Matthew Hunt
January 2020

What do you work on?

I work on a mix­ture of soci­olin­guis­tics and seman­tics, through the lens of lan­guage per­cep­tion. More specif­i­cal­ly, I look at how inter­nal lin­guis­tic vari­a­tion in swear­ing influ­ences per­son perception.

What did you do using Gorilla?

I used Gorilla to run a vari­ant cat­e­go­riza­tion task using a mix­ture of reg­u­lar words, swear­words and legal non-words all end­ing with the mor­pheme ‘-ing’. Tokens of these words were arti­fi­cial­ly manip­u­lat­ed in a MATLAB based pro­gram called TANDEM-STRAIGHT to cre­ate pho­net­ic con­tin­ua between the two com­mon pro­nun­ci­a­tions of ‘-ing’: the stan­dard [ɪŋ] vari­ant (e.g. in ‘play­ing’) and the more non-stan­dard [ɪn] vari­ant (e.g. in ‘playin’). The 7‑step con­tin­ua cre­at­ed some poten­tial­ly ambigu­ous tokens of each item.

In a forced-choice vari­ant cat­e­go­riza­tion task, par­tic­i­pants heard 30 test stim­uli (plus 20 dis­trac­tors). On each trial, par­tic­i­pants had to use their key­boards to select whether they heard an ‘-ing’ word or an ‘-in’ word. I hypoth­e­sised that, for swear­words, lis­ten­ers would be biased to select the more infor­mal [ɪn] vari­ant when the token was acousti­cal­ly ambigu­ous – the same bias shouldn’t occur for pho­net­i­cal­ly match­ing reg­u­lar words and legal non-words. This pre­dic­tion was moti­vat­ed by the fact that, like the [ɪn] vari­ant, swear­words are also more fre­quent in infor­mal contexts.

What did you find?

Con­trary to this hypoth­e­sis, swear­words actu­al­ly biased lis­ten­ers towards select­ing the [ɪŋ] vari­ant on ambigu­ous tokens, com­pared with reg­u­lar words and non-words. The results sug­gest that, rather than swear­words cue­ing the alve­o­lar form, as pre­dict­ed, swear­words inhib­it­ed per­for­mance. Swear­words are shown to take up more atten­tion­al resources than neu­tral words, for exam­ple in Stroop tasks. With par­tic­i­pants’ atten­tion on the ‘-ing’ token, the swear­words dis­tract­ed them from this task. As a result, they default­ed to the under­ly­ing form (the [ɪŋ] vari­ant) as the most like­ly option. The results have con­se­quences for how soci­olin­guists inter­est­ed in cog­ni­tion think about atten­tion­al load in perception.


Are your mate­ri­als avail­able in Gorilla Open Materials?

Yes, you can find them here!

For you, what is the stand-out fea­ture in Gorilla?

The best aspect of Gorilla is the func­tion­al­i­ty of the exper­i­ment builder for peo­ple with lit­tle to no cod­ing expe­ri­ence. The process is very sim­ple and allows for a large amount of customization.

How did Gorilla make your life or research bet­ter, eas­i­er or faster?

Gorilla allowed me to auto-reject peo­ple that failed catch tri­als dur­ing my exper­i­ment. It was impor­tant that par­tic­i­pants were able to dif­fer­en­ti­ate between unam­bigu­ous tokens of ‘-ing’ and ‘-in’ – to test this I used a series of prac­tice tri­als. Gorilla then reject­ed any­one who failed to reach this thresh­old by includ­ing their per­for­mance as embed­ded data.

How do you think online research is going to change your field?

Pre­vi­ous­ly, most lan­guage per­cep­tion stud­ies required peo­ple to come into the lab in per­son, which was both cost­ly and time-con­sum­ing – the same is true of gram­mat­i­cal­i­ty judg­ment tasks.

“Online research means this work can be done much faster and at lower cost.”

When you’re not work­ing what do you enjoy doing?

In my spare time I work as a spe­cial con­sta­ble in the met­ro­pol­i­tan police in Lon­don – I spend time polic­ing the South East bor­oughs of Lon­don on a vol­un­tary basis. Apart from that, I am a keen rugby play­er and I have recent­ly start­ed play­ing a lot of chess.

Who or what orig­i­nal­ly inspired you to work in your field of research?

I have oddly been inter­est­ed in swear­ing for a long time, back to my under­grad­u­ate stud­ies. Dur­ing that time I worked part-time as a night­club door­man in Southamp­ton, which exposed me to some less-than-savoury lan­guage on a fair­ly reg­u­lar basis.

“I have a par­tic­u­lar anec­dote about a time a cus­tomer referred to me, in on sen­tence, using two seem­ing­ly con­tra­dic­to­ry swear­words for the male and female gen­i­talia respec­tive­ly. This amused me so much that I then decid­ed to start research­ing swear­ing in my stud­ies and, well, here we are.”

What are the main ways peo­ple mis­un­der­stand your thesis?

Some of my work focus­es on the gram­mat­i­cal­i­ty of swear­ing. For exam­ple, I ran an exper­i­ment on Gorilla look­ing at infix­ing e.g. fan‑f*cking-tastic. Accord­ing to phono­log­i­cal the­o­ry, this is con­strained by prosody, mean­ing that it is ill-formed to say fanta‑f*cking-stic.

I think some peo­ple take this as me say­ing that you should always swear accord­ing to the gram­mar. But frankly, I don’t care how you swear – the beau­ty of swear­ing, par­tic­u­lar­ly in Eng­lish, is that is so per­mis­sive and so end­less­ly cre­ative. I often encounter non-lin­guists more gen­er­al­ly that think I am going to be a gram­mar-nazi, but again, no self-respect­ing lin­guist would actu­al­ly spend their time cor­rect­ing peo­ple – it goes direct­ly against what we stand for.

If you could inter­view any researcher (alive or dead), who would it be and why?

I’d liked to have inter­viewed Simone de Beau­voir, for the sim­ple fact that she was a bril­liant writer and thinker. I have anoth­er project about phras­es like ‘the wife’, which is so much more com­mon than ‘the hus­band’, and I’d be keen to get her take on it.

Why did you choose Gorilla?

A pre­vi­ous attempt at run­ning an online exper­i­ment had used free soft­ware – while cheap­er, their serv­er couldn’t sus­tain the level of activ­i­ty, to the exper­i­ment would reg­u­lar­ly crash. I chose Gorilla on advice from my PhD super­vi­sor, anoth­er reg­u­lar user.

Did you include any spe­cial fea­tures in your study to ensure good qual­i­ty data? If so, what did you do?

I used a head­phone check task to ensure that par­tic­i­pants were indeed using head­phones and not just the speak­ers on their com­put­ers. This task was cre­at­ed by anoth­er research group. It is a 3‑AFC “Which tone is qui­etest?” task with 200Hz pure tones. Unbe­knownst to the par­tic­i­pant, a ran­dom one of the tones is in antiphase across the stereo chan­nels, result­ing in heavy atten­u­a­tion only when heard over loud­speak­ers (but not over head­phones). This results in very poor per­for­mance if the task is attempt­ed with­out headphones.

What is the biggest advan­tage of online research methods?

Ensur­ing qual­i­ty results that would match those that you could col­lect in the lab.

What advice would you give to some­one start­ing out in behav­iour­al sci­ence research?

The only way to learn is trial and error. You can read all the open mate­ri­als and advice columns, but ulti­mate­ly you won’t learn what works and what doesn’t until you have tried to cre­ate an exper­i­ment from start to fin­ish. Also, pilot pilot pilot – I can’t stress that enough.

What’s your favourite sci­ence inter­net meme?

Any meme that exem­pli­fies the strug­gles of sta­tis­tics and R in particular.

Are there any online cours­es, pod­casts, dis­cus­sion groups or resources that you’d rec­om­mend to others?

For any­one inter­est­ed in seman­tics (and who can speak Ger­man), there is a great series on YouTube by Daniel Gutz­mann.

What sci­ence book have your read recent­ly that you’d rec­om­mend to others.

A great new book about lin­guis­tics for the gen­er­al read­er is Lan­guage Unlim­it­ed: The Sci­ence Behind Our Most Cre­ative Power by David Adger.

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Matthew Hunt
PhD Student
Queen Mary University of London
Potrait of Matthew Hunt

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