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My first question on this site, so please be somewhat lenient :))

My question, put succinctly: Why do we asterisk the vowels in profane words, rather than the consonants?

Now, just a disclaimer, some may be put-off by profanity, or consider some words with different levels of vulgarity than others do, so please use your discretion.

For example:

  • Sh*t
  • F*ck
  • H*ll
  • B*tch
  • C*nt
  • D*mn

These are all the 'common asterisk' spellings. After reviewing through books, social media, television closed-captions, and other instances which call for reduced profanity, I noticed that common practice dictates that the singular vowel be omitted. Since most profanity consist of only one vowel, the process of censorship is quite easy.

Is there a linguistic reason as to why we censor the vowels in profanity, rather than the consonants?

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    I'd imagine it's a combination of two factors: every word needs a vowel, so it's obvious that a vowel has been removed; and there are fewer vowels than consonants possible, so less information is lost. – Draconis Feb 19 '18 at 3:22
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    If instead of f*ck and c*nt we wrote *u** and *u**, you'd never know which word was meant. Consonants differenciate words better than vowels do. – Yellow Sky Feb 19 '18 at 3:23
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    It's a convention of printing, and has nothing to do with language. As it happens, we can leave out the vowel letters and still recognize the words, because there are only 5 vowel letters in English spelling. – jlawler Feb 19 '18 at 3:56
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    The state of things is perhaps quite different from how you see it. You think it's the vowels that are censored, but actually it is all the letters inside the word that are censored, the consonantal clusters being left as they are. Since the English censored words are all one syllable, only vowels get lost, but if you take the Russian word пизда (cunt), it's censored as п***а. I mean, if the English words were longer, more letters would be censored, and not only vowels. – Yellow Sky Feb 21 '18 at 11:23
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Looking at censorship of larger swear words in (British) English, we can see more clearly that the trend seems to be to remove all the internal letters/sounds, as opposed to exclusively the vowels:

This seems to be a compromise between censoring the word completely, and maintaining 'readability' of what the word is (see here for an example of complaint over the ambiguity of censoring which only leaves the initial letter intact).

But note the inconsistency when censoring, for example, bloody:

Presumably because the trend of 'censor all internal letters' seems to coincide in most cases with leaving consonant (cluster) book ends, while bloody ends in a vowel.


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I think it's worth noting that 'vowels are not as relevant as consonants in the interpretation of lexical distinctions' (Nespor, Peña & Mehler, 2003). Apart from there being more consonants than vowels, consonants also tend to become more distinctive within a lexeme, while vowels tend to lose distinctiveness (vowel harmony, vowel reduction e.g. English schwas). Roots often consists of consonants alone, e.g. Semitic languages, whereas it's rare for roots to consist of vowels alone. Experimentally, it was famously demonstrated than when shown the word kebra and asked to change it to a real English word by altering a sound, people tend to say cobra instead of zebra, indicating that vowels are more easily changed in word recognition. All these imply that consonants play a greater role in identifying words, hence censoring just vowels will generally enhance recoverability.

References

Nespor, M., Peña, M., & Mehler, J. (2003). On the different roles of vowels and consonants in speech processing and language acquisition. Lingue e linguaggio, 2(2), 203-230.

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