In any language, cursing sounds gosh darn similar

''Holy motherforking shirtballs!'' a character exclaimed on ''The Good Place,'' a television show that took place in a version of the afterlife where swearing is forbidden. In a way, this celestial censorship was realistic.

A study in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review found that curse words in several unrelated languages sound alike. They're less likely than other words to include the consonant sounds L,R, W or Y.

And more family-friendly version of the curses often have these sounds added, just like the R in ''shirt'' or ''fork.'' The finding suggests that some underlying rules may link the world's languages, no matter how different they are.

''In English, some of the worst words seem to have common phonetic properties,'' said Ryan McKay, a psychologist at the University of London. They're often short and punchy and tend to include the sounds P, T or K, ''without giving any obvious examples,'' Dr. McKay said.

These sounds are called stop consonants because they interrupt the airflow when we're speaking. Dr. McKay teamed up with his colleague Shri Lev-Ari to learn whether this familiar pattern went beyond English. They wondered whether it might even represent what's called sound symbolism.

Sound symbolism is when a word sounds like the thing it is describing. One type is onomatopoeia, for example, words that describe a cat's meow or a rooster's crow are similar across many languages. [ Elizabeth Preston ]


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