Beyond “Mention vs. Use”: The Linguistics of Slurs

The N-Word in the Culture Wars

Can Words Do Real Things?

On August 8, 2016, Steven Pinker tweeted, “the first insight of linguistics, going back to Plato, is that words are conventions, without magical powers. That’s being nullified by PC/SJW attacks on mentioning taboo words, even ironically or in works of art.”

Spock saying to Kirk, “Worry is a human emotion, Captain. I accept what has happened.”
Research in other domains of human cognition, such as perception, attention, memory, reasoning, and decision- making, has shown that emotion matters quite a lot there. Wouldn’t it be reasonable to assume this holds for language processing too? Furthermore, apart from being just another domain of human cognition, language also happens to be one of the pillars of human sociality, a sociality that is deeply affective. Just like other mammals, we care about such things as dominance, family, and sex.
Schematic model of the processing cascade that characterizes an unfolding emotion. Apart from the canonical stimulus → appraisal → action package cascade, the schema also indicates that appraisals always reflect how a stimulus relates to one or more interests or concerns of the perceiver, and that a stimulus can generate more than one emotion simultaneously. To the extent that ingredients of the action package (plus possibly of the appraisal) emerge in consciousness, the emotion at…

What Makes A Slur?

There are two primary schools of thought regarding what makes a slur, a slur. One is that a slur is any term for a group of people that becomes associated with bigoted abuse. As Nunberg (2018) says, “racists don’t use slurs because they’re derogatory; slurs are derogatory because they’re the words that racists use.”

An expression e is a slur if (i) e semantically invokes a complex which can be used to derogate a particular group; (ii) the derogation of that group functions to subordinate them within some structure of power relations supported by an actualized flawed ideology; (iii) the group is one defined by an intrinsic property (e.g race / gender / sexuality / abled-ness).

Two Elements of Slurs: derogation and offensiveness

Most linguists looking at slurs agree that the meaning of a slur depends on two elements: derogation and offensiveness. A word is derogatory if the person using it endorses the content that it is contemptible to be a member of the group being referred to. A word is offensive if it invokes a sociohistorical meaning that involves extreme bigotry, horror, or violence.

Mentioning the Slur: Deciding To Be That Guy

The linguistic literature is firm that choosing to say the slur when there’s a non-derogatory option, a redacted version, or a euphemism available says something about what kind of person you are identifying as. Nunberg disagrees with Henderson, Klecha, and McCready about where that line is. Reasonable people can disagree on this, but it’s not reasonable to claim that there is no such thing as a “mention” case that’s out of line.

Tone Policing And Epistemic Injustice

When I asked my linguistics and philosophy friends what they thought was relevant to the question of racial slurs and how they function in American societies, Megan Figueroa of the Vocal Fries podcast brought up the asymmetry of civility and tone policing. In fact, this tendency is actually quite well-described by feminist philosophers. For those of us who researched the sequence of events after the open letter to the Linguistic Society of America went out, it could not be more painfully obvious that there is a different standard for what constitutes civility for folks on either side of the “cancel culture” debate. Pinker and his allies got to call us “out to lunch,” compare us to Maoists, Big Brother, demons at the gates, and all kinds of other hyperbolic epithets, but our meek suggestion — that Pinker’s tendency to contradict and obscure the work of less prominent linguists in pursuit of an anti-social-justice ideology might make him an unsuitable representative for us — was completely over the line. When Obama went on the WTF podcast and said the N-word, certain people hated it. It seems like when you’re calling out bad behavior in those who fight on the side of the status quo, the mere fact of your objection is considered uncivil. But when you’re the one standing athwart history, yelling “Stop,” when you’re gainfully employed regularly publishing op-eds and books about how social justice is the Real Threat to Western Civilization, then it feels like a natural right that you should get to say the N-word whenever you want.



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Caitlin Green

Caitlin Green

PhD in linguistics, writing about cultural discourses, analyzing discourse in interaction. @caitlinmoriah on Twitter