Event Detail

Mon Apr 29, 2013
370 Dwinelle Hall, 3:10–5 PM
Geoffrey Nunberg (UC Berkeley)
Slurs aren’t special

How do derogative words come by their capacity to convey disparagement and their expressive power to display emotion and inflict injury? In recent years, a lot of people have come at these questions from the points of view of philosophy of language, ethics, and linguistics, sometimes with different agendas but always under the assumption that derogatives have certain idiosyncratic properties that call for specialized semantic features or mechanisms. I’ll argue for a minimalist position: derogatives are ordinary vanilla descriptions, semantically indistinguishable from their neutral or default equivalents. All of their expressive effects arise from their association with discourses or communities that are viewed as holding disparaging views of their referents (like other terms that convey approbation and other attitudes). In a nutshell, racists dont use slurs because they’re derogative; rather they’re derogative because they’re the words that racists use. The larger point: the lexicon is a sociolinguistic construction, assembled out of the cross-cutting and complementary conventions of a number of different communities and discourses.