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The power of slurs in reported speech: A survey-based study of native speaker intuitions


  • Jennifer Melckersson

Summary, in English

When slurs are used in indirect reports (e.g., ‘Lisa said that Tom is a [slur]’), there is a disagreement between theories of language about which speaker is responsible for the derogatory content and offensive potential of the slur — the original speaker or the reporting speaker. This debate is specific to slurs and does not typically extend to non-slur pejoratives. To examine this issue, this thesis compares native English speaker intuitions about the offensiveness of slurs, neutral counterparts, and non-slur pejoratives in isolation, indirect reports, and predicative utterances. These intuitions were elicited in two internet-based surveys. Questions asked by the study concern the offensiveness of slurs in predicative utterances versus indirect reports, the differences and/or similarities of slurs and non-slur pejoratives in these same contexts, and the compatibility of selected slur theories with the results of the surveys. Results show that while offensive, slurs in indirect reports are less offensive than slurs in predicative utterances. Results also show that non-slur pejoratives are less offensive than slurs in all conditions, and that the difference between reported non-slur pejoratives and predicative non-slur pejoratives is substantially smaller than the difference between reported and predicative slurs. Therefore, the results contradict theories which attribute offensiveness to the original speaker, and are somewhat compatible with other theories. In the future, research that is better equipped to test for differences in context can further examine the predictive value of such theories. Moreover, the study suggests that most prominent slur theories face issues in explaining the varying degrees of offensiveness found in the judgments of reported slurs. I posit that this issue requires more extensive examination and analysis to fully explore.


Publishing year




Document type

Student publication for Master's degree (two years)


  • Languages and Literatures


  • slurs
  • pejoratives
  • indirect reports
  • reported speech
  • offensiveness
  • native speaker intuition


  • Carita Paradis