The Social Life of Slurs

In Daniel Fogal, Daniel W. Harris & Matt Moss (eds.), New Work on Speech Acts. Oxford University Press. pp. 237–295 (2018)
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Abstract

The words we call slurs are just plain vanilla descriptions like ‘cowboy’ and ‘coat hanger’. They don't semantically convey any disparagement of their referents, whether as content, conventional implicature, presupposition, “coloring” or mode of presentation. What distinguishes 'kraut' and 'German' is metadata rather than meaning: the former is the conventional description for Germans among Germanophobes when they are speaking in that capacity, in the same way 'mad' is the conventional expression that some teenagers use as an intensifier when they’re emphasizing that social identity. That is, racists don’t use slurs because they’re derogatory; slurs are derogatory because they’re the words that racists use. To use a slur is to exploit the Maxim of Manner (or Levinson’s M-Principle) to signal one’s affiliation with a group that has a disparaging attitude towards the slur’s referent. This account is sufficient to explain all the familiar properties of slurs, such as their speaker orientation and “nondetachability,” with no need of additional linguistic mechanisms. It also explains some features of slurs that are rarely if ever explored; for example the variation in tone and strength among the different slurs for a particular group, the existence of words we count as slurs, such as 'redskin', which almost all of their users consider to be respectful, and the curious absence in Standard English of any commonly used slurs—by which I mean words used to express a negative attitude toward an entire group—for Muslims and women.

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Geoffrey Nunberg
University of California, Berkeley