Date: Wed, 29 Oct 1997 07:25:11 -0500


Subject: Re: ADS-L Digest - 27 Oct 1997 to 28 Oct 1997

From: "Ron Rabin" rabinrl[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]

Subject: Black dialectical variation in the use of nigger

The discussion on the black and white uses of the word nigger have begun

to turn up dialectical variation rather than a conclusion about how

the word is used generally.

We have begun to see, and I suspect from what I know, that nigger is used

a variety of ways by African Americans and the variations are distributed

by, potentially, geography, social class, family origin, etc.

For starters:

1) nigger as a derogatory term for African Americans (mirroring white usage)

2) nigger as a derogatory term meaning shiftless, lazy (no racial sense)

3) nigger as a general reference term without value connotations

--see Labov's collections in "The Logic of Non-Standard English"

--the adjective it's coupled with provides the value, not the noun,

so: a fine nigger, a bad nigger

4) use in the plural as always bad (as mentioned here)

5) but use as mass noun ("the nigger ain't got shit") as neutral, Cf. Labov

Someone also noted that African American use of nigger reclaimed it, as

did homosexual use of queer. But my sense is that nigger has been used

right along as a general reference term for black man (not black women?

not by black women?) by African Americans for as long as I've heard it

spoken. And you?

What do we know, historically and a matter of sociolinguistic practice and

lore, about a group themselves using a term neutrally that is used to

label them from outside negatively? We do have the example of "Black

is beautiful" where a group asserts as positive that which is used

as a negative. What I find interesting is that nigger could remain

neutral for black speakers while it exists (and existed) in such a nasty

sense for whites.

Ron Rabin

Buffalo State College