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A linguist explains, from a pragmatic perspective, why this is a slur no one ever needs to use.

Linguist Aliah Luckman went viral last week for her linguistic and pragmatic explanation as to why the N-word is, and will always be, inappropriate to use. For those who missed it, she has bestowed upon us a guide to never using the deeply loaded racial slur again. 

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Who can use the N-word?

First and foremost, it is important to substitute “can” for “should” where this question is concerned. When told you can’t do something, the triggering response is “Why can’t I?” challenging you to search for reasons to grant you permission to go ahead and do it. Whereas when you’re told you shouldn’t do something, you react with “Why shouldn’t I?” summoning caution and self-reflection—here, you’re concerned with preventing self-harm. 

Whether that harm is to your reputation or being socked in the face, white people and non-black people of color should refrain from using the N-word in all forms. This is due in part to the linguistic history and meaning of the word, as well as the pragmatics, or context, in which it is used, and to whom and by whom.

 

What does it mean?

The word has referred to black people since well before it became part of the English language. In 1422, Portuguese sailors first encountered the people of West Africa in search of gold, salt, and other commodities. This encounter birthed the Portuguese/Spanish term “negro,” which came from Latin “niger,” meaning “black” or “dark.”

English contains a series of loan words deriving from romance languages, including what we now refer to as “the N-word.” So, as far as we know, in the English language, the word has always denoted blackness.

After rapper Kendrick Lamar’s noble attempt to reclaim the word in his song “I,” there has been a misconception that the English word stems from the Ethiopian Amharic term “negus,” meaning “king.” This is false. Think about it, are racist colonizers more likely to borrow words from the very people they are slaughtering and enslaving, or from their European counterparts?

These are the same people who terrorized Native Americans and stuck them in melting pot institutions for speaking their own tongue. Moreover, American slaves generally originated from Western Africa, while Ethiopians resided East, so the two languages should not have intersected at that time.

 

Why is it harmful?

Each ethnic group carries its own list of racially appointed slurs, but black people have by far the longest, including Ape, Buck, Colored, Coon, Crow, Jigaboo, Mammy, (Porch) Monkey, Pickaninny, and Spook, to list a few. Each of these words denote what white people believed to be specific “characteristics” of black people. “Nigger,” however, was the holy mother of them all, because it expressed white people’s all-encompassing repugnance for black people. According to the African American Registry, the hateful slur implies laziness, ignorance, and inferiority, and was used frequently to modify nouns, verbs, and other adjectives.

Examples:

“Nigger luck”: good luck received by someone without merit

“Nigger tipping”: the act of leaving a poor tip, or no tip at all

“Nigger-brown”: a dark brown, subsequent to just “brown”

“Nigger” was also a common pet name for animals with dark-colored fur.

The slur, especially during the Jim Crow era, was used in various nursery rhymes and children’s books sung and read to celebrate the demise of black people. Examples include Agatha Christie’s 1939 “Ten little Niggers” (later “Ten little Indians”), “Eanie Meany Miney Mo” (where “Tiger” later replaced the slur), and Harry C. Browne’s “Nigger Love a Watermelon, Ha! Ha! Ha!” (sung to the tune of the iconic ice cream truck melody we know and love today).

How did the word become so commonly used by black people today?

The transition to the modern form of the slur can be linked to African American Vernacular English (AAVE), a dialect of English with its own set of phonological rules.

These rules govern how sounds are sequenced in words.

Among these rules are what some call “r-dropping” or “non-rhotic behavior.” In words with syllables ending in the “r” sound, the “r” is deleted and sometimes replaced by an unstressed vowel called “schwa” (ə), which sounds like “uh.”

“Four” becomes “foe”; “Fire” becomes “fiyuh”; “mother” becomes “mothuh”; and so on.

Before anyone is quick to call this process “ghetto,” r-drop exists in several other English dialects including those of England, Australia, and New Zealand. When applied to the word “nigger,” the “r” is deleted and becomes “nigguh,” triggering a change in spelling and a shift in connotation.

Today, there is an intuitive distinction between the tones of the hard-r suffix in “nigger” (which is alarming even when uttered even by other black people), versus the commonly used suffix in “nigga.” Linguistically, the suffix “–a” acts as what is called a diminutive suffix, which attach to the end of words to lessen the severe or formal meaning. Other diminutive suffixes include the “–y” in “Daddy” or “doggy,” which denote familiarity, intimacy, or informality. Similarly, “nigga” has become a term of familiarity.

 

Now bare with me as I break it down further, linguistically: Pragmatics is the study of language and meaning in context; thus pragmatic competence is the ability to use language appropriately under various circumstances. These circumstances include the purpose for communicating, the relative status of those communicating, and the location of communication. Relative status is the most important component when it comes to using appropriate and non-offensive speech.

For example, when asking a sibling to pass you a tissue box, you might simply point and shout “Kleenex!” However, when you’re sitting in your boss’ office, you might try a more formal, “Could you please pass me some tissue?” This is because the relative status between you and your sibling is much different from that between you and the person who signs your paychecks.

Many languages have this distinction of relative status embedded in pronouns:

French “vous vs. “tu; Spanish “usted vs “tu; German “sie vs “du; Chinese “nín vs “nĭ, etc.

In certain cultures, strangers and elders might feel offended when addressed with familial “you” for lack of respect; whereas friends and family might feel offended when addressed by formal “you” because of the implied distance.

The concept of relative status is especially important in use of socially and historically derogatory terms.

I took this understanding to Twitter. Given a scenario where two homeless men were teasing each other, one calling the other a “hobo,” 87 percent of 3,662 voters on Twitter felt that this exchange was not offensive.

In contrast, 93 percent of voters concluded that the exchange would be offensive between a man in a suit and the homeless men.

This pattern continued with the use of the R-slur between individuals with intellectual disabilities, the F-slur between gay males, and “bitch” between women. Majority of voters felt that derogatory slurs used by members within the targeted group were less offensive than used by someone outside of it.

Even if your friend with intellectual disabilities “allowed” you to use the R-slur in their presence, would you use it to address others? No, at least I hope not! Reason being, language use licensed in one circumstance does not warrant such use in any circumstance.

A white person asked me, what if your black friends “let you use nigga all the time?” My answer: Your friend doesn’t speak for the entire black community, and technically doesn’t have clearance to permit your everyday use of the word.

Women have succeeded in using “bitch” in various registers to express different meanings, including an address of endearment or familiarity. When used by men however, the word is offensive in all registers because historically, it has been used by men to belittle and degrade women. For this very reason, white people and non-black people of color cannot gauge the same meaning from the N-word. Using it in this way is just as inappropriate as addressing the Queen of England as the diminutive “Lizzy.”

What if I’m not black, but I’m a person of color?

Non-black people of color have no more right to utter the word than white people. Because of America’s history with slavery, black people were and have always been at the bottom of the ethnic hierarchy (maybe with the exception of Native Americans), and seeing as how you have not suffered the same oppression of the word, using it is just as insensitive. This also applies to non-black people who have grown up surrounded by black culture. How would you feel if every time you used the word, you were retorted with the racial slur designated for your ethnic group? If you truly wish to use racial slurs so desperately, commoditize your own.

What if it’s in a song?

What if it’s in a song? You should have no more compulsion to scream the word at a rap concert than you have to sing the original version of Black Eyed Peas’ “Let’s get It Started” in a group of children with disabilities. Making it this far in the article, you should have come to a point of understanding where you can make a conscious decision to filter yourself.

If the word is so bad, should black people really be using it?

The short answer is no; no more than homeless people should call themselves “hobos” or children with intellectual disabilities should call themselves the R-word or gay people should call each other the F-slur or women should call each other “bitches.” Still, we do, and if we so happen to stumble upon someone of the same relative status who feels truly offended by our use of the word, we don’t call them sensitive or argue why we have the right to use it, we apologize.

Black or not, the Jim Crow era only ended about 50 years ago, and we should understand that there are people walking among us who have experienced the horror behind the word first hand. At the end of the day, it all comes down to respect; and if you wish to take part in a culture that isn’t yours, it is important for you to respect its customs. 

So if you feel provoked by this article, then it is imperative that you reassess your regard for the people whose culture you so deeply wish to assimilate to—rather than police the language they use among themselves.

 

Completing her BA in Theoretical Linguistics with a minor in American Sign Language, Aliah Luckman seeks to enlighten others of the linguistic aspects present in current day trends.

IRL
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