Some linguistic expressions do not have only a referential component, through which they refer to something in the world, but also (or exclusively) a connotative component, through which they express a speaker’s attitudes or feelings toward that which the expressions refer. Pejoratives are connoted expressions through which speakers express a negative attitude toward a person, a class of persons, or a state of affairs. Slurs, in particular, are pejoratives that express negative attitudes toward a class of people sharing the same race, sexual orientation, religion, health status, etc. The use of pejoratives and slurs is often impolite and offensive, but it is not clear to which degree their use in reported speech may also be offensive. On one hand, the reporter does not seem to express contempt toward the target by merely reporting what others have said. On the other hand, reporting a pejorative seems a form of association with the original speaker’s opinion anyway. Different theories on the status of the connotative component of slurs make different predictions about their offensiveness in reported speech. To investigate the matter, a questionnaire was designed with the aim of comparing the offensiveness of slurs and pejoratives directly addressed to their target with their offensiveness when they are used in reported speech. The findings collected through our questionnaire suggest that some of the theories on the connotation of slurs do not account for speakers’ intuitive judgments on the offensiveness of slurs in reported speech.
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The literature on slurs is vast and interdisciplinary. Some of the studies that have contributed most to characterizing the research on this issue are the following: Potts (2005, 2007), Schlenker (2007), Hom (2008, 2012), McCready (2010), Anderson and Lepore (2013a, b), Hom and May (2013), Whiting (2013), Cepollaro (2015), and Gutzmann (2015). We refer the reader to Frigerio and Tenchini (2014) for more references. In this paper, we have tried to sketch out a map of the main different theoretical positions on the semantic status of the derogatory content of slurs.
For a survey of these differences, cf. Foolen (2016).
It should be noted that fuck or fucking can be used to emphasize positive emotional moods as well. On the endolinguistic nature of expressions such as interactions, cf. Goddard (2014) and the references within.
Actually, these terms originated as referential ones but, over time, their referential component has faded and been deactivated. Cf. Mohr (2013).
Take, for example, thank you. Its meaning is the act that can be performed by using this expression, an act through which gratitude is expressed.
Recall that face is defined by Goffman (1955) as the social image of oneself that one would like to project in interaction.
For a critical overview of the relationship between face and offense in literature, cf. Culpeper (2011: 24–31).
As a referee rightly notices, Culpeper’s account of impoliteness is incomplete because impoliteness is not always motivated by a hostile intention towards the interlocutor, but it can emerge also in situations of limited linguistic or cultural competence—as often happens in the case of L2 speakers, where an impolite usage of language can be due to lack of cultural knowledge about the politeness conventions.
Conversely, the positive or negative face threat decreases if the interlocutors are friends or relatives. In many familiar or friendly contexts, mock impoliteness can be observed, in which negatively connoted or vulgar terms can be used in a friendly and playful way without any intent to offend. In fact, the ultimate goal of mock impoliteness can be to strengthen the bonds among the interlocutors. As Culpeper (1996: 353) states, “[t]he more people like each other, the more concern they are likely to have for each other's face. Thus, insults are more likely to be interpreted as banter when directed at targets liked by the speaker.” On mock impoliteness/banter cf., for instance, Leech (1983), Haugh (2015: 278–306), Bonacchi and Andreeva (2017) and Technau (2017, 2018).
The literature on reported speech is too vast and interdisciplinary to be referred to here. As for the topic discussed in this paper, cf. Capone (2013), Nodoushan (2015), Allan (2016), Anderson (2016), and Cepollaro et al. (2019). For a recent review of reported speech from an interdisciplinary perspective, see Brendel et al. (2011), Arendholz et al. (2015), Capone (2016), and Capone et al. (2016).
“If slurs are marked, it’s because their use is a pointed conversational transgression—a departure from the norms that would ordinarily govern referential practice in that situation” (Nurnberg 2018: 264).
For the notion of plugs as “predicates which block off all the presuppositions of the complement sentence”, cf. the Karttunen (1973).
The questionnaire was prepared by Claudia Brunori during the writing of her undergraduate thesis entitled “Gli slurs nel discorso riportato” (academic year 2017–18, unpublished) under the supervision of one of the authors of this essay. The questionnaire is still accessible at the link: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSevXBzuoiin2vqSnCefTWi6caeg279a0nkQr-6twhKPfkqYiA/viewform (last access 17/09/2019).
On the role of questionnaires and interviews in investigating the attitudes towards discriminatory speech, cf. Baider (2019).
Hom (2012) tries to circumvent this difficulty, stating that embedded slurs are not directly offensive but, nevertheless, turn out to be offensive because they arise from the conversational implicature that the class denoted by the slur is not empty. This proposal faces many issues, not least the fact that this implicature should be cancellable (cf. Jeshion 2013 for some criticisms to Hom’s view). In any case, it cannot be applied to reported speech: in reporting other speakers’ words, no implicature about the class of individuals denoted by the slur is produced.
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The authors gratefully thank two anonymous reviewers for comments and criticisms, which definitely helped to improve the quality of the paper. We are, of course, solely responsible for any errors.
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Although this paper results from the collective work of the authors, Aldo Frigerio has written the first four sections and Maria Paola Tenchini has written the last four sections.
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Tenchini, M.P., Frigerio, A. The Impoliteness of Slurs and Other Pejoratives in Reported Speech. Corpus Pragmatics 4, 273–291 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s41701-019-00073-w
- Expressive language
- Reported speech