Bill Maher, the N-word, and that pesky R

[Trigger warning: n-words]

Bill Maher is in the news right now for dropping the n-bomb on his show in a context that many, many people found offensive. Predictably, people are coming to his defense with two arguments: (1) he was referring to himself, and (2) he "didn't say the /r/."

As a linguist, and as one of the handful of us who has given serious thought to the n-word(s), (shout out to Christopher Hall, to Arthur Spears, and to Geneva Smitherman) I want to weigh in with a (socio)linguistic perspective. My argument is:

  1. It was not ok for him to say either, and,
  2. White folks (in general) should not say either if they don't want to offend, because
  3. It is an artificial distinction for most white people, if they are borrowing from a dialect they do not speak...and the vast majority of white people do not speak (or understand) African American English, natively or otherwise. And also,
  4. In most white people's native dialect, the only n-word is a slur.

Elsewhere, Christopher Hall and I have written about the grammatical and social functions of the n-words in some varieties of AAE. We argued that there are multiple words that all include the "n-word" that fulfill various grammatical and pragmatic functions: from first person pronouns to social distance markers, to politeness (yes, politeness) forms. If you are not a native speaker of AAE, it is easy to misunderstand these uses because they are what Arthur Spears coined the term "camouflage constructions" to describe. That is, they look like they might mean something else, and so people assume they understand when they don't. Recent pilot work on cross-dialect comprehension that I worked on with a team at U Penn and NYU confirms that in general, white folks don't understand the range of uses of the n-words.

More importantly, these are uses that occur in African American English, which is a dialect that has its own accent (really, range of accents, but we'll set that aside for now). Crucially, most forms of AAE are what linguists call non-rhotic, meaning /r/s after vowels are often not pronounced. Many white dialect varieties are not non-rhotic, including Bill Maher's normal speech. So Maher will make the argument that nigga and nigger are different words, and that he said the "acceptable" one.

HOWEVER, Maher, I would argue, only has nigga in his vocabulary as a taboo deformation of the word nigger. It's the same as claiming he didn't call someone bitch, he called them betch, or bish. The point is to say "I technically didn't say the word" while still saying the word.

Here's the crux of my argument: If you don't speak AAE, whether you borrow AAE sounds or not to say nigger doesn't change what you're saying. For people to be comfortable (or less uncomfortable) with Maher's use of nigga, he'd have to (1) use it in the appropriate social context, which this was not, and (2) back it up with literally any other features of AAE... and this would still probably not make it ok. As is, he was just "being edgy" by saying a taboo word he knew would offend.

That is, we white folks don't get to say "I was using that word like you people do!" without actually being able to use any other words like AAE speakers. If the accent is right, if the word choice is right, if the grammar is right (yes, you can butcher AAE grammar --- it is as systematic and rule governed as any other language variety), and if the cultural context is right you can maybe get away with speaking AAE as a white person. Notice I didn't say "saying the n-word". That's still pretty much off the table. Even if you understand the grammar, social function, and pragmatics of use. 

Here are some tips and general rules of thumb around the n-words if you don't want to offend, and you're white in America:

When you can say "nigger" without offending:

  1. maybe in citation, either directly quoting old racist stuff, or discussing the word itself, best if at a linguistics conference or conference on race, and even then you might encounter pushback.
  2. never in casual conversation.

So basically, you can't.

When you can say "nigga" without offending:

  1. To a POC who has specifically said to you "yo, we cool, you can call me nigga. You get a pass." To that person ONLY. Probably not within earshot of anyone else. I've never heard of this situation occurring, but who knows. Also, even if you find yourself in that situation, if you actually do it, I'm not saying it's gonna go great, or that I endorse that path. 
  2. discussing the word nigga in citation form at a linguistics conference. And even then, not everyone will agree.
  3. Never in casual speech.

So theoretically it's possible, but maybe just don't.

The distinction between r-full and r-less forms has a long history, and linguists are not remotely settled as to the history of the word (for instance, Hiram Smith argues the semantically neutral r-less form goes back 200 years or more). While it's interesting, it's completely orthogonal to the question of whether it's appropriate for white people to say it. Because it has been a slur in white English from its beginnings to literally right now, in both r-full and r-less varieties of white English, people like Bill Maher don't get to decide that it no longer has all that historical baggage.

And even if you deeply understand its use in AAE speaking communities, and participate in those communities, if you actually care about the people in those communities, you still won't say it.  Even when it's linguistically appropriate. Because our language use is culturally and socially situated.




©Taylor Jones 2017

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