Matthew Hunt

Thesis title:

An experimental and qualitative study on the perception of offensive language


‘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). Matthew’s 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. Matthew’s 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 research will also report on how aware the participants are of what might affect their reactions, given that offensive language is typically emotionally laden.

First supervisor:

Colleen Cotter


7 – Linguistics, Media & Culture