Social acquisition context matters: Increased neural responses for native but not nonnative taboo words

Katherine Sendek, Grit Herzmann, Valeria Pfeifer, Vicky Tzuyin Lai

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


This study examined whether the context of acquisition of a word influences its visual recognition and subsequent processing. We utilized taboo words, whose meanings are typically acquired socially, to ensure that differences in processing were based on learned social taboo, rather than proficiency. American English-speaking participants made word/non-word decisions on American taboo (native dialect), British taboo (non-native dialect), positive, neutral, and pseudo- words while EEG was recorded. Taboo words were verified as taboo by both American and British English speakers in an independent norming survey. American taboo words showed a more positive amplitude of the Late Positive Complex (LPC), a neural correlate of emotionality and social processing, compared with British taboo words and all other word categories. Moreover, in an item-wise analysis, LPC amplitudes of American taboo words were positively correlated with their taboo ratings. British taboo words did not show this effect. This indicates that American participants, who had very limited social contact with British English, did not have the same perception of social threat from British taboo words as they had from American taboo words. These results point to the importance of social context of acquisition in establishing social-affective meaning in language.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)362-382
Number of pages21
JournalCognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 2022


  • ERP
  • dialects
  • emotion
  • lexical decision
  • social words
  • taboo words

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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