LSA talk preview: Semantic Bleaching of Taboo Words, and New Pronouns in AAVE

Note: this post was coauthored with Christopher Hall.

TRIGGER WARNING: this post will discuss profanity, obscenity, taboo language, slurs, and racially charged terms.

I recently received word that an abstract Chris and I submitted to the Linguistic Society of America was accepted for a 30 minute talk at the LSA annual meeting in January of 2015. While exciting, this is also somewhat terrifying, because our research involves not just syntax, but taboo words, dialect divergence, and America's ugly racial history (and present). Outside of academia, there's an enormous amount of potential for misunderstanding, offense, hostility, and other ill feelings. Even among academics there's the potential for hurt feelings.

In brief, our research takes both recent work in syntax and recent work in sociolinguistics, and couples it with good, old-fashioned field-work and new computation methods (read: tens of thousands of tweets). However, the subject matter involves the emergence of a new class of pronouns in one (sub-)dialect of English from words that are considered offensive or taboo in other varieties of English. As such, it's potentially quite charged.

Before describing the research, it is absolutely crucial to note that:

  1. we work as descriptive linguists: this means we observe a real-world phenomenon and describe it.
  2. We neither condone nor disapprove of the data. Our job is simply to describe and analyze natural language as it is used in the world.
  3. Both authors are native speakers of the variety of English in question.

So what's the big deal? Well, we argue that there is an emerging class of words that function as pronouns (remember elementary school English class? A pronoun is a word that stands in for another noun or noun-phrase) in some varieties of African American Vernacular English (AAVE), that are built out of the grammatical reanalysis of phrases including the n- word. Well, sort of the n- word because there's excellent evidence that there are actually at least two n-words, and that some speakers of AAVE differentiate between them and use them in different contexts.

WARNING:  from here out, we will be discussing the use of words some deem extremely offensive. Seriously, just stop here if such discussion will offend you despite the above points. We will be using the actual words, not variants like b-h and n-. You've been warned!

Some preliminaries:


One of the most potent slurs in American English is the racial epithet nigger (we warned you!). However, many white people oblivious to history and privilege don't hesitate to muse, "why can they [read: "black" people] use it, then?" Their observation - that some black Americans use what sounds like the same word - is valid, although insisting that makes the use of slurs OK is not valid.

AAVE is (generally) what can be called r-less and l-less. That is, in some contexts, especially at the end of words or syllables and when not followed by a vowel, words that may have an r or l are pronounced as though they do not. The stereotypical Boston accent is r-less: "pahk the car in Hahvahd yahd." (Note: "car" comes before a vowel, and therefore the r is pronounced!).

So when some speakers of AAVE use the word nigga, it is understandably interpreted as an r-less variant of a word that underlyingly has an r. However, the supposed r never shows up, not even intervocalically (jargon for "between vowels").

When people maintain that they're two different words, there seems to be good evidence for that. Note to white people: This does not give you license to use either. If you do not speak AAVE, and chances are you don't, you don't get to use either word. You WILL offend people, and no one will like you.

Semantic Bleaching

This is a term that has existed in linguistics for a long time, which we did not invent, so there is actually no pun intended. It means that a word, over time, loses shades of meaning. For our purposes, there is excellent research on "obscenity" in AAVE, the main argument being that many things that are considered obscene in other dialects have been semantically bleached. Spears (1998), for instance, argues that nigga, shit, bitch, and ass have been semantically bleached. In fact, Collins and Postal have shown that there is a particular grammatical construction that relies on the semantic bleaching of ass: the Ass Camouflage Construction (ACC), as in:

  • how ya no-phone-havin'-ass gonna call me?

Not content to just rely on the previous literature, we collected data from our stomping grounds: Harlem and the South Bronx, as well as West Philadelphia (mostly, this required little more than going outside and paying attention, although we did take notes on time, place, and type of use). We also used the Twython library for Python to extract and stored 10,000 tweets using the word nigga. While this is a huge sample by regular regular sociolinguistic norms (where 500 data points is impressive), it's worth keeping in mind that it's about 1/60th of what is tweeted in an average afternoon.

tweets containing nigga from August 19 - September 18, 2014. 16 MILLION tokens.

tweets containing nigga from August 19 - September 18, 2014. 16 MILLION tokens.

In none of the 10,000 we read was the word used as an epithet or slur (although there were some cheeky white people trying to test boundaries).

In fact, we argue that in this dialect, it is now human and male by default, but not always (an example of the not always: "I adopted a cat and I love that nigga like a person"). It is also not  inherently specified for race, like nigger and other epithets are. In fact, race is often added to it, so the authors may be referred to in our neighborhoods as "that white nigga" and "the black nigga who was with him." Others include "asian nigga," and even "African nigga."

Among those who use the term, it is now a generic term like guy.

This shift in meaning seems to have happened some time after 1972-ish, possibly in conjunction with the rise of the Black Power movement, as an attempt to reclaim the word, similar to some feminists reclaiming bitch, and cunt. It was a necessary prerequisite for the super cool grammatical change our paper is actually about.

Grammatical Change: Pronouns or ...Imposters?!

The real point of our paper is about grammatical change. There exists a class of phrases first described by Collins and Postal, called Imposters. These are phrases that grammatically behave as though they are third person (reminder: he, she, it), but actually have first person (I, we) meaning. Great examples are:

  • Daddy is going to buy you an ice cream!
  • This reporter has found himself behind enemy lines.
  • The authors have already used 3 imposters in this very article.

Where the meanings are:

  • I am going to buy you an ice cream!
  • I have found myself behind enemy lines.
  • We have already used 3 imposters in this very article.

The key here is that the noun phrases behave in the syntax of the sentence as though they are 3rd person, but the actual meaning is first person -- we just decode it.

What we do is argue that there are new pronouns in AAVE, but first we have to argue that they're not just imposters. This is not trivial! For instance, Zilles (2005) argues that Brazilian Portuguese is developing a new first person pronoun, a gente ("ah zhen-tshy"), but Taylor (2009) argues that no such thing is happening, and it's just a popular imposter.

The Paper

We argue that a nigga is becoming a pronoun, meaning "I". The corresponding plural is niggas or niggaz. We also argue that there are two second person vocatives (that is, "terms of address") which are used depending on social deference one wants to show: nigga, and my nigga. 

Yes. You read that correctly: we are claiming that saying my nigga signals politeness (...among speakers of this and only this dialect!!! Don't go saying Jones & Hall gave you the green light to say "my nigga" to your black friends!!!).

What's the evidence for pronoun status?

  1. a nigga and my nigga are phonologically reduced. That is, there is a clear difference in pronunciation between the pronoun forms and the terms meaning "a person" and "my friend." To this end, we tend to use anigga and manigga, pronounced /ənɪgə/ and /mənɪgə/ (we leave the original spacing when quoting tweets, though).
  2. No other words can intervene while still retaining the first person meaning. "A friendly nigga said hello" does not  mean "I said hello," whereas "anigga said hello" can. The first means that some friendly guy said hello, but it wasn't the speaker.
  3. anigga binds anaphors. No, that's not some kind of Greek fetish; Anaphors are words like "myself" "himself," "herself," etc. Binding in this case refers to which anaphors show up with the word. anigga  patterns with the first person words, whereas imposters do not. For almost everyone "daddy is going to buy myself an ice cream" is either ungrammatical or sounds like daddy got lost in the middle of his sentence. anigga, on the other hand, is often used with myself, as in "anigga proud of myself."
  4. Other pronouns refer back to anigga. That is, "you read all a nigga's tweets but you still don't know me."
  5. Verbs are conjugated first person, not third person, with anigga. This is totally ungrammatical with imposters, and totally normal for actual pronouns. Example:
    "Finna make myself dinner. a nigga haven't eaten all day." Compare that to "Daddy haven't eaten all day; he's going to make myself dinner." Really, really, abysmally bad.

  6. anigga can be used in certain conditions that imposters - like "a brotha" - cannot. For instance, you can say "anigga arrived," with first person meaning, but the only interpretation available for "a brotha arrived" is third person. It's for this reason that we cannot simply substitute the much-less-likely-to-offend "a brotha" in our discussion of these terms.

That's basically it. In every conceivable grammatical test, anigga patterns with actual pronouns and not with imposters.

We then attempt to pinpoint the origin of it, and find that it must have happened some time between 1970 (The Last Poets) and 1992 (Wu-Tang). In 1993, it's already being used in puns in rap music, as in Wu-Tang Clan's "Shame on a nigga (that tries to run game on a nigga)", where the meaning is "shame on a guy who tries to run game on me." The first unambiguously pronoun appearance we can find in print is from a 1995 interview with ODB ("old dirty bastard") of the Wu-Tang Clan, followed shortly by use in a magazine interview with Slick Rick. This is over 100 years after the first records we can find of the use of anigga as an imposter -- all of which are from exceedingly racist old books from the 1880s.

With regards to the terms of address nigga and manigga, the difference seems to be social deference. When in a position of greater authority, nigga is the term of address used toward another person (As in the first minute of this video of possibly the best cooking show for chefs on a budget, and an excellent example for Spears, 1998). When showing deference, manigga is used. This is why there's a clear difference in meaning between "nigga, please," and "manigga, please." The first is dismissive, the second is pleading.

Non-linguists, feel free to skip this technical paragraph. Currently, we're in the process of tallying use in Urban Fiction as a way of getting at the frequency of use. It's exceptionally difficult to get a large enough sample of material to be able to tally use of these new pronouns compared to other pronouns. If you try and compare to the frequency of "I" on Twitter, for instance, you're then comparing against all varieties of English, not just AAVE. If you use some other word as a proxy for AAVE use (hypothetically, tweets that contain the word nigga), you then have a number of other confounds, like potential bias in your data set, or in the case of using nigga possible lexical priming effects. If you try and do sociolinguistic interviews, you get observer effects that bias the data. Fiction is a good way to get at what the author of a given novel perceives as natural, which we can then compare against other authors and other datasets (eg, Twitter). The goal right now is simply to get a baseline for comparison so we can begin to home in on a plausible range we can later refine.

Concluding thoughts

It's unlikely that this pronoun will ever replace or even truly rival the usual English pronouns, however speakers of this variety of AAVE now have a new way of expressing themselves at their disposal. For the moment, the authors have the dubious distinction of potentially being the world's leading experts on the n- words. So we've got that going for us, which is nice.