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Swear words across languages may have more in common than previously thought

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

There's a common trope in sci fi when characters curse.

RYAN MCKAY: I watched "Mork & Mindy" when I was growing up.

CHANG: That's psychologist Ryan McKay. He's, of course, talking about a sitcom that starred a young Robin Williams as an extraterrestrial named Mork.

MCKAY: He would often cry out shazbot when he would, you know, stub his toe or bang his head or something.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MORK AND MINDY")

ROBIN WILLIAMS: (As Mork) Shazbot - I missed.

(LAUGHTER)

MCKAY: And I'd also seen "Battlestar Galactica," and there's this word, frak, which functions as a swear word.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BATTLESTAR GALACTICA")

EDWARD JAMES OLMOS: (As Admiral William Adama) You're both frakking cowards.

MICHAEL HOGAN: (As Saul Tigh) Watch your mouth.

OLMOS: (As Admiral William Adama) Or what?

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Aside from the totally made-up curses in sci fi, McKay has long been curious about what makes a swear word a swear word.

MCKAY: I'm from Western Australia and was exposed to a fair bit of colorful language growing up, and it seems that there were common sound properties.

KELLY: McKay had a hunch that swear words might share sounds, which is why nonsense words from outer space can still resonate.

CHANG: Frak, yeah. And to test this, he enlisted the help of cognitive scientist Shiri Lev-Ari. The two of them teach at Royal Holloway, University of London.

SHIRI LEV-ARI: We didn't want to just come with our own assumption, but to see if we really just look at swear words across languages, do we find patterns - even an anticipated one?

CHANG: So they found native speakers from around the world to basically curse them out.

LEV-ARI: And we specifically chose languages that are not related to each other. So, for example, we had speakers of Korean and Hungarian and Hindi and Hebrew, and we just asked them to tell us the most offensive words in their language.

CHANG: Now, to be clear, they typed these words out. It wasn't, like, face-to-face.

KELLY: But once they got the responses back, they did see a pattern - not so much that the curse words shared the same sounds, but rather they left out the same sounds. They're called approximates.

LEV-ARI: So things such as luh (ph), wuh (ph), yih (ph) and ruh (ph) - they're really avoided in swear words.

KELLY: Sounds from the letters L, R, W and Y were commonly left out. The results appeared this week in the "Psychonomic Bulletin & Review."

CHANG: And although it is a modest finding, Lev-Ari and McKay are excited about the road it might open for future studies.

MCKAY: That's pretty much a foundational assumption of modern linguistics that the connection between the sound and the meaning of the word is arbitrary.

LEV-ARI: And this study shows that, no, that's not the case. The sound also matters.

CHANG: And there is one more thing they learned from their participants.

MCKAY: People really did seem to enjoy supplying these swear words. And, yeah, I got a couple of messages saying, you know, thanks; I really needed that.

KELLY: I mean, Ailsa, who hasn't felt the need to yell shazbot at the end of a really tough day?

CHANG: Shazbot.

(SOUNDBITE OF JASON DERULO SONG, "TALK DIRTY (FEAT. 2 CHAINZ)")

KELLY: This is NPR News (laughter). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Christopher Intagliata
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.