Perspectives: A View of the ‘N-Word’ from SociolinguisticsJuly 12, 2006 |
by Dr. Arthur K. Spears
About a year ago, Nicholas “Fat Nick” Minucci, a rotund, 19-year-old White youth, took an aluminum baseball bat and fractured the skull of a 22-year-old Black man. This was after Nick issued a greeting to the Black youth that contained the word nigger. Or was it nigga? A key issue in his recent trial was whether Nick’s use of an N-word implies that what occurred was a hate crime.
I would like to report that language study is simple — it is sometimes, but not always. And some words have amazingly complex histories and patterns of use. This said, I’ll enter some basic points about the N-word, which I’ll henceforth use in its full form. Explanation requires exemplification. Those with delicate sensibilities should not read further.
In many African-American neighborhoods, nigga is simply the most common term used to refer to any male, of any race or ethnicity. Increasingly, the term has been applied to any person, male or female. “Where y’all niggas goin?” is said with no self-consciousness or animosity to a group of women, for the routine purpose of obtaining information. The point: Nigga is evaluatively neutral in terms of its inherent meaning; it may express positive, neutral or negative attitudes. It’s just like the word Republican, which can range from an insult all the way to a term of praise.
Neutral evaluation, in this sense, also characterizes a series of controversial words, among them muthafucka, bitch and ho. I say this based on empirical observation of speech behavior. The feelings, wishes and opinions of individuals are NOT what determine speech use. Speech use in communities is out of the hands of social commentators, moral guardians and others. Some uses of language and of specific words develop in certain ways whether we like it or not. Moreover, we sometimes refuse to recognize the realities of language use around us, and that our use of language sometimes goes against what we advocate. Observe what was said by a church lady who routinely condemned the use of nigga: “Why niggas got to always be usin’ nigga so much?”
Educators from across the United States have reported that young people (not all of them), especially males, of all ethnicities and races use the term to refer to others — of all ethnicities and races. Young African-American students, for example, have been reported to refer to their White high school teacher (behind his back) as “that Irish nigga.”
This brings up the second point: Nigga has been generalized. It has gone from being race/ethnicity specific to being race/ethnicity neutral. Generalization, though, is not always complete. For example, in some parts of the English-speaking world, Black has been generalized to refer to anyone non-White. If completely generalized, it would refer to Whites, too.
To make a long story short, did Mr. Manucci commit a bias crime, based on his use of some N-word? Sociolinguistic analysis is required to answer such a difficult question. As an expert witness in other legal cases involving the N-word (both of them), I have had to seek answers to a number of questions. Among them: What is the language use in the peer group of the accused, or what can be inferred based on the neighborhood or race/ethnicity of the peer group? What was the context of the use of the word? What actions and in what sequence co-occurred with the use of what kind of language? What is the racial/ethnic identity of those involved? What is their age? What is the personal history of the accused? It was reported that Minucci had been charged previously with two bias crimes.
Most important to remember is that language changes continuously, as does culture in general. There are many microcultures within general American and even African-American culture. Willy-nilly, today’s language use typically ignores past social conditions. Finally, in thinking about controversial words, we should remember that before the Civil Rights Movement, the worse thing that you could call an African-American was Black.
Dr. Arthur K. Spears, professor and chair at The City University of New York, specializes in Black languages of the Western Hemisphere, controversial expressions and race. He is most recently the co-editor of Black Linguistics: Language, Society, and Politics in Africa and the Americas.
Reader comments on this story:
There are currently 5 comments on this story:
“both n words mean the same thing”
And I do mean, black people, not African Americans. A black person in America is not of Africa origin. Those ties between black Americans & Africa were stripped away starting 400 years ago. The black american is truly a mongrel in a country of mongrels. Forced to come here, forced to abandon the cultural ties to their homelands, recast as property and stripped of every aspect of self worth that extends into today. By using the word, nigger OR nigga.
Why Nick Minucci would think that using such a derogatory term was acceptable, only shows the dicotomy of the term. The author explains this dicotomy, but he does not state that usage of the word, by black people causes the dichotomy in the first place. And usage by a white person, further strengthens that dichotomy.
Nigger is not a neutral term. Neither is nigga a neutral term. No matter its usage.
A white person calls me a nigger/ nigga/ niggra, there’s gonna be a fight and someone is not walking away afterwards. If a black person calls me a nigger, there won’t be a fight. But a conversation SHOULD be initiated about what the term means and why using it is so self-destructive. Nigger is used to lessen black people. Period. Nigga, niggra, the N-word or any other such term are words that are less inflammatory than nigger. But these terms are worse because while they are “less” offensive” than nigger, the ‘less offensiveness” of these terms serves to imply that they are okay. Its kinda like saying I’m not a racist, but I am better than black people. Acceptance of these words makes it a truth because of the negative connotation of the words. True he does not state that the term is acceptable. But through his explanation, he gives credence to the usage of the terms. Look at his below discussion:
“This brings up the second point: Nigga has been generalized. It has gone from being race/ethnicity specific to being race/ethnicity neutral…Generalization, though, is not always complete. For example, in some parts of the English-speaking world, Black has been generalized
to refer to anyone non-White. If completely generalized, it would refer to Whites, too.”
If this fellow is a social linguist, then he should not only be saying how these terms are used. He should also focus on the effects of these words & suggest that the terms should not be used because of their effects. Making these terms the equivalent what the terms holocaust, Nazi or Hitler means to a Jew should be the goal of every black person in America.
“Appreciation of sociolinguistical studies”
To my chagrin and not realizing what friends told me – you never realized where you were. I was escorted out of the facility.
When rushing from one appointment to another, a diagnois as a therapist of suicide, aggression was required. Beginning a phone interview and diagnosis, that was then reported to d to have been a speaker phone, I was accused of using the N word. I was accused of being racist, and the worse offender in a prison setting where I could have started a riot, gotten someone hurt, or been hurt myself. While testing for auditory hallucinations, the problem arose. All the African Americans who know me, knew what the phrase – “are the voices telling you to beat up the “‘n’ igga” meant. However, the white Warden, when confronting me, rears back in his chair, hands behind his back and denounces me, and suspends me for over three months.
At present, I have been out of work for nearly two years.
Belonging to an African American Church, most friends being African American and having two African American Male Children from the “hood” does not allow the denigrating use of the N word to be part of my active consciousness. However, the absorption of the slang usage did and under stress slipped out. Others not knowing other cultures generalize and call it the worse. May your author speak and teach more and more, for he understands language use very well.
May this prove the truth that many cultures are sorely ignorant of other cultures and whether intended or not, can hurt others quicker than they can think.
“Bologna or boloney”
“the wrong idea”
- T Babbs
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