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Fuck. Shit. Bitch. Cunt. I remember reading somewhere -- a very long time ago -- that these "hard" sounds are virtually necessary in profanities. The explanation I roughly remember is that because these "hard sounds" are unmistakable, that is, because there is no half-hearting them in phonation, that lends to them to use in words that one wants to be unmistakable in intent, e.g, in profanities where one wants to intensify a phrase or rile someone up. I remember these being called fricatives.

Unfortunately I'm not a linguist, not even a fair amateur one, and when I went to check Wikipedia for the definition of fricative, I really couldn't make heads or tails of the lingo. I have no idea what those weird letters or the adjective "voiceless" mean. Moreover, I think I'm just plain wrong about those sounds being fricatives -- the examples I found on that page don't seem correspond very well to the hard sounds I mentioned above. My memory about what I read is obviously horribly dashed. Am I in fact correct in observing that profanities tend to have "hard" sound somehow, and if so, could someone give me a name for them so I can go about content I know something really cool?

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I cannot answer your actual question, so here's just a comment. Fricative comes from friction of the moving air. Pronounce ssss or ffff. You almost block the air stream, creating noise. But you don't block the stream completely (as you would for pronouncing t or p), it still flows. As to voiceless, that one is really simple. Pronounce zzz/sss, b/p, g/k, zh/sh, d/t, v/f. Note the difference? The first sound in each of the pairs involves your vocal folds; the second one doesn't — it is literally voiceless. But other than that the two sounds in each pair are identical. –  RegDwigнt Mar 26 '11 at 19:13
Oh, and t, p, k/ck are stops (you actually have to stop the air), while ch is an affricate (you begin with a stop, as in t, but then release it into a fricative, as in sh). –  RegDwigнt Mar 26 '11 at 19:22
Re the unmistakable "hard sounds". I read Brendan Behan's Borstal Boy back in the 60's (and would still recommend it). Behan transcribes his main expletive as fugh, which in my mind's ear I've always pronounced as a very soft g. –  FumbleFingers May 17 '11 at 17:15
I've noticed that a lot of English sexual words contain both g sounds: orgy, g-spot, jack off, jerk off, jizz, ejaculate, vagina, orgasm... I'm sure there are other examples I'm not thinking of... –  Andork Feb 21 at 22:19

3 Answers 3

up vote 5 down vote accepted

The segments you have highlighted in those words are voiceless stops (or plosives), along with one voiceless affricate ("ch").

  1. In deciding whether it is significant that these words have these types of consonants in them, one should consider how common voiceless stops are in words in general. I don't know of any sources offhand that can tell you that, but /p,t,k/ are very common consonant sounds in English.

  2. Another thing one must be able to account for are the profanities that do not have a single voiceless stop or afficate: e.g. ass, douche, damn, hell, bugger, boobs, asshole, douchenozzle, and so on.

  3. But above all, I think the following is extremely important to note: when I say fuck and shit, I often reduce the [k] sound to a glottal stop or an unreleased stop [k̚ ], and I almost always reduce the [t] sound to a glottal stop. (The same is true with cunt, but I feel uncomfortable telling people I "say" that word :) The glottal stop is basically the sudden absence of sound — it is the sound that occurs at the beginning of each syllable in "uh-oh" /ʔʌʔoʊ/. In any case, this is very normal and very common in American English — to the extent that one would generally consider a fully articulated stop in these words to be hyperarticulation. Why would we do this if a major driving force behind the structure of profanities is the very harsh and salient sound of voiceless stops and affricates? The glottal stop is possibly the least salient phoneme in English.

All that said, there could be something psychological going on, and something inherent about those sounds, but at the moment, it sounds like a coincidence to me.

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Regarding point 3, I think a swear word's performance in casual speech is less important than its performance when yelled at the top of one's voice in rage or pain. You might use glottal stops in the former case, but in the latter it would sound like you're holding back. I haven't listened for it, but it seems like maybe people do emphasize the consonant sounds on these words when it really matters. –  Jason Orendorff Mar 28 '11 at 18:51
There is also 'guttural', meaning 'harsh', or 'throaty'. This is often used to describe the sound of German, or Dutch. –  oosterwal Mar 28 '11 at 19:47
@Jason Orendorff: No, even when yelling "shit!" at the top of one's lungs, an American would normally not articulate the "t" as [t]. At the most, it would probably be an unreleased [t ̚]. –  Kosmonaut Mar 28 '11 at 23:51

I think the idea that profanities necessarily have stops ('hard' sounding letters) is unfounded. But to check for a given language you'd have to have a list of profanities, a list of all words, a list of stops in that language. And then you'd have to check that there are absolutely no profanities made of sounds none of which are stops, -and- that the percentage of stops in the profanities are significantly more than in words in the rest of the language.

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I have heard of these referred to as mono-syllabic grunt words.

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Find a link or reference and you got yourself an upvote. :) –  MrHen Mar 27 '11 at 12:56

protected by tchrist Sep 26 '12 at 18:47

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