melanoman: (Default)
The term "persons of diversity" came up in the Language Log. It's a newly coined lexical item used to mean "people belonging to groups that were historically excluded [from X]" where X is drawn from the context but is always something where inclusion is socio-economically desirable. This coinage is super-new, but will probably catch on in American Boardroom Dialects for technical linguistic reasons that I don't want to go into here.

What I did want to talk about was that the early comments on the subject were overwhelmingly looking to deny the existence of the term. The comments felt... out of character for the board. It nagged me until I realized that this felt just like the Tone Argument. I wrote this comment about that:
At the risk of going off-topic for the log, strong reactions to terms that come up addressing racism are common, so much so that most discussion groups dedicated to analyzing, addressing, or otherwise discussing racism have coined the term "the tone argument" to refer to a way-too-common tactic of derailing the discussion. The derailer will talk about terms and politeness to shift blame for his or her own discomfort onto the person pointing out the uncomfortable truth.

The tone argument can't be accommodated. Begrudging members of the discussion aren't really objecting to the words, but to the very idea that they need to do something about the unfair advantages or even that those unfair advantages exist.

Even though the attempts are in vain, people in those discussions will and do try to accommodate the inconsolable. Trying to say something when someone is trying to squelch the idea is inherently broken. They end up coining increasingly opaque terms, which is where monstrosities like this really come from.

The annoying part of all that is that by arguing for the plainer terms instead of the obfuscated ones, that just adds to the distraction from the core argument.

Just to be clear, I'm not saying discussion of the terms nor GKP's reaction are at all out of bounds nor objectionable. This is the Language Log, so the discussion of terms is core to the purpose of this forum. "The tone argument" is about squelching people in other forums by changing the topic from the subject matter to the expression thereof.
I was satisfied with my analysis of the subject, but that disclaimer at the end bugs me. The social pressure got me to specifically exempt Dr. Pullum, and in doing so I took the edge off raising the question fully. I wonder if anyone in the forum will get the connection between trying to reinterpret the semantics of the new lexical item and the tone argument itself. I think I managed to get the worst of both worlds where I will pay the social price for touching on the taboo point, but without actually getting that point across. Damn.
melanoman: (Default)
In the Language Log there was a recent article about a syntactic form the author didn't understand. My analysis is in one of the comments, and I also wanted to preserve it here:

This sentence is fully grammatical and semantically valid in my native dialect. Let's isolate the most important elements.

"In a recent survey, more people liked Pepsi than they did Coke."

I take this sentence to be equivalent to:

"The percentage of people in a recent survey who expressed a preference for Pepsi exceeded the percentage of people in that survey who expressed a preference for Coke."

The less interesting (to me) change in the translation is from "like" to "prefers." I see that the sentence takes for granted an assumed model of how the survey works.

The assumed model of the survey in this example is that of a taste test where the person indicates a preference between the two drinks. This is a little different than the original example where the assumed model is that the survey gives the person a chance to characterize each group of ads, and that one or more of the responses counts as negative. In both cases, if the hearer were to take a different model of the way the survey works, the derived meaning changes to match the model. If the models of the speaker and hearer do not match, a misunderstanding is likely.

A more interesting change to me involves the verb "did." Did what? In this example, the predicate is "to express a preference for " and the phrase "...did Coke" uses a structure where the predicate is the same and "Coke" fills the valence . In the original example the predicate is "found to be negative." This works almost the same, except it adds the extra twist that "Mr. Kerry's" is a shortening of "Mr. Kerry's ads" in context.

That leaves the frustrating "they." I we treat "they" like a pronoun with a rigid referent then "...they did Coke" would have "they" refer to the subset of people on the survey who liked Coke. The problem is that if we believe that the rigid reference is drawn from the context, the only compatible choice in the context is "More people" which refers to the people who liked Pepsi --- exactly the opposite of the people who liked Coke.

My theory is that the same structure which allows the word "Coke" to replace the word "Pepsi" in the predicate (or "Mr. Bush's ads" with "Mr. Kerry's [ads]") also affects the interpretation of "they." The syntax of the predicate form requires a survey subset as a subject, and the semantic of the fully qualified predicate selects which subset.
melanoman: (Default)
The second half of this paper has been a long time coming because I ended up shooting my own theory down when researching and testing it. So rather than slink off quietly I'll write a different paper shooting down my original thesis and making some guesses about what is really going on. Part I of the paper lays a lot of groundwork about pejoratives in general and racial pejoratives in specific.

It ends with the comment that the meaning of these terms varies radically with the set of prejudices. This brings up an interesting case where the speaker and listener have substantially different prejudices about the group. The meaning that the speaker is conveying includes or at least refers to his own prejudice, but the hearer has a potentially different set of prejudices and hears the term accordingly. Additionally, the underlying premise that the speaker subscribes to a derogatory view of the target group is conveyed, even if it isn't exactly clear what the derogatory view is.

Since the prejudice is part of the meaning of the terms, the ambiguity that comes from differing prejudices makes these terms prone to misunderstandings when the speaker incorrectly assumes a shared opinion. This superficial misunderstanding about specifics in no way invalidates the underlying correct understanding that by using a pejorative the speaker is expressing a strong negative opinion about the group.

This distinction becomes clear when contrasting the confusion that comes from the transition when a previously neutral terms becomes pejorative versus the confusion that comes when a bigot speaks to someone who does not share a particular prejudice. As an example of the former, consider some time around the 1970's when the neutral term to refer to people native to Asia and thereabouts plus their descendants was "oriental." Around that time, the word became a pejorative and was eventually replaced with the term "Asian" As an inevitable part of the transition, people from the dialect groups that changed later would talk to those from groups that changed earlier. The speaker, who had possibly never heard the term "Asian" nor knew of any reason for the term "oriental" to cause offense, would use the term to someone for whom the term was a pejorative. In this case, the hearer might incorrectly assume that the speaker was a bigot based on the language usage, even though bigots and non-bigots alike in the speakers dialect group were using the term. Over time as a kind of critical mass formed from similar interactions, the dialects influenced each other and spread the pejorativization of "oriental" from dialect to dialect. After the transition, the assumption that using the term "oriental" implied that the speaker had a dim view of the becomes correct for continued usage (but not retroactively to pre-transition usage). This does allow for some awkward artifacts like the "CP" in "NAACP"

This brings up the much more challenging topic of how neutral the non-pejorative terms are. My initial theory was that language would demand a term that referred to any frequently discussed group such that the term did not have a pejorative standing. Whenever one such term became pejoratized, another would be generated to take its place. When the sentiments surrounding the group were particularly charged, the process of pejorativization and replacement would be accelerated. I had been trying to work up an experiment to distinguish group-reference from group-description in the various terms. To date the results have been inconclusive at best, and seem to suggest that even the most neutral terms must invoke a prototypical image of a group member. In doing so, they are subject to many of the same phenomena that the pejorative counterparts are.

That said, there can be no question that a person using a vulgar term like "zipperhead" is being insulting in a way that a person using a term like "Asian" is not. Some day I hope to write a Part III that explains why and how one term is so much more offensive than the other, but first I'll need to figure that out.
melanoman: (Default)
This post is an academic investigation into how framing works with respect to racial pejoratives. In particular, I'm interested in exploring the boundaries of when a racial term draws in other racial ideas versus when it stands alone. By the very nature of this discussion, some offensive terms will get examined --- so offensive that I feel the need to make a disclaimer that I do not condone the use of these terms and that I am committed to the elimination of racism to the extent that this is possible. I suspect that this post will be too technical to be of much practical use in fighting racism, but I'd be thrilled to be proved wrong on that point.

The post was inspired by a stoneself post on the meaning of the term "white trash." The term "white trash" started out as a pejorative term coined by 19th century black americans to identify a radial group off the category "white." The term at once associated the identified group with "white" (i.e. they had white skin) but also differentiated them from the prototypical "white." The modern term is still a radial term off the "white" group, though the exact distinction being made has changed somewhat and the speaker base has broadened to include non-black speaker. In both cases the differentiation is pejorative and involves behavioral, social, and economic factors. The specifics of the distinguishing factors are beyond the scope of this paper, except for their pejorative nature.

Radial terms of this sort exclude the newly identified group from the original one. The naive definition of "white" --- a person with relatively low melanin content in their skin with caucasian ancestry --- would include "white trash" as "white," but the usage of this term focuses much more on the distinction than the similarity. More simply, when a person is called "white trash" the emphasis is that this person does not fit the prototypical image the speaker has of white people.

All pejoratives, by their nature, make a negative judgment against an identified individual or group. A second distinction can be drawn between pejoratives that make a judgment and pejoratives that express a prejudice.

An example of a pejorative that makes a judgment about an individual would be the term "jerk." When someone calls a person a "jerk" the emphasis is directly on the quality and/or behavior of that person and doesn't much consider the association of that person with anyone else. Words of this type range from very mild terms like "slacker" to vulgar ones like "asshole." Some are very specific about what sort of judgment is being made, such as "slacker" referring to work ethic, while others are much more generic.

The group-based pejoratives and racial pejoratives in particular typically emphasize prejudices about a group rather than make a specific judgment about an individual. Contrast the term "scab" (a pejorative referring to a person who works in spite of declared strike) with the the term "wop" (a vulgar pejorative referring to Italians and people of Italian descent). The former term emphasizes a particular behavior and derives it power from the hatred of that behavior and its effect on the lives of the union workers whose negotiation tactic is being undermined. The latter term derives all its meaning and force from prejudice.

Some terms function both ways, such as the term "nag." The term definitely focuses on a particular behavior, namely excessive repetition of instruction or criticism, but it also associates with attitudes about women and draws on those attitudes as part of its meaning. This is why it is awkward or humorous to refer to the same behavior in a male as "nagging." As that humorous usage becomes more common, the humor starts to fade and the meaning of the term starts to change so that the association with female stereotypes is weakened, so we can imagine a time in the future when "nag" might become a gender-neutral term referring only to the behavior and not the prejudice. This certainly hasn't happened yet.

Context always allows a term from one class to be used as if it were from the other, as in the vulgar example "What is the difference between a black man and a nigger?" By taking the form of a judgment-based pejorative, the speaker, at least nominally, is making specific judgments about individuals, even though the extremely vulgar term "nigger" draws all of its power from racial stereotypes. Whether the question is asked sincerely by someone who thinks of "nigger" as a radial category within blacks or insincerely by someone who just want to refer to his or her prejudice with the pretense of fairness, the word still draws heavily on a particular set of assumptions about a group of people to derive its meaning.

The term "white trash" works much the same way. The exact meaning is hard to pin down because it varies with the particular prejudices of the group that uses it. This raises a question about how much of the set of prejudices is drawn into the discussion when a racially charged term is used. This was the topic I initially wanted to address, but I've run short of time laying the groundwork, so I'll have to leave that to a PART II of this post later on.


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