Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Language Can't Be Imposed From the Top

Written by johnleemk on 10:16:11 am Mar 1, 2007.
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Recently, the city council of New York announced a ban on the infamous N-word — "nigger". The phrase has a horrid history as a pejorative in American society, and at first glance the ban is understandable, even if it's only symbolic since no penalties are attached for violating the ban.

Ironically, the concern that many activists have about recent cultural developments is not that the attitude once represented by the word "nigger" is experiencing a resurgence. Rather, what they are worried about is that "nigger" is losing more and more of the negative connotations it once had.

I, for one, cannot see the problem here. The African American community is empowering itself by claiming the word "nigger" or "nigga" as a way of cementing their identity.

The New York Councilman who sponsored the resolution behind the ban has said that we cannot change the history and etymology of the word — that it is forever tainted by its past. He might be in need of some linguistics lessons, then, since many words have escaped their past.

After all, the word "sucks" used to be totally taboo, nearly on par with the f-word for its connotations involving oral sex. Over time, however, as new generations adopted the word and used it in less explicit contexts, it lost its sting. Today, hardly anyone except those from older generations is ever aware it was a bad word in the first place.

The fear, of course, may be that if nobody is aware that "nigger" once was a terrible word used by racists to demean an entire class of people, then people will forget the importance of the fight for equality. This is a valid concern.

Nevertheless, this concern appears to stem from a misplaced understanding of history and linguistics. Simply because a particular word loses its association with a historial event does not mean that the historical event vanishes from the public consciousness. After all, everyone (well, nearly everyone...) knows what oral sex is, even though nobody knows that "sucks" used to be a not-too-subtle euphemism for it.

Most importantly, the context of a word's changing meaning has to be taken into account. If "nigger" was losing its negative implications because of an active movement to downplay the importance of the American civil rights movement, then hell yes, this would be something to be worried about.

If, on the other hand, the word is becoming a positive one because it has been seized upon by the African Americans to strengthen and empower their community, then how can this be regarded as bad? It is not as though they have forgotten their past — they have simply chosen to reappropriate the past's symbols of oppression as symbols of strength.

In the end, I believe that language is really what you make of it. I don't think that words are defined in a prescriptive context by dictionary editors. Words are defined by how they are used by the people who use the language. Imposing a definition from the top down has never worked, and never will.


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Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.


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