An experimental and qualitative study on the perception of offensive language

Lead Research Organisation: Queen Mary, University of London
Department Name: School of Languages Linguistics and Film


'Swear words' are included in a subset of language known as 'offensive language'. They are words which break a historic societal taboo, such as religious defamation, scatology or sexuality, to express the speaker's emotional state (Jay and Janschewitz 2008: 268). The proposed research will examine the correlation between the level of offense that is physiologically measurable in a person exposed to swear words and their ability to accurately report their perception of that offense. A number of studies have analysed the reporting of emotional responses to swear words, e.g., rating swear words in offensiveness from 1-10 (Beers Fägersten 2007). Others have used an experimental methodology to measure a person's emotional response to swear words e.g. by measuring skin conductance responses (Harris et al, 2003). However, no research has been done on whether the two approaches can be combined to improve our understanding of how a word can be considered offensive when physiological evidence suggests that it is not. This research will compare the validity of each approach and the extent to which sociolinguistic factors (cultural norms, social expectations and discourse context) create a gap between reported and unconscious responses. The study will also report on how aware the participants are of what might affect their reactions, given that offensive language is typically emotionally laden.
Even if a word fulfils the requirements to be considered a swear word (Jay and Janschewitz 2008: 268), it is not automatically 'offensive' to any one listener due to the differing nature of taboos in different cultures, as well as personal preferences. A variety of sociolinguistic factors including tone, setting and speaker-listener relationship affect the intended and received level of offense. This means that the assumption that swear words cause harm to people may be incorrectly made. In a society where censorship operates in mainstream media (i.e. television, film, print media), we must draw a distinction between words or phrases that people report as offensive and those that elicit a recorded emotional response; this should lead to a greater understanding of why certain types of language elicit emotion. Any discrepancies between reported and measured offensiveness could trigger further research on what causes the mismatches. The benefits of an experimental approach to the study of emotionally-charged language are outlined by Spotorno and Bianchi (2015), who cite previous successful experimental studies of the effect of slurs on attention and memory (Costafreda et al, 2014; Buchanan et al, 2006) as justification. They present the advantages and disadvantages of the two methodological approaches that will be used in this study, namely qualitative (questionnaires, semi-structured interviews, analysis of free speech examples) and experimental ('measures that provide some insight into the activity of our cognitive systems' - e.g. a lab experiment measuring brain activity) (ibid: 3). The combination of the two methods in a single study will allow a direct comparison to be made, improving our understanding of taboo language from a larger sociolinguistic standpoint and the way people process that offensiveness from a neurological standpoint. Jay (2008: 269) also highlights the need for a psychosocial understanding of swearing; Comparing a person's own understanding of what they consider to be offensive with a measured physiological response will go some way to fulfilling this need.
Main Research Questions
How accurately can a person perceive their own emotional response to taboo language?
How aware are people of the factors that affect their emotional response to swear words?
To what extent does an emotional response trigger an expression of that emotion?
The use of either EEG scans or autonomic testing combined with particpant interviews to analyse any differences between claimed and observed emotional response.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000703/1 30/09/2017 29/09/2027
1917957 Studentship ES/P000703/1 30/09/2017 30/12/2021 Matthew Christopher Hunt