History and the Power of Words

I’m reposting from Rosina Lippi-Green’s webpage, English With and Accent. Her October 19th post discusses the n-word and a recent article by Janet Fuller (Southern Illinois University) in Popular Linguistics. Both Fuller and Lippi-Green help me to better understand how important our understanding of power relationships and history are in our choice of words, particularly how significant social history is when it comes to the meanings and uses of words, like the n-word. Both also remind me of Jane Hill’s book, The Everyday Language of White Racism, which also explains how social history has reinforced prejudice, not just in terms of linguistic prejudice and pejorative terms, but also in terms of economic prejudice. For example, Hill explains that one reason that there are such economic disparities between Blacks and Whites today is because Blacks, as a whole, were denied the opportunity to take part in the growth of national wealth from the inception of our country into the mid-20th century. On the other hand, for 300+ years Whites, as a whole, were not only able to participate in the wealth-making, but also to share the wealth. Today’s disparities are grounded in a 300-year jump start for Whites. I highly recommend Hill’s The Everyday Language of White Racism and Lippi-Green’s English with an Accent  if you want to understand how language plays a central role in racism.

At Popular Linguistics there’s an invited column with the title The Mysteries of the N-word which was written by Janet M. Fuller,  Director of Women’s Studies at Southern Illinois University/Carbondale. Fuller looks at the relative social value and impact of words which can be both utterly offensive and a signal of affection or approval, depending on context. She is writing about nigger, for the most part, but she also brings in other examples.
We can’t leave history out of it. Power relationships matter, and we can’t escape the history of white people having more power than black people in the United States. Even if particular white speakers are themselves not more powerful than the black people they are addressing, their use of ‘nigger’ would reference a power relationship with white people in a superior position – unless, of course, a close personal relationship trumps that dynamic. To make another parallel to gender, it’s quite different if adult women refer to their female friends as ‘girls’ and if a male boss refers to female employees as ‘girls’. The first is about solidarity — and, probably, wanting to tap into the positive associations of youth — and the second is about depicting the female employees as powerless and inconsequential, part of a faceless, gendered group.
This is the kind of essay you could hand to somebody who is having real trouble understanding the importance of context.  Or you could pass on a different story, which a friend told me some years ago and which has stuck with me whenever this subject comes up.
This friend has two teenagers, and she also has two elderly parents who live in rural (let’s say, Nebraska, but fill in the state of your choice here). Visiting with the kids, her parents were shocked and upset to hear their grandchildren use the f-word, and of course, they let my friend know how inappropriate and offensive they found this.
She said to them, “You know the way you feel when you hear them say fuck? That’s the way they feel when they hear you say nigger.”
And with that, they dropped the subject and never raised it again. I’ve never come across a better example of the potential shock value of context, which once in a while hits you over the head by letting you hear yourself with all filters stripped away.

Pauly D and the Gendering of Dialect-Making

The following is an excerpt from a chapter that I’m working on about the relationship between the media and ideas about dialects. 



Media representations are key in shaping perceptions of regional dialects and speakers, and these perceptions are significant in reinforcing and maintaining language attitudes. Language attitudes typically include the belief that the best speakers are the most authentic locals, working class or rural males, and that standard speakers are middle class females and males who do not fit traditional notions of masculinity. Thus authenticity depends on meanings related to class, gender, and sexuality, specifically a kind of working class masculinity. Perceptions of gendered language use help to maintain these stereotypes. Sociolinguist Natalie Schilling-Estes explains that language attitudes and gender identity are linked by the notion that the authentic local is ‘authentic’ because he is the ‘best’ speaker of the local variety. The best speaker is identified by his use of recognizable linguistic features and their use in particular discursive contexts. Because these contexts and features are typically linked with heterosexual, working class masculinity and ‘masculine’ language, they not only carry meanings such as ruggedness, toughness, strength, and bravado, which are associated with meanings tied to being an authentic local, but also to heterosexual, male, and working class. For example, Pauly D of Jersey Shore fame describes himself as a “guido” as he’s riding a tricked-out motorcycle through a working class neighborhood, which combined, reflect meanings tied to Italian American ethnicity, heterosexual masculinity, working class, and a Jersey shore dialect. Used within specific contexts and juxtaposed with stereotypical images that evoke authenticity, dialect is discursively constructed as gender-, sexuality-, race-, and class-based. Social meanings are as much a part of the semiotic mediation of ‘dialect’ as are pronunciation and word use: speaker authenticity relies on recognizable discursive practices, where language use is the determining factor and where the best speakers of a regional variety are recognized as the most authentic locals[i]. In these ways, the practice of masculinity and heteronormativity—what it means to be heterosexual male, specifically, is tied to the practice of dialect—dialect-making.

[i] Similarly, the most authentic products are the best representations of localness through the use of enregistered features and intertextual links with a historic event.