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More on pejorative language: insults that go beyond their extension

Abstract

Slurs have become a big topic of discussion both in philosophy and in linguistics. Slurs are usually characterised as pejorative terms, co-extensional with other, neutral, terms referring to ethnic or social groups. However, slurs are not the only ethnic/social words with pejorative senses. Our aim in this paper is to introduce a different kind of pejoratives, which we will call “ethnic/social terms used as insults”, as exemplified in (European) Spanish, though present in many other languages and mostly absent in English. These are ethnic terms like gitano, ‘Romani’, which can have an extensional and neutral use, but also a pejorative meaning building on a negative stereotypical representation of the Romani community.

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Notes

  1. Consider, for instance, the following naturally-occurring examples:

    (i) a. But that's why I'm not a mod [moderator], I'm such a nazi when it comes to keep a forum straight. :oops: https://www.mechspecs.com/threads/ace-of-spades-every-mech.9238/.

    b. I cannot thank enough my nazi of a father who ONLY allowed us to have water with meals growing up. Now I love it and don’t have an addiction to soda or juice. https://thehealthypineapple.com/tag/pretzels/.

    Thanks to Manuel García-Carpintero for providing the example.

  2. List of abbreviations: 1 = first person, 2 = second person, 3 = third person, eval = evaluative morpheme, fem = feminine, masc = masculine, neg = negation, pl = plural, sg = singular.

  3. Thanks to an anonymous referee for raising this issue.

  4. The pre-2014 editions of the RAE (Royal Academy for the Spanish Language) dictionary used to capture this meaning in this way: “trapacero; que estafa u obra con engaño” (‘crook; someone who scams or deceives’). Then, in 2014, after protests from the Romani community, it explained the content of the pejorative meaning of gitano simply by making it a synomym of trapacero (‘crook’) and adding, as metadata, that the meaning is pejorative. Representatives of the Romani community are still fighting against the pejorative meaning of gitano being listed at all.

  5. Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian.

  6. As a referee points out, there is no fixed subset of negative or positive properties of a cluster associated with a term that would guarantee that these terms will be systematically used as a pejorative or an insult. Take dad (examples provided by the reviewer):

    1. (i)

      He wears high-waisted trousers and has been putting on weight. He's such a dad! (He has a negative feature of dads).

    2. (ii)

      She raised all the kids alone, working full time. She was a mom and a dad for them. (I.e., she has the positive features of moms and dads).

    3. (iii)

      He fathered 7 children, abandoned them, and never paid any childcare. He's not a (real/true) dad. (I.e., he lacks the positive features of dads).

  7. The English equivalent of the N1 of an N2 construction is best with a demonstrative or possessive pronoun modifying N1, unlike the Spanish.

  8. And leaving aside specificational and equative copular constructions. On this, see Higgins (1979), Partee (1986), Heycock (1994), Moro (1997) and Mikkelsen (2005), a.m.o. The cases we deal with are predicational, whereby the predicate is the noun phrase following the copula and the subject is another noun phrase which is the argument of the predicate.

  9. On the distinction in Italian, see Korzen (1982), in French, Jeunot (1983) and Pollock (1983), and in Danish, Mikkelsen (2005); see also Geist (2019) for a brief discussion of the German parallel.

  10. We provide our own glosses and translations of examples from sources written in Spanish (Bosque 1996, Farnández Leborans 1999; Fernández Lagunilla 1983).

  11. Emphatic un also occurs beyond copular constructions, in examples such as (i), from Rigau (1999: p. 324). In these contexts, the indefinite is unacceptable unless a modifier is added that allows for the evaluative interpretation of the noun.

    (i) a. Tengo unmiedo *(que me muero).
       have.1sg a.masc fear that me die.1sg
      ‘I am (terribly) scared.’
      b. Tiene unos hijos *(que son   insoportables).
       has.3sg a.masc.pl that are.3pl unbearable.pl
      ‘S/he has (unbearable) children.’
  12. We have studied the most usual—the conventional—case where the evaluative character of gitano is negative. However, it can also have a positive meaning. If a Romani mother tells her son (i), she may be reminding him to be proud of what he is—and to act accordingly. In such a case, she will be conveying the positive ideal that Romani people may have of themselves (which can be shared by other, non-Romani, speakers). It will be a reminder of the positive features that he has by virtue of being a Romani, for instance, being a free spirit loyal to the community.

    (i) recuerda: eres un gitan-o.
      remember are.2sg a.masc Romani-masc
    ‘Remember: you are a Romani.’

    Gitano here is interpreted in a way similar to a family name. This is typically used with last names, as illustrated in (ii), where Lannister is a last name in the fictional Game of Thrones. Lannister is presumed to evoke positive properties that have been attached to the lineage since its beginning.

    (ii) Recuerda siempre que eres un Lannister.

    ‘Always remember you are a Lannister.’

  13. On this idea, see also footnote 12. Note, however, that ESTIs are unlike other evaluative predicates in that their relation with the negative stereotype is both much more stable and salient than the relation between e.g., artist and its stereotype (positive or negative). On the other hand, all ethnic terms can express a positive meaning, especially within—or at least arising from—the ethnic community (the same can be said about terms of professions). What is peculiar concerning ESTIs is that their associated negative stereotype is very widespread outside the ethnic community, to the extent that the term has become a way to denote the stereotype (i.e., the cluster of properties that form such a stereotype). The praising use of gitano or any other ethnic or social terms that are recurrently used as insults in auténtico environments requires much more context, which indicates that such uses may be the effect of pragmatics. Out of the blue, auténtico gitano means robber, liar, etc. It is a default reading that can also have another, positive, reading. But audiences would not get this other reading unless the reading is put in the adequate context.

  14. As for the neutral use, a doorperson in Spain is someone who manages the main entrance of an apartment building.

  15. There are well-known non-pejorative uses of slurs, for instance after appropriation or linguistic reclamation (Brontsema 2004; Anderson and Lepore 2013; Ritchie 2017; Anderson 2018, a.o.). For the time being we will set such uses aside, as they are not relevant to the discussion concerning differences between ESTIs and slur-words at this point.

  16. The word stereotype is used in several different ways in the literature. Here we will use it to refer to a categorization device that has a prototypical structure (basically: features and weighs), but that, unlike a prototype, is not an abstraction from encountered exemplars. Rather, a stereotype is typically based on social prejudices. For stereotype as sets of beliefs, we will use stereotypical beliefs.

  17. Although see, e.g., Martin (2016) on an account where projection and addressing the QUD are explicitly separate.

  18. We will revisit theories of slurs in Sect. 3.3.

  19. The fact that in principle gitano in (26) can convey also a positive meaning (say, Manuel is not a free spirit loyal to the community) does not tell against this analysis of how ESTIs work when they are used as insults (i.e., when the meaning selected is the negative stereotype). If we are right, and the negative stereotype is one of the conventional meanings of gitano, what we are describing is how such meaning is factored out in terms of AI and NAI content. However, let us insist that such a positive meaning of un gitano is rare and requires a lot of context. As we have said before, such a use of un gitano is akin to phrases such as un Lannister, such that Manuel no es un gitano would be relevantly similar to Tyron no es un Lannister (‘Tyron is not a Lannister’), meaning “Tyron does not share the values that the Lannisters are supposed to have”. We even have doubts about whether the sentence by itself, without prosodic emphasis or the addition of auténtico, would success in conveying the positive meaning. Thanks to a referee for reminding us at this point that (26) could have a different reading.

  20. Several authors (e.g. Williamson 2009; Marques and García-Carpintero 2020) have rightly objected to this simple expressivist view: if the NAI content of a slur is just an expression of a subjective attitude, the audience should have no problem in accepting the use of the slur. However, this is not how we, as the audience, react to the use of a slur. Marques and García-Carpintero (2020) argue that the NAI content of slurs has a normative component: “one must derogate group F”. We are not convinced that such normative content has to also include reference to stereotypical features of the target group, as Marques and García-Carpintero imply. In any case, for the purpose of this paper, it does not matter much that the thin attitudinal view is not correct. The contrast between slurs and ESTIs can be drawn also if the NAI content of slurs is normative (see below).

  21. On this, see Sects. 2.2. and 2.4., and especially footnote 13.

  22. In an account such as Hom’s (2008), this point would have to be expressed differently. But the difference would persist under a different description of the phenomenon.

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Acknowledgments

Thanks for comments and suggestions to Manuel García-Carpintero, Violeta Demonte, Andrea Beltrama, Heather Burnett, audiences at the Sociolinguistic, Psycholinguistic and Formal Perspectives on Meaning Workshop and the 19th Szklarska Poreba Workshop, as well as to two anonymous referees of this journal. We are of course responsible for any remaining errors. Special thanks are due to Dan Zeman, who brought the “tigan” issue to us. This research has been partially supported by Projects VASTRUD (PGC2018-096870-B-I00) and PROLE (PGC2018-093464-B-I00), and predoctoral Grant BES-2016-076783, funded by the Ministry of Science, Innovation and Universities (MiCIU)/Spanish Research Agency (AEI) and the European Regional Development Fund (FEDER, UE), by the IT1396-19 Research Group (Basque Government), and GIU18/221 (University of the Basque Country, UPV/EHU).

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Castroviejo, E., Fraser, K. & Vicente, A. More on pejorative language: insults that go beyond their extension. Synthese 198, 9139–9164 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-020-02624-0

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Keywords

  • Slurs
  • Pejoratives
  • Ethnic terms
  • Other languages