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OSU psychologist finds an aversion to swearing may lead to incorrect word pronunciation

Friday, November 11, 2022

Media Contact: Elizabeth Gosney | CAS Marketing and Communications Manager | 405-744-7497 | egosney@okstate.edu

If you’ve ever struggled to pronounce a new friend’s name or figure out how to say a new technical term, you are not alone, and research is helping us understand why.

Oklahoma State University’s Dr. Sarah Kucker, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology, and the University of Miami’s Dr. Lynn Perry are studying how swearing is connected to pronunciation. 

“Our perceptions of the taboo-ness of words can influence even how we pronounce familiar words,” said Perry, who is an associate professor of psychology. “Consider the alternate pronunciations of the planet Uranus and which one you’d feel more comfortable using around middle schoolers.”

They found that even for adults who have been reading for decades, encountering an unknown written word can make one pause — especially if pronouncing that word might cause confusion or offense.

The new study by Perry and Kucker examined how socially taboo words change how we say new words. In the study, participants read made-up words aloud that were spelled to either rhyme with a swear word, such as “kuck,” or rhyme with a neutral word, like “wug” rhyming with “rug.”

“Usually when we are reading, we sound out words based on other words we know – our prior knowledge can help us sound it out,” said Kucker, whose frequently mispronounced name inspired the investigation. “But our new findings suggest that sometimes the opposite effect might occur: Here, an aversion to swearing can pull you away from pronouncing a word that might make it seem like you are swearing so you are actually less likely to rhyme the word. We’re calling this the Kucker Effect.”

When participants read aloud words that could rhyme with swear words, they made more pronunciation errors than when they read aloud the words that could rhyme with neutral words they found.

Kucker explained that participants who indicated on a survey that they had an aversion to swearing were extra likely to make these errors, whereas those who indicated that they swore frequently were equally accurate in pronouncing all made up words, whether they rhyme with swear words or not.

“So someone who isn’t comfortable swearing would likely pronounce the made up word spelled K-U-C-K as ‘kook’ instead of ‘kuhck,’ which would rhyme it with a taboo word,” Kucker said. “What this tells us is that broad cultural biases, as well as personal preferences, can shape how we read, speak and think, even down to the reading of a single word.

“Who would have thought that your own attraction or repulsion to swearing is changing how you talk,” added Kucker, who said she will respond to being called both Dr. Kooker and Dr. Kuhcker.

 

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