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Got a Vulgar Vocab? New Research Says Swearing Is a Sign of a Healthy Brain

by Rafi Schwartz

December 15, 2015
Image via (cc) Flickr user missnita

Here’s some good fucking news—research published last month in the journal Language Sciences indicates that a vulgar vocabulary isn’t the mental crutch many believe it to be. In fact, people who swear more may have stronger language skills overall. 

In “Taboo word fluency and knowledge of slurs and general pejoratives: deconstructing the poverty-of-vocabulary myth,” psychologists Kristin and Timothy Jay, of Marist college and the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, respectively, essentially pit two competing language theories against each other in order to determine the place of swear words within our broader language palette.

They write: 

A folk assumption about colloquial speech is that taboo words are used because speakers cannot find better words with which to express themselves: because speakers lack vocabulary. A competing possibility is that fluency is fluency regardless of subject matter—that there is no reason to propose a difference in lexicon size and ease of access for taboo as opposed to emotionally neutral words.

In other words: Does ample swearing (the titular “taboo word fluency”) serve to prop up an otherwise weak expressive tool kit, or does a robust vulgar vernacular simply indicate a healthier vocabulary as a whole?

To test this, the duo asked study participants to rattle off as many “taboo words” as they could within 60 seconds, before asking them to do the same with a more benign subject, such as animal names, in what is known as the Controlled Oral Word Association Test. They then compared the findings of each test, and determined that those who were able to list more curse words were also able to list more words in the other associative trials—essentially showing a connection between facility at swearing and a larger overall vocabulary. 

According to The Independent, the researchers conclude in their paper that “the overall finding of this set of studies, that taboo fluency is positively correlated with other measures of verbal fluency, undermines the POV [Poverty of Vocabulary] view of swearing. That is, a voluminous taboo lexicon may better be considered an indicator of healthy verbal abilities rather than a cover for their deficiencies.”

What’s more, because the researchers categorized the types of vulgarities listed (slurs, general pejoratives, sexual terms, etc) they could determine that “speakers who use taboo words understand their general expressive content as well as nuanced distinctions that must be drawn to use slurs appropriately.”

Swearing, as it turns out, is a sign of verbal intelligence, rather than linguistic deficiency. 

No bullshit. 

[via the interrobang]

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Got a Vulgar Vocab? New Research Says Swearing Is a Sign of a Healthy Brain