Are you really cursing? Neural processing of taboo words in native and foreign language

Simone Sulpizio, Michelle Toti, Nicola Del Maschio, Albert Costa, Davide Fedeli, Remo Job, Jubin Abutalebi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The use of socially opprobrious words (taboo words) is a cross-cultural phenomenon occurring between individuals from almost all social extractions. The neurocognitive correlates of using taboo words in the native language (L1) as compared to their use in a second (L2) language are largely unknown. We used fMRI to investigate the processing of taboo and non-taboo stimuli in monolinguals (Experiment 1) and highly proficient bilinguals (Experiment 2) engaged in lexical decision tasks. We report that for L1 socio-pragmatic knowledge is automatically conveyed and taboo words are processed with less effort than non-taboo words. For L2 the processing of taboo words is more effortful and engages additional structures (anterior cingulate cortex, insula) involved in social-norm representation and evaluation. Our results contribute to understand the interface between language and social-norm processing indicating that lexical processing is affected by socio-pragmatic knowledge, but only when the speaker has a contextual use of the language.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)84-92
Number of pages9
JournalBrain and Language
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2019


  • Bilingualism
  • fMRI
  • Lexical decision
  • Taboo words

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Speech and Hearing


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