Friday, June 08, 2007

The 'N' Word Won't Go Away

That 'N' word debate. Michael Ehioze-Ediae gives his view on whether the word ought to be used by white or black people at all. This is a really difficult one for people like me who try to maintain a culture of free speech on our blogs, yet find ourselves having to delete vile abuse from time to time.

As a linguist I also recognise the futility of trying to ban words from being used. Language evolves and the N word is used by young people (as Dizzy explains) in an entirely different way to which the rest of us understand it. And there is nothing at all we can do about it, even if we feel we should.


Scipio said...

I asked myself why is acceptable for a black person to say to another black person 'yo nigger', yet for it not be acceptable for a white person to do this?

I think the answer is that it isn't really acceptable. But, it is understandable that when a black person says it to another black person, the likelihood of offense is lessened because they share the same skin colour! That doesn't apply to a white person.

But, hasn't the meaning of the word changed anyway, due to the way it is now so commonly used in rap culture and between black people?

My understanding is that the word used to be a derogatory way of describing black/coloured people based simply on their skin colour. Where as now, the meaning is perhaps more subtle, and indicates not just the skin colour, but indicates other negative qualities outside of the colour of the skin.

Either way, as someone who is not unused to using a bit of bad langauge after stubbing toes etc., it is one of the few words which makes me cringe when I hear it (along with the 'C' word, and Motherf******). I just don't know why that is - any ideas out there?

I do think the only real censorship of any value is self censorship, but I understand why C4 have done what they have done (they had to 'do something), but I do think it needs to spark a wider debate about how language is used.

Anonymous said...

brave post Iain, sensitively done.

David Anthony said...

I wrote about this last month on someone else's blog here. I think it's a debate that needs to be had, thanks for not shying away from it.

(I try not to comment-link, but it's too long to summarise here)

Colin D said...

The world has gone crazy, in a large part due to the adverse Americanization of OUR language. During my service, we had a coloured lad from out east, Known to all and sundry as Sambo. this lad signed "local record cards" as Sambo. He lived & worked amongst a number of taff's, Jock's, brummies, paddies, Cockney's and our beloved Scouser's. Nobody paid one scintilla of heed to this "language" or to assertion of the doubtful parentage of some of those mentioned above. For pity sake get real and take it within its context

simon said...

Dizzy is broadly right. "Nigger" has been reappropriated by some young black people as a positive/neutral term (cf "queer" in some gay circles). The BB girl was trying to use it in that sense rather than to be offensive but over-presumed on her relationship with Charley. In my view, sensible white people don't use it at all, especially on programmes that have been formally warned about their racist content by Ofcom. She is, however, a thick Tory, so perhaps it's to be expected...

Anonymous said...

I remember around here that if you used the word 'Tory' it was enough to get your mouth washed out with soap.

This week though, it is considered punishment enough just to be birched.

Anonymous said...

Talk about fiddling whilst Rome burns. Whilst you all wring your hands over wether or not you should use or not use a word. The same can't be said about other cultures.

Be glad that mass people aren't in the street burning effergies of said hated person and shouting kill them kill them.

I think some OUR society needS a reality check. Nothing was said when Jade and her mother was called WHITE TRASH.. wether it be true or not. Nothing was done.

The two girls in this BB series called emily a white bint. Why should colour matter ? Bint would have surviced.

I feel it is "do as i say not as i do." And we will end up in a society where the thought police will be arresting white people simply for a look on their face.

pc plod saying " we know what you was thinking "

Anonymous said...

Of course, no words will 'go away'. The point is the N word is a racial slur.

It might be part of contemporary hip hop culture now - but fashion is fickle - and the current usage is ephemeral.

It is a disrespectful and offensive term.

simon said...

It's just about common sense and common politeness, isn't it? Any fule kno that the n-word spoken by a white person has the potential to offend. Therefore, why not simply avoid using it?

Personally I think rappers etc should eschew it as well but that's another story, and a rather more complex one.

Anonymous said...

If 'Beauty is in the eye of the Beholder' then it follows that 'Meaning is in the ear of the Listener'.

From this, I would argue that offense can only be 'taken' never 'given'.

If the 'Listener' wants to invest an 'Originator' of the 'n' (or any other) word with the power to offend, so be it.

After all, it is (or at least used to be) a free country.

Sir-C4' said...

This C4' doesn't believe in censorship, you only have to visit my blog to see why

The Hitch said...

I think it is patheric that people feel the need to use the term "N word" or n**** to report something another person has said , its a word , an unpleasent insult.
From what i gather it didnt start out as word that was exclusively aimed at black people , but rather as a desription of a low and uneducted person , this was then combined with the pronunciation of the word negore in the southern states of the USA "niggra"
thue word can even be funny as was shown when it was used by the loopy old major in fawlty towers.

Anonymous said...

Bad habits such as improper langauge usage can be corrected through re-education.

Anonymous said...

so if a lot of people use the C word does it then make it any more acceptable?funny how many people wont say that BUT are quite prepared to say the N any rate if you have to use it then at least spell it nigga or niggaz(pl).
Less painful.

Anonymous said...

and who's the fascist anonymong @ 2:59 ? leave me out of your twisted world, I beg you.

Anonymous said...

What's in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.

Anonymous said...

Words come words go, words change there meaning and words mean nothing. Its how people use the words, after all gay meant a far different thing many moons ago compared to today (at least there does seem to be gays who are not gay). I am sure if you hear women talk amongst themselves they use language that no man would use in a similar conversation or any conversation with a woman. The same goes for different groups of people, some may use swear words or even worse, it doesn’t mean everyone has to find it acceptable, but then its nothing to do with everyone else what two people say to each other.

If you find offence with what someone says do not listen, it’s simple enough.

There seems to be a problem within the British society, or at least a certain pc group of people who look for something to take offence. I do not watch BB but I am sure most of the people who have complained about this lady saying nigger have not watched either. Please get over it because I find you lot offensive the way you go shrilling to OFCOM or whoever complaining and trying to ban people or programs because of something someone has said. I feel sorry for you but its life and there is nothing you can do about it, even if you manage to take things off and stop people speaking you will never stop someone from thinking.

Anonymous said...

Canvas says "It is a disrespectful and offensive term."


Are you going to ban all disrespectful and offensive terms, or only those applying to special categories? Who is going to compile this list, which will surely be voluminous?

In a free civilisation, no words can be banned. The user simply accepts the consequences. This is what we know as freedom of speech.

Newmania said...

Yes there is Iain we can insist schools and throughout society in the BBC and through institutions that there is a single acceptable level of English Speaking.
I have been wagging my finger at Dizzy so I am going to re-wag here as it covers the same territory


Is that the same thing as context or does it need contextualising Tsk tsk the way these young people talk eh? …..The Rolling who ?

Dizzy when we talk about the use of language we sometimes use a definition like “Received Pronunciation” this is the language style that was until recently associated with the BBC.It is the accent taught to foreign language learners and contains the inference in the language itself but not as may be further complicated by an infinite numbers of contexts.

A word can obviously take on different shade and associations for any speaker or group. Think for example of the progress of the metaphor “Key “ as in Key stone through to Key note speech which is an interesting development of sub groups back into RP . Of all the subcultures of language that there are, and there are many recognised, the least interesting is the language of the youth ( or yoot’) which changes at frightening pace , the inexplicability of it being the whole point .To the graveyard where, “cats” “ Square” “daddyo” have gone ,so will the rap based “ Chat” around London today.

It is important to understand the irrelevance of this and other dialects of more importance now patronised by the BBC, local Coucils and so on.
It has become impossible to have any discourse between different groups not because of a lack of understanding of sub dialects but because we have abandoned gold standard RP by which all groups can enter a similarly “ Contextualised ( you barbarian) , discourse . All conversations, become coarsened by allowing consideration of every perturbation on the linguistic pond. This is a Liberal attack on cohesive culture in favour of a pluralism which ghettoises communities including the young.

As far as the N word is concerned, that yoots use it is of no interest. That they are incapable of understanding the mainstream and unacceptable meaning of the word with its inference is the problem. You are encouraging the disintegration of civilisation and I see clearly that our culture cannot be left in the hands of computer bods .

The precious chalice must immediately be handed back to English graduates.

Under such circumstances we can expect no need to watch big brother in the first place. This point by the way in one from or another is developed by the pro Cameron book " After Blair" which I would recommend. This and perhaps a bit of Roger Scruton and you met yet become a proper Conservative

XX :)

Anonymous said...

Traditionally, the worst expletives were sexual in nature. But as a culture, we've all become a lot less prudish about sex and those epithets generally have lost, or are losing, their impact. Who really gives a f*** about 'f***' any more? Bigotry and racism has become much a much greater anathaema -- quite rightly -- and the inevitable by-product is that racial expletives are going to fill that linguistic void of words which are just out-and-out shocking. People will use it as long as it's one of the most appalling things you can say precisely because it's one of the most appalling things you can say. I think we just have to take some comfort that its power comes from being beyond the pale in modern society.

Andrew Ian Dodge said...

Make it unacceptable to use but do not ban it. We do not want to go down the word banning route as its a slippery slope.

I do think the only real censorship of any value is self censorship,

Well said and exactly right.

Anonymous said...

Verity says: "Are you going to ban all disrespectful and offensive terms, or only those applying to special categories? Who is going to compile this list, which will surely be voluminous?

In a free civilisation, no words can be banned. The user simply accepts the consequences. This is what we know as freedom of speech"


There was no mention of 'banning' any words. But promoting racial hatred shouldn't be acceptable in any civilised society...

Anonymous said...

vervet 3:08pm

There is no need for this kind of name calling. You more than most would probably benefit from time spent in a re-education program.

Newmania said...

I don`t know why everyone is so squeamish about banning things . In a given context it is of course right thst language should be controlled , voluntarily if possible but by prescription if necessary
By having these rules we make ourselves free to speak to eachother. Its the essence of the Conservative case , that anarchy is to be feared and resisted and the "natural", state is enslavement , not freedom .In some ways it doesn1t matter if the rules are arbitary but rules there must be and I would rather be honest about it that endure this pusillanimously timid attempt at virtual rebbellion.

Anonymous said...

It is a foul word, uttered only by evil racists or as part of the contemptible "street" culture.

Tapestry said...

In Latin niger means simply black. In Mark Twain, nigger means slave. That's probably where the problem comes from. The word became demeaning.

Now that PC has taken over the world, the kids need some way to prove they are not interested in being told how they should talk and behave.

So the wheel turns and calling someone nigger is now a term of endearment.

Language evolved always. Nowadays it evolves so fast, it leaves the wowsers and tut-tutters far behind.

Bloody good thing it does. Can I use the word 'bloody', nigger?

(cannot get a comment to work on Dizzythinks. technical trouble? or same interference as I get on my blog. Once I get about 10 hits in 20 minutes, for saying William Hague's a europhile, for example, I get no hits for the next three days. Someone's blocking it, as it happens too frequently to be chance)

Anonymous said...

The state of things at the moment is terrible. I'm half black myself (my father is Nigerian) and think I have quite an open mind when it comes to language used around me. If my friends says to me 'Nigga please' I will not be offended. If I walk down the street and someone calls me a filthy nigger then of course I will be.
This goes for any other word too. Between people you know well most offensive words simply lose their meaning or even become endearing. How many times have I heard my parents call each other names while obviously still very much in love with one another?
Things simply need to be put in context. I was shocked a couple of days ago when I pointed one of my friends out as 'the black girl with the blue shirt# and everybody around me gasped. It's just sad that people are still so uncomfortable with issues of race. We are not all the same colour and we should be proud of this. Not hide our hands in our faces at the slightest mention of individuality.

Tapestry said...

That's right suraiya. People should just relax about this. Kids want to be free. They don't worry about it. They just carry on and create new ways of talking which please their generation.

It's a way of moving on from racism if all colours call each other nigger. The young are ready to leave the guilt behind. Shame some older types are not tolerant of this trend.

Anonymous said...

The failure of politicians to use the N------ word is going to lead to blackouts. Without new nuclear there is no way we can match electricity supply with demand. Meanwhile politics increasingly ignores serious issues for trivial & PC ones.

Anonymous said...

You can't ban a word - so if you try to ban it the word will always be there like a time bomb waiting to explode.

Black people need to take the word back and own it - and make it something to be proud of.

This Youtube explains it better than Dizzy.

Anonymous said...

Forget about it.

Iain wrote:

As a linguist I also recognise the futility of trying to ban words from being used.

Socio-linguistics is where the action is; and here is a prime example (together with a superb cameo from Paul Giametti).

wonderfulforhisage said...

What's in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.

And there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.

Steven_L said...

The word carries connotations to the human rights abuses that took place in the USA until very recently. It is now all over our media thanks to American 'black culture'.

Britian has never had an apatheid legal or civic system. All men have been equal before the law since feudal times. The word is only in common use here because of the yanks, and only as offensive as is is because of the yanks.

I know loads of white people that use it regularly, when they are sitting at home singing along to Amercian rap music. I often refer to US rap music as 'nigger music' around white friends when I'm complaining about being forced to listen to it. I never use the word except in this context and in the company of close friends.

Anonymous said...

God you're a pretentious prat calling yourself a linguist because you speak a bit of german.

Iain Dale said...

I have a degree in German and Linguistics - I think that entitles me to call myself a linguist and you an Arschloch.