If a Japanese ever insulted you, something might have told you deep inside what’s going on, even though you don’t normally understand the language at all. And no, not because the person in question might have come frowning at you and using an aggressive and loud tone.
Thanks to a team of psychologists from the University of London who were curious enough to study the science of swearing, it turns out that cuss words and expressions have something weird in common, and it doesn’t have to do with the language used.
Swearing usually lacks ‘aproximants’
The similarity in question is the lack of ‘aproximants’ that swearing usually has. This refers to the sounds we make when we bring our hard palate, lips, teeth, or tongue close to one another without actually making contact. Therefore, it becomes clear why swearing usually sounds harsh, regardless of the language that the speaker uses.
The researchers analyzed 20 participants who were speakers of different languages. They were asked to name as many swear words as they knew. The researchers settled on 34 offensive words and expressions in Hebrew, 17 in Korean, 26 in Russian, 14 in Hindi, and 14 in Hungarian.
Lev-Ari and McKay, the two psychologists who are responsible for the new research, explained in their work, as ScienceAlert quotes:
What our results point to is an underlying cognitive bias, a predisposition that will have acted in concert with historical accident to shape the evolution of swear words,
Just as the association between nasal sounds and words for “nose” does not manifest in every language – or even in most languages – we should not expect that the pattern we have identified will manifest in every language, and even languages that reflect the pattern are likely to have swear words with approximants, though fewer than would be predicted by their sound system.
The new study can be found in the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.