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Perspectives: A View of the ‘N-Word’ from Sociolinguistics

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.

First, there are indeed two N-words, with separate though closely related histories: nigger and nigga. This is not unusual with languages around the world. Consider glamour and grammar, which both come from the same word. Nigger and nigga, however, both have more than one pronunciation, and, in some cases, their pronunciations converge. The first can sound just like the second, especially in the South. The first one nowadays (the historical period and communities one speaks of are always important) is primarily a term of abuse leveled at those of African descent. It carries great psychological baggage, and its use can cause serious bodily harm. Nigga, spelled thus, to distinguish it, is highly versatile in terms of use, ranging from invective to term of endearment. “My nigga,” for many African-Americans, refers to a boyfriend or girlfriend or someone dear in other ways.

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”
being black myself and using the word much too often I have come to realize as long as blacks use the word the rest of the world is going to look at it as a word that is ok to use. I stopped using it because both n words mean the same thing.  Wake up black people – stop using a word that for so many years was used to hurt and disrespect our race.

“abstract bs”
This is the abstract BS that for some reason, justifies the use of derogatory terms about black people through cultural changes. 

     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.”
     This is BS to the utmost.  These terms are negative – period.  Just because everyone uses a term does not mean that that term will be equally neutral.  If a white person calls a black person a nigger all day, every day, the term will not become neutral. You won’t see white people calling each other, my nigger/ my nigga, unless they are 1) attempting to emulate a ‘perceived’ image of black people or 2) attempting to make fun or ridicule the usage of the term, by blacks (generally, this usage is accompanied by the colloquial black accent or ‘urban’ as the fashionable method of referring to black people to by the larger society)   And while some parts of  the world use black as a generalized term, a black in English is from Cameroon or Nigeria or Congo or some other African country.  But a black in America is an orphan with no knowledge of lineage or ancestry, other than an obvious genetic tie to the African continent.  A black American is the product of slavery and all of its negative effects, whether they have experienced those effects directly or indirectly.

      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.
-Angry black man

“Appreciation of sociolinguistical studies”
I am very grateful to the author of this article.  I am a German Hungarian who chose to live within the African American Community nearly 36 years.  Living in a hard core center city neighborhood, working in a predominately African American Jail System, I have heard the N word used only in the context of the  reported generalization, I bet a hundred thousand times.  Recently, when working in a Jail of a suburban primarily white high class neighborhood of Washington, DC, I heard the word used in the deplorable way.

     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.

     Thank you

-R Kemmerer

“Bologna or boloney”
Still the same.  Give the world a break and don’t intellectualize such a word with the vile history it carries.  Growing up in the south under our uneducated people came in all colors.  Knowing how to read, spell and pronounce words were a challenge.  But seeing nigga carved in the body of dead youth and pictures spread around campus does send a message .  Kill the N Word and do not glorify it by allowing it to survive based on a lack of understanding of where it came from. Does it take someone carving into your forehead for you to recognize what it is and where it came from?  What it means is what it has always meant.
-Emmitt Hayes

“the wrong idea”
Well, you still must be careful how you use it and in what context. You must also me careful speaking this slang around other races, they may get the wrong idea and think it’s ok to use it. Nevertheless, if you use it around me I shall be forced to lay upon your face a series of devistating blows, each one more deadlier than its predecessor.

– T Babbs

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