a coy slogan, perhaps allowing nonfans of Biden to express their ire on shirts and cars without actually swearing. Even though the phrase “Let’s go Brandon” is “just a coded version of ‘Fuck Joe Biden,’ happily for us, it conforms to our pattern because [it] has a couple of approximants,” compared with none in the original chant, says McKay. “That fits to a nicety.”
For next steps, Lev-Ari and McKay want to look for other cross-linguistic patterns. They are “interested in religion, wondering about words from the bible, including words for God,” McKay says. “Might there be particular sounds that people across different languages associate with a being of power and resonance?”