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7.10: Social Norms

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    Social Norms, from Sarah Harmon

    Video Script

    When we're talking about social norms, we're talking about how these social norms affect language in this case. Believe it or not, there's actually quite a bit that we can say about this.

    Let's start off with talking about taboo. Taboo, of course, is that concept in which we talk about something that is unacceptable in society. In most every culture, there are certain cuss words or swearing or profanity words that you're not supposed to use…yet, everybody uses them. We use them as some kind of exclamation, or some kind of intensifying agent, and very frequently those profanities have something to do with blasphemy (having to do with the god or gods of whatever religion is being practiced in the area). They could also have to do with body parts or body fluids or bodily functions. Think about the cuss words or the profanities that you know—not just in English, but in any other language you speak. Chances are they have to do something, either with blasphemy, or something with the body. It is really interesting, by the way, to note that in so many cases in English, the profanity comes from an old Germanic word, but the acceptable term is frequently a Romance word. My favorite example is shit vs manure; shit is an old English word, very Germanic word, while manure is definitively French and got borrowed. In many cultures, there's an avoidance of death to the point of not saying any word having to do with death: not saying the names of dead people or dead ancestors, there's a number of ways to go about this. The most famous example, perhaps, has to do with the Chinese languages. Because of how the writing system reflects usually a number of things, the character and the term for the word four is very close to the character and the pronunciation of the word for death; it's either the exact same term just different tone or very similar. As a result, the number four is a very unlucky number. This is spread, not just from China and the various Chinese languages and cultures, but throughout most of East and Southeast Asia, simply due to the influence of the Chinese and their geopolitical status. By contrast, in most languages of the Sino-Tibetan realm, the word for eight and the word for fortune or luck are either the same or very similar, and so the number eight is good luck.

    Euphemism and dysphemism. You probably have heard the term euphemism before, when you are making something better. The prefix eu- means ‘good’ so a euphemism. Instead of talking about how shitty somebody looks, you talk about how different they may look, how unconventional they may look; for some people, that would be a euphemism. Dysphemism is the opposite; it is purposefully including taboo, profane language or anything negative into something My favorite example of this is the word fuck in English, not just because it's a word I tend to use, but because its usage is amazing. This is true not just in American English, but in all world Englishes, that term has a life of its own. We can even make it an infix to make something even more intense. For example, take the adverb absolutely, and infix -fucking- into the middle of it, and you get abso-fucking-lutely. We even have a couple of famous acronyms, FUBAR and SNAFU—I'll let you look them up—that are examples of dysphemism.

    Humor is always a part of social norms. I told you I’m a fan of Archer.

    Archer Danger Island Languages Puns.jpg

    I like Archer, and the fact that not only the joke is pretty straightforward with respect to humor, but the name of the character: Fuchs. It's meant to be a play on a German last name, but you get the point. Humor is always a part of social norms in language, as it always taps into what is taboo and makes fun of it somehow. It's also very culturally specific; what works in one dialect or one speech community may not work in a different one.

    Other elements to talk include register, which describes the changes that arise when we speak to different speech communities. If there is a significant difference—a class difference, role difference, along those lines—we measure the difference in register. When we think about going formal or informal in our speech, that's an issue of register. In many languages, you actually change morphology, syntax, semantics, and/or the lexicon when you use formal language; think of different types of inflection, different forms of address, along these lines. Politeness is also factored into register; how you are polite to your mother may not be how you were polite to your sibling or how you reply to your boss, or how you are polite to somebody you really don't like. In many ways we modify our language. Even the use of jargon—when it's appropriate to use jargon versus not when you have to explain it, and when you can just leave it as-is.

    These are all elements of what we like to call social norms. Below is a is a video by Anthony Pym on diglossia and that really is going to hit with respect to register. Diglossia is when we maneuver between different speech communities and we modify our language accordingly. Sometimes it's being in a different dialect, but often is not; it also includes register and how we maneuver between these different groups.

    The Power of Names

    Our names are intimately entwined with our personhood. In addition to pointing to you as an individual, your name also provides many clues about your membership in social categories. People make guesses about your gender, age, and ethnicity on the basis of the clues they infer from your name. For example, imagine you’re moving into residence at a Canadian university and you see your neighbours’ names on their doors. On one side is Kimberley and on the other is Kimiko. Even before you meet Kimiko and Kimberley, you’ve probably made a guess about what they look like based on their names. Your guess might be wrong because these clues arise from general patterns, not absolutes, but your experience gave you some expectations.

    Matched-Guise Study

    It can be hard to make direct observations of people’s attitudes about social difference, because it’s generally not socially acceptable to express negative attitudes towards minority groups. So instead, we can use a technique called a matched-guise study to try to draw conclusions about attitudes. It works like this: The researchers present participants with some kind of stimulus. In one study (Oreopoulous 2011), the stimuli were a set of résumés. The researchers held the stimulus constant and changed the guise that it appeared in — in this case, the guise was the name at the top of the résumé. Different employers received the same résumés (the same stimuli) under different names (different guises).

    The core idea in a matched-guise study is that if you find a difference in your participants’ ratings, that difference isn’t because of the stimulus, because you’ve held the stimulus constant. Any difference in ratings must be because of the guise — the way you labelled your stimuli.

    There’s evidence from social science research that employers and landlords also make guesses about people based on their names. And as you might expect, the guesses they make are shaped by societal structures of power and privilege. In a matched-guise study in Toronto, (Oreopoulous, 2011) the research team submitted thousands of mock résumés to job postings. They found that a given résumé with an English-sounding name like Matthew Wilson was much more likely to get a callback than the same résumé under the name Rahul Kaur, Asif Sheikh, or Yong Zhang, even when the résumé listed a Canadian university degree and indicated fluency in English and French. That same year, another matched-guise study (Hogan & Berry 2011) sent email inquiries to Toronto landlords who had advertised apartments on Craigslist. The landlords responded to emails from typically Arabic male names like Osama Mubbaarak at much lower rates than to inquiries from typically English names like Peter McDonald. It’s clear that the hiring managers and the landlords in these studies used applicants’ names to make judgments about their ethnicity and about their value as a potential employee or tenant.

    I’m guessing that many of you reading, watching, or listening to this have names that are not traditionally English, and maybe you’ve grappled with this question: do I use my own name, or do I choose an English name that will be easier for my teachers and classmates to pronounce? On one hand, using an English name might just make daily life a little bit simpler in an English-dominant society. On the other hand, it’s not fair that this pressure to conform to English even exists! Your name doesn’t just do the job of signaling things about you to other people; your name can also be a vital expression of your own individual identity, representing a profound connection to your family, language, and community.

    This is the case for many people who are working to reclaim their Indigenous languages: using a name from that language not only connects them to their ancestors, but also expresses resistance to the colonial names assigned in residential schools. When children arrived at residential school for the first time, they were given an English or French name and their hair was cut, two powerful symbols that the school intended to sever the children’s connections to their home communities. Because of that trauma, many survivors of the schools also chose English or French names for their children and grandchildren rather than names from their own languages. This was the case for Ta7talíya Nahanee, a Sḵwx̱wú7mesh decolonial facilitator and strategist, whose grandfather gave her the English name that appears on her official Canadian documents. In June 2021, in response to Call To Action 17 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2015), Canada launched a program that allows Indigenous people to reclaim their Indigenous names on passports and other official documents free of charge. But when Ta7talíya applied to have her documents changed to her Sḵwx̱wú7mesh sníchim name, the government denied her request, because of a rule that forbids numerals like “7” in legal names. But in Sḵwx̱wú7mesh sníchim orthography, 7 is not a numeral — it’s a letter that corresponds to the glottal stop [ʔ], a contrastive phoneme in the language (see Chapter 4). Ta7talíya Nahanee is currently fighting for the right to her name. In an interview with the Toronto Star, she argued: “If all of us are able to share with the world every time we show our ID, it just opens up that normalizing Indigenous language, normalizing Indigenous teachings and normalizing Indigenous ways. So please make policy that works for us.” (Keung, 2021)

    Trans folks also know how powerful names are for expressing identity. If you’ve gone through a gender transition you might have experienced a sense of liberation when others call you by a name of your choice that matches your gender. And maybe you’ve also experienced the pain of being deadnamed, when someone uses your old name either accidentally or deliberately.

    Deadnaming, forcible renaming, and mispronouncing names are all ways that people use language, specifically names, to enforce social structures of power. In the early 1900s when travelling by train was a luxurious experience for middle class white people in Canada, most of the train porters were Black, and all of them were called George. As historian Dr. Dorothy Williams says:

    “Using Black men at that period, just 10, 20, 30 years from the end of slavery was a signal or a signpost to whites that these men should still be servants to them. […] So they didn’t have to have an identity. Just like in slavery, they didn’t have to have an identity as these Black men were now going to be called George, because that was the easiest reference most whites could make to get attention. Just call him George.” (Bowen & Johnson, 2022)

    And it’s not just in the olden days that Canadians expressed white supremacy through names. During the 2021 federal election, at least one person on Twitter repeatedly referred to NDP leader Jagmeet Singh as Juggy. Of the three leaders of the main federal parties, Singh was the only person of colour. Calling him Juggy, with English spelling and that diminutive affix -y, not only erased his Punjabi-Canadian identity but also infantilized him.

    These examples all illustrate what Mary Bucholtz (2016) calls indexical bleaching. Replacing someone’s name with an English one, or mispronouncing it so it sounds more English, are ways of “bleaching” that person’s identity: it strips away their connection to family, community and language, and in place calls them by a name that sounds more English, that is, more white. In other words, it’s a way of reinforcing existing structures of power and privilege.

    Check your understanding

    Query \(\PageIndex{1}\)


    Bowen, L.-S., & Johnson, F. (Hosts). (2022). Why were all porters called “George”? [Audio podcast episode]. In Secret Life of Canada. CBC Podcasts.

    Bucholtz, M. (2016). On being called out of one’s name: Indexical bleaching as a technique of deracialization. In H. S. Alim, J. R. Rickford, & A. F. Ball (Eds.), Raciolinguistics (pp. 273–289). Oxford University Press.

    Hogan, B., & Berry, B. (2011). Racial and Ethnic Biases in Rental Housing: An Audit Study of Online Apartment Listings. City & Community, 10(4), 351–372.

    Keung, N. (2021, August 28). Yes, her name is Ta7talíya, but you won’t see it on her passport. Toronto Star.

    Oreopoulos, P. (2011). Why Do Skilled Immigrants Struggle in the Labor Market? A Field Experiment with Thirteen Thousand Resumes. American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, 3(4), 148–171.

    Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2015). Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action.

    Language and Offense

    Content Note: This section discusses swear words and also makes brief mention of the concept of racial slurs.

    Taboos and offence

    In the previous section, we saw that language has a power beyond communicating the literal meaning: things can happen in the world as a result of us uttering something. Language is very powerful in this way. We just discussed how language is how we perform our identity. Another power that language has is the emotional effect that producing and/or perceiving certain expressions can have on us. Let’s unpack what that means in this section and the next section.

    What do we mean by emotional effect? One example of this is swears. Although the English words poop and shit have the same basic meaning and refer to the same physical substance, they are not completely interchangeable in conversation. While poop is fairly innocuous, almost childish, shit is considered taboo, which means that its use is avoided in except under certain circumstances. Violating this taboo by using it in the wrong circumstances is likely to cause offence. For example, if you break your toe and shout, “Oh, poop!”, no one will be offended (though you may not feel as satisfied!), but if you ask a young child, “Do you need to take a shit?”, this will surely offend many adults. Context matters, and using taboo language in the wrong context is culturally offensive, rather than just amusing or awkward.

    Contrast this with other pairs of words that have the same basic meaning but different associations, but neither of which are considered offensive. For example, the English words odour and aroma both refer to smells. We tend to talk about unpleasant odours and pleasant aromas, but mixing up these associations won’t offend anyone. The negative association of the word odour is not sufficient to make the word taboo.

    It’s easy to think that taboos are avoided in conversation because the taboo words themselves are bad somehow. This might be true for cases like shit where the word itself has a lot of negative emotional content attached to it. However, this is not always the case. In Kambaata (a Highland East Cushitic language of the Afro-Asiatic family, spoken in Ethiopia), it is traditionally taboo for a woman to use any words that begin with the same sounds as the name of her spouse’s parents, so she is expected to use taboo avoidance, which is the replacement of taboo words with other words (Treis, 2005). This is not because of any negativity towards the in-laws or their names, but rather, it is a sign of respect for these relatives.

    So language taboos can exist for either negative or positive reasons. What makes an expression taboo is that uttering it breaks the taboo and causes offence. Across the world’s languages, there are many types of taboo language. The names of respected people are often taboo: in-laws (as in Kambaata and many other languages), community elders, emperors, etc. Many languages also have taboo words for bodily waste, sexual organs and functions, death, and religious items or ideas.

    Likewise, the strategies for taboo avoidance are varied. In Kambaata, many words have alternate forms that would be used to avoid matching an in-law’s name. For example, a married Kambaata woman whose father-in-law is named Tiráago might replace the word timá ‘leftover dish’ with ginjirá to avoid using the beginning ti– sound that matches her father-in-law’s name.

    Instead of avoiding similarity, another taboo avoidance strategy is to replace the taboo word with a similar form, to help evoke the taboo word without actually uttering it. This is common for swear words, which may often be replaced with less offensive words that have similar form. An English speaker might yell out sugar or shoot when they stub their toe instead of shit. The matching initial sound retains some of the emotional power of uttering the actual swear word, while minimizing the offence that could result from violating the taboo against swearing.

    Swearing and physical pain

    The power of swearing is very real! Many studies (e.g. Stephens et al. 2009; 2020) show that swearing in response to pain actually seems to reduce the pain we feel. Interestingly, though similar-sounding words from taboo avoidance might carry some of the same emotional power, they don’t seem to help with the pain itself in the way that the original swear words do. So the next time you drop a hammer on your foot, take comfort in knowing that your offensive swears can be beneficial!

    Using a word versus mentioning a word

    Most of the time when we communicate, each word is just one of many words strung together in an utterance. This is the ordinary use of these words. So in an English sentence like wheat is a grain, each of the words are used to say something about the world. In this case, the sentence is discussing wheat as a real world object, the actual physical grain itself, with the word wheat being used to refer to the grain.

    However, an important feature of language is that it can be used to describe itself. That is, we can use language metalinguistically to discuss properties of language. This is what makes the entire field of linguistics possible! But it’s not just linguists who do this. Ordinary language users frequently have metalinguistic conversations about language, and they do so by mentioning words and expressions as linguistic objects, rather than using them to refer to real world concepts. For example, while we use the word wheat in sentences like wheat is a grain, a sentence about the word itself would be mentioning it rather than using it, for example, if we were talking about how the word wheat is historically related to the word white. Here, we are not talking about the physical grain itself or the literal colour white, but rather, we are talking about the English words for that grain and that colour.

    How to be a linguist:

    The convention when we’re being meta, that is, mentioning words that we need to talk about metalinguistically, is to present the mentioned words and expression in italics. We will revisit this convention in Chapter 7, when we talk about the meaning of linguistic expressions.

    This difference between using a word and mentioning it is sometimes called the use-mention distinction. It is helpful to keep this in mind especially when discussing taboo words. In some cases, mentioning the taboo word doesn’t seem to call up the taboo the same way that using it does. To return to our shit example, there’s a fairly strong taboo against using swear words in professional writing like textbooks, so it would be surprising if we used the word shit in this chapter. However, when the topic under discussion is swear words as linguistic objects, as a phenomenon within language, we need to be able to mention the word shit, which is what we’ve done here.

    The use-mention distinction does not give us the free pass to utter all taboo words in all contexts. There are especially offensive and highly volatile taboo words, like racial slurs (words that insult and denigrate certain marginalised groups of people, in this case based on perceived race), whose mere mentions are known to cause visceral emotions in hearers. Even for non-slurring taboo words like shit, some contexts are so sensitive to the taboo, that even mentions of them violate the taboo. In both of these cases, if you need to allude to the word, you can use a different strategy. You might choose a complex circumlocution like a four-letter word referring to excrement, or you might mask the word in some way by replacing some letters with asterisks or dashes (s***, s–t), referring to the word by its first letter (s-word), bleeping an audio track, or blurring an image or video.

    Check your understanding

    Query \(\PageIndex{1}\)


    Anderson, L., & Lepore, E. (2013). What did you call me? Slurs as prohibited words setting things up. Analytic Philosophy, 54(3), 350-63.

    Lepore, E., & Anderson, L. (2013). Slurring words. Noûs, 47(1), 25-48.

    McCready, E., & Davis, C. (2019). An Invocational Theory of Slurs. LENLS 14, Tokyo.

    Davis, C., & McCready, E. (2020). The instability of slurs. Grazer Philosophische Studien, 97(1), 63-85.

    ⚠️ Rappaport, J. (2020). Slurs and Toxicity: It’s Not about Meaning. Grazer Philosophische Studien, 97(1), 177-202.

    Snefjella, B., Schmidtke, D., & Kuperman, V. (2018). National character stereotypes mirror language use: A study of Canadian and American tweets. PLOS ONE, 13(11), e0206188.

    Stephens, R., Atkins, J., & Kingston, A. (2009). Swearing as a response to pain. NeuroReport, 20(12), 1056–1060.

    Stephens, R., & Robertson, O. (2020). Swearing as a Response to Pain: Assessing Hypoalgesic Effects of Novel “Swear” Words. Frontiers in Psychology, 11.

    Treis, Y. (2005). Avoiding Their Names, Avoiding Their Eyes: How Kambaata Women Respect Their In-Laws. Anthropological Linguistics, 47(3), 292–320.

    ⚠️ Content note: This paper mentions a highly volatile racial slur without censoring it.

    Derogation, Toxicity and Power Imbalances

    Content Note: This section discusses swear words and the concept of slurs. A slur that is used against women is mentioned briefly.

    Offense revisited

    At the beginning of this chapter, we discussed how language can be used to perform actions and construct our identity. This can be a good thing: we might use language, for example, to establish positive social relationships with people. When I went to elementary school in Japan, it was typical for my classmates to call me Taniguchi-san towards the beginning of the school year. -san is a suffix you can add to the end of names in Japanese: -san is fairly polite, but not too polite. When my classmates in elementary school started to get to know me better, they started to call me Ai-chan. That linguistic act let me know that we’re friends! -chan is a suffix for names, used for endearment. Some of my super close friends even gave me in-group exclusive nicknames like Ai-pyon (-pyon is roughly a hopping sound in Japanese; but they gave me this nickname not because I hopped a lot, but mostly because it sounded cute)! Now that linguistic act said that we were really, really good friends. In this way, language can be an act of expressing solidarity with others.

    It’s important to recognize, however, that language can do harm, too. We introduced the notion of offense in the previous section. Vulgarities

    The term vulgarity refers to expressions that involve taboo bodily references (e.g., shit, ass). The term expletive refers to expressions that are used for outbursts (e.g., damn). Some expressions can be both a vulgarity and an expletive.

    like shit can cause offense in some contexts. Offense is a kind of social and/or psychological harm that is done to discourse participants. This means that if you say shit in a spoken conversation where it is taboo, it’s the people who hear it that the harm is done to. If you sign what is shown in Figure 1 in a signed conversation where it is taboo, then it’s the people who see it that the harm is done to. The harm can range from fairly mild to more severe, depending on how offensive the expression itself is, and what context it was produced in. For example, for some people, I don’t give a damn generally may not be as offensive as I don’t give a shit. If a small Japanese child says kuso omoshire: (roughly ‘fuckin’ hilarious’) during dinner out of rebellion, that might not be as offensive as an adult saying the same thing in a room full of children.

    ASL sign for "bullshit". Arms crossed in front of body. Right hand forms a fist with index finger and pinky extended, like horns. Left hand is in a closed fist shape, then transitions to all fingers extended (as if sprinkling something).
    Figure 1. American Sign Language (ASL) sign for bullshit.

    Offense can happen regardless of speaker/signer intent. Let’s say you were learning Japanese and you had no idea that kuso omoshire: was vulgar (maybe you thought it just meant ‘extremely funny’), and you say it in front of children. People who hear you can still be offended by this, regardless of your lack of malicious intent. Unintentional utterances of vulgarities are likely perceived to be less offensive than intentional ones, but nevertheless, the harm that it caused at the time of utterance cannot be undone — however small it is. It is similar to how stepping on someone’s foot does its harm, regardless of whether it was intentional or not.


    Another kind of harm that language can do is derogation (or pejoration). Some linguistic expressions are derogatory (or pejorative), which means that these expressions disparage people. For example, the word jerk and asshole in English are derogatory: they express the utterer’s condemnation of the referent. Offense and derogation are not the same thing. Offense has to do with how discourse participants are affected: if you spill coffee on yourself and say “Shit!” in front of your grandmother, your grandmother may take offense upon hearing that vulgarity. However, what you have said is not derogatory towards her (or anyone); it’s not an insult towards her (or anyone) in any way in this context. So the vulgar expletive shit is offensive (in this context) but not derogatory. Speaking about taboo topics, even if you do not use vulgar terms (e.g., using more “neutral” terms to discuss bodily functions over dinner), may also be offensive but not necessarily derogatory.

    Of course, many expressions that are derogatory are also offensive. The vulgarity asshole is taboo in some contexts and therefore offensive in those contexts. It’s also derogatory because you’re putting someone down with that term.

    It is also possible for expressions to be derogatory but not offensive. This one is a little bit trickier because many derogatory things also cause offense. One example where something may be derogatory but not offensive on the surface might be coded slurs. In 2012, a police officer was fired partially because he called one baseball player a “Monday”. Monday is sometimes used as a coded racial slur. This means that for those who share the knowledge that Monday is code for certain racialised groups, they can say things like I hate Mondays to express their bigoted ideologies to each other — and the people who are targeted by the slur will be unaware of this derogation. So in this case, Monday is (secretly) derogatory, but would not cause offense without the in-group knowledge.

    Slurs, toxicity, and power imbalances

    In summary of what we have learned so far: offense has to do with the impact that a linguistic expression has on the discourse participants, and derogation has to do with the attitude that the utterer of the linguistic expression has. Derogatory expressions like jerk, idiot, and asshole are sometimes called particularistic insults or general pejoratives. They are used to condemn a specific person (and not an entire group of people) for some specific behavior at some specific time. When you use particularistic insults, you are expressing your strong disapproval of the other person based on something they did.

    Other derogatory terms may disparage an entire group of people, rather than a particular person for a specific incident. Slurs are insults that denigrate specific marginalized groups of people. For example, femoid is a slur against women, used in certain online subcultures. Calling someone a femoid expresses the utterer’s attitude that this person is condemnable because this person is a woman. This is not a particularistic insult, because it is not the case that the utterer is expressing disapproval of this person (that happens to be a woman) for some specific incident. Rather, they are expressing disapproval of women in general, and therefore by extension disapproval of this person who is a woman.

    Slurs are powerful, highly taboo, and can cause a lot of harm. The great emotional weight of slurs arises from the power differential between the person using the slur and the person targeted by it. Where such a power differential exists, the person wielding the slur is invoking and reenacting an entire historical context of violence against the targeted group (Davis & McCready, 2020). Expressing racism without a slur (e.g., “I hate Japanese people”) and expressing racism with a slur (e.g., “She is a ___”) are both terrible things to do, but using a slur causes extra visceral emotional harm. In fact, some studies show that slurs are processed in a different part of the brain than other forms of language (Singer, 1997). This particular kind of offensive emotional power that slurs have is sometimes called the toxicity of slurs (Rappaport, 2020). As alluded to in the previous section, some slurs are so toxic that even mentioning them or accidentally using words that sound or look similar to them can do harm.

    Because power imbalance is a crucial component of a slur, insults aimed at high-status groups of people don’t have the same effect. Such an insult can be impolite or even offensive, but without the associated invocation of targeted violence, it doesn’t achieve the same level of harm that a true slur does.

    Another consequence of this understanding of slurs is the possibility to reclaim a slur as a means of empowerment, as a marker of shared identity and solidarity against oppression. For example, the word queer was long used as a slur for members of the 2SLGBTQ+ community, but in the 1990s activists and academics began to reclaim the word and use it to express queer solidarity among themselves. These days, queer is a common umbrella term for this community, and Queer Studies is a recognized area of academic study. At the same time, some members of the community who’ve been targeted by this slur are not yet ready to embrace it.

    On the other hand, some slurs have been so thoroughly rehabilitated that they’ve become mainstream. Women fighting for equal voting rights, or suffrage, were originally called suffragists. A British journalist coined the term suffragette in 1906, using the diminutive, feminine –ette ending in an attempt to insult. But the activists adopted the term themselves and it is no longer considered a slur.

    A recurring theme of this chapter and of this book is that language is about more than grammar, and words do more than just refer to literal things in the world. Slurs provide one example of how language encodes and enacts social relationships: we can use language to express our status relative to others, and we also use language to enforce other people’s status relative to ourselves. With your linguistics training in hand, you can use your metalinguistic awareness to examine some of these power relations, and maybe even to resist or correct the damage that can be wielded through language.

    Check your understanding

    Query \(\PageIndex{1}\)


    Anderson, L., & Lepore, E. (2013). What did you call me? Slurs as prohibited words setting things up. Analytic Philosophy, 54(3), 350-63.

    Bach, K. (2018). Loaded words: On the semantics and pragmatics of slurs. Bad Words: Philosophical Perspectives on Slurs, 60-76.

    Bolinger, R. J. (2017). The pragmatics of slurs. Noûs, 51(3), 439-462.

    Bolinger, R. J. (2020). Contested slurs: Delimiting the linguistic community. Grazer Philosophische Studien, 97(1), 11-30.

    Davis, C., & McCready, E. (2020). The instability of slurs. Grazer Philosophische Studien, 97(1), 63-85.

    Hess, L. F. (2019). Slurs: Semantic and pragmatic theories of meaning. The Cambridge Handbook of The Philosophy of Language.

    Jeshion, R. (2020). Pride and Prejudiced: on the Reclamation of Slurs. Grazer Philosophische Studien, 97(1), 106-137.

    Jeshion, R. (2021). Varieties of pejoratives. Routledge Handbook of Social and Political Philosophy of Language, 211-231.

    Lepore, E., & Anderson, L. (2013). Slurring words. Noûs, 47(1), 25-48.

    McCready, E., & Davis, C. (2019). An Invocational Theory of Slurs. LENLS 14, Tokyo.

    Nunberg, G. (2018). The social life of slurs. New Work on Speech Acts, 237-295.

    ⚠️ Popa-Wyatt, M. (2020). Reclamation: Taking Back Control of Words. Grazer Philosophische Studien, 97(1), 159-176.

    ⚠️ Popa-Wyatt, M., Wyatt, J.L. (2018). Slurs, roles and power. Philosophical Studies, 175(11), 2879–2906.

    ⚠️ Rappaport, J. (2020). Slurs and Toxicity: It’s Not about Meaning. Grazer Philosophische Studien, 97(1), 177-202.

    Saka, P. (2007). How To Think About Meaning. Dordrecht: Springer.

    Singer, C. (1997). Coprolalia and other coprophenomena. Neurologic Clinics, 15(2), 299-308.

    ⚠️ Content note: These papers mention a highly volatile racial slur without censoring it (sometimes in a reclaimed sense, sometimes not).

    Diglossia, from Anthony Pym (optional)

    Anthony Pym is a professor of sociolingusitics and translation at the Rovira i Virgili University in Tarragona, Spain. He has a series of lectures on his YouTube channel. In this talk, he discusses diglossia. (The video is captioned via YouTube's autogenerated captioning system. There is no video script.)

    7.10: Social Norms is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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